By Joo-Yeon Jeong and Seung-Min Choi, PICIS*

There is no place on Earth where neo-liberalism has not poisoned. It has allowed a handful of private interests to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize personal profit. It has poisonous effects especially in the Third World, where imperial powers continue to pirate natural and human resources to fill the pockets of transnational capitalists. Initiated by Reagan and Thatcher, for the last two decades, neo-liberalism has become the dominant economic and political trend for much of the leftist (so they identify themselves) governments as well as the right.

However, as women fighting against global capitalism and its new phase, as women yearning for a better world where we will not be exploited and abused, we must go a step further into looking into this ‘neo-liberalism’ through the experiences of women. And it is not just about how women linearly experience it – we must go into the depths to manifest how neo-liberalism operates in a very gender-biased way.


In Korea, the process of being absorbed into global capitalism began earlier than the economic crisis, during the economic ‘hyper ‘-development era of military dictatorship of Park Jung-Hee, with quite a bit of help from the US. Fluctuating together with global economic crises, the Korean economy started to show signs of a recession from the early 90s, as rate of profit decreased. Thus, capitalists started to adopt policies of introducing flexibility to the labour market. It was ‘experimented’ on women workers first before taking full force on the entire working class at the end of the millennium.

Jobs where women were predominant started to be transformed in the 1980s, beginning in the form of dispatch labour and eventually expanding to generalisation of irregular labour. However, this process was mainly targeted at women workers and the male-oriented labour movement did not give much importance to it, even though women worker’s movement consistently called for the address of the issue.

Although the incorporation of Korean economy into the global capitalist system had already started around a decade ago, Korean people came to experience its destructive nature during and after the economic crisis of 1997. The structural adjustment program of the IMF shook the labour market and massive lay-offs were implemented. In particular, women workers were laid off first, and the working conditions of women workers fell to the ground.

The methods that the management used was subcontracting or abolishing those production lines and business sectors where women were predominant. Women in these places were usually typists or clerical assistants, who were considered not important and cumbersome, and thus provided the logic and justification for the lay-offs. Many companies would lay-off these women, and instead employ workers from dispatch companies – thus providing the management with ways in which to decrease labour costs and evade provision of insurances and benefits. Or in the case of banks, the same worker would be reemployed, but on a contract basis as irregular workers, again to decrease labour costs. Another method of laying off women workers or transforming them into irregular workers, was targeting foremost women who were married to someone in the same workplace, and also those who were pregnant or were on their maternal leave. They provided the management with strong justifications based on patriarchal values of ‘women’s place is at home’. This process of unjust and discriminatory lay-offs at the onset of the economic crisis saw the deterioration of maternal protection and women worker’s rights in general. The achievements that the women worker’s movement had accomplished over the last couple of decades were undermined.


The massive lay-offs that occurred after 1997 was obviously not ‘inevitable’ on the part of the management, but was a calculated process of increasing the rate of profit through flexibility of the labour market. Because the need for lay-offs did not come simply from decrease in production, workers who were laid off were re-employed, but as irregular workers. And because flexibility measures were implemented foremost on women, women were also absorbed again in masses into the labour market, but this time as irregular workers with low wages and low protection.

Attaining flexibility of women workers was backed up by the patriarchal ideology of ‘male as breadwinner’1 . Through this ideology, women workers are considered not really as workers, but as ‘assistant income providers’, the ideology that contributes to devaluation of women’s work. And this in turn provided the justification for the primary lay-offs of women and transforming women’s jobs into irregular jobs – a justification that quelled the possibility of resistance from the working class. Recently, capitalist institutions and mainstream media elaborate that the rate of women’s employment is increasing faster that the rate of men. On one hand, this is due to the increase in absolute number of jobs-irregular jobs for women, but also due to the fact that women do not have much choice than take up highly unstable jobs without any hesitation to earn a living, whereas men can afford to be more ‘selective’.

Now, the percentage of irregular workers is risen to higher levels than regular workers. In analyzing a census on the economically-active workforce implemented by the Korean Statistical Office in August 2001, the Korea Labor & Society Institute ( estimated the number of irregular workers to be 7.37 million, constituting 55.7% of the total workforce2.According to studies made in 2000, out of entire irregular workers, the percentage of women is higher than that of men at 53%, and within the entire women workforce irregular workers take up 70%. These official statistics exclude specially employed labour (for example, the type of jobs that capitalists characterise as self-employment) such as private tutors, insurance sales, golf caddies etc., so if these jobs are included, the rate of irregular women workers will definitely rocket.

Irregular work pertaining to capital’s flexibility measures has brought deterioration of working conditions and impoverishment for workers of both genders. But it has affected women workers more severely. At the moment, most of irregular women workers are employed in small enterprises of less than 10 employees. It has driven women’s work into the ditches and has also increased mental stress from lack of self-confidence and the fear of losing their jobs. One feminist scholar was interviewing irregular women workers and told of how the interviewees were in constant fear of being seen throughout the interview. Many social psychologists point out that the increase of irregular work and the mental stress that comes from it is becoming a serious social problem that is bound to affect the whole society.

Moreover, with the automation of production lines and transfer of factories in capital’s constant search for cheaper labour, many women workers who had originally constituted a large proportion of the workforce in the manufacturing sector are now being absorbed into the service sector – in areas such as the so-called ‘entertainment’ businesses and as domestic workers. The service sector has rapidly expanded over the last few years in Korea, and many women are being employed as narrator models, telemarketers, and as servers and entertainers in bars. These jobs are not only unstable, low waged and physically strenuous, but they also enforce the use of ‘femininity’ and sexuality to raise sales, making women more vulnerable to possibilities of sexual abuse and exploitation. Also, because the service sector has always shared a very thin borderline with the sex industry, it is not very surprising that more and more women workers, both young and aged, are being drawn into the sex industry. For example, many married women in their 30’s and 40’s are employed in the so-called ‘telephone rooms (jeon-hwa-bang)’ and are forced to have phone sex with men. Many other married women were employed as ‘pager women’, who are paged to come to bars to ‘entertain’ men. This became a very heated issue when Daewoo Motors unionists went to a bar, paged women, and came face to face with familiar faces. When Daewoo workers were laid-off, the wives had to find jobs to sustain their families and the only ones available were as ‘pager women’. The ruling elite and the conservative media are enthusiastically deploring the moral collapse of Korean women, but the reality is that it is the capitalist system that is corrupting the people.

The situation is not much different on the international arena. Neo-liberal globalisation has paved the way for increase in migrant women workers, international trafficking and enforced sex work in the Third World. In Korea, many women from the Philippines and Russia come to Korea as domestic workers and ‘entertainers’, and then are tricked into providing sexual services to Korean men and the US military.


Neo-liberal globalisation has also impeded the widening of gap between different classes of women. The living standard between women in the developed countries and those in the Third World is now incomparable, as is the situation inside Korea. Rich women of the bourgeoisie can afford to wear fur coats that cost tens of million won, shop in department stores in their imported cars, buy US produced baby food, send their children to expensive private English language schools so that they are reproduced as the minority elite who rule the world of globalisation, and employ women from South-east Asia as housemaids. This is how the minority of women in Korea live, and furthermore, they are not living on the wealth that they had accumulated themselves, but on the wealth accumulated by their husbands. And this in turn is the wealth accumulated from exploiting women workers in Korea and elsewhere in the Third World. In contrast to the minority of women who enjoy the outcome of neo-liberal domination in a good part of the world, majority of women cannot find a proper job no matter how hard they try, and when they do find a job, it is an unstable job in slave-like conditions that can get snatched away from them. They cannot afford domestic help or a nanny – they work for long tiring hours outside and then come home to find piles of dishes to be washed and children to be fed. Also, studies by women’s organizations have found that domestic abuse has increased, as husbands and fathers who have lost jobs turn to expressing their anger at their daughters and wives, and resort to violence.


To quell mass resistance against economic globalisation that has brought about increase in unemployment, decrement of public services, downfall in wages and deterioration of quality of life, the ruling elite has manipulated cultural conservatism to solidify its dominance over society. Cultural conservatism in Korea is represented by Confucian patriarchy. The economic crisis of 1997 saw the rise of this ideology that came together with the capitalist form of ‘male as breadwinner’ model, and acted to cover up the oppression of women while highlighting the need for women to make more sacrifices for the sake of saving the crumbling economy. In the meanwhile, unemployment of men was highlighted as a serious social problem. Thus the role of women was limited to that of ‘comforting’ the suffering man in the family, while the sufferings of women both as wage workers and non-wage workers were ignored. The Korean mainstream media and the conservative ruling elite alike have neglected the seriousness of women suffering from sexual abuse on the basis that women should have perseverance, but has spotlighted those desperate women who left home after losing all hopes as destructors of family values. Women who had replaced their husbands as the breadwinners end up in the sex industry, after being rejected from any other type of work, but then are stigmatised as being morally corrupt. The severity of unemployment of male youths appear in the news everyday, whereas female students are not only ignored but are blocked altogether from the labour market. Many right-wing sociologists and economists actually suggested that marriage for women should be more emphasized by the government so as to block women from entering the labour market – and thus lowering the official unemployment rate. The media focuses evermore on the fantasies of marriage, and the ‘marriage business’ is now enjoying its ‘Belle Epoque’.


Kim Dae-Jung’s government has been portrayed as being democratic and pro-feminist in and outside of Korea. There were high hopes for this president with his long history of fighting for democracy, and from the beginning, many civil and women’s organizations decided to give him ‘critical’ support. However, his promise of establishing a ministry specific on women’s issues was replaced by the Special Committee On Women’s Affairs with no legislative powers, much to the disappointment of women’s groups. As his presidential term is coming to an end, he did launch the Ministry of Gender Equality during the first half of this year, with a prominent figure from a major women NGO seated as the Minister. However, the policies that the Ministry is adopting are those that will hardly benefit majority of women suffering at grassroot levels.

This was recently manifested in the revisions that were made to the maternity clauses in the Standard Labour Laws in June. The Ministry had announced that it will expand public childcare so as to decrease the burden on working women. With support from major women NGOs3, the Ministry proposed revisions to maternity-related clauses in the Standard Labour Laws, and the clauses were changed for the first time since 1953. There were basically two major improvements – maternity leave was increased from the present 60 days to 90 days, and prohibition on employment of women in hazardous workplaces was expanded. This may seem like a big step, but the fact of the matter is, these laws came in exchange for further flexibility of women’s labour. In exchange for increase of maternal leave, the Ministry also agreed to abolish the clauses restricting overtime work and night work, paid familycare leave and menstruation leave.

In a situation where 70% (or perhaps even higher and ever increasing) of women workers are irregular workers, how many women workers will actually benefit from the revision? The majority of working class women are outside legal boundaries. The Ministry and women NGOs argue that they will fight for the application of the laws to irregular workers, but without questioning the neo-liberal characteristics behind the legislation, there is really no chance that this will actually take place. Many women activists had fought hard for these laws for the last decade and they are congratulating themselves in finally achieving their objective, but in the meantime, a vast majority of women workers have fallen into the ditches of irregular work and the demands of the majority have been neglected to benefit a few. Capitalists have learnt to ‘sacrifice’ a few laws for the sake of obtaining further flexibility. Despite the argument that these revisions will open new opportunities for women, without questioning the essence of Kim’s government and its support for neo-liberalism, the revisions that were recently made will only expedite the flexible usage of women workers and thus further deteriorate the working conditions of irregular women workers. The Ministry and the NGOs do not realize that the laws, along with others that were made during the recent years4 , are all in compliance with neo-liberalism.

It has only been one year since the Ministry of Gender Equality took off, but those benefiting from it are middle-class, elite women, and only the minority of women workers who are lucky enough to be in a regular job. The presidential elections take place next year. Despite that the Ministry is conforming to neo-liberal policies and trying to confuse the workers about the essence of its policies, it does have some significance amidst the severely patriarchal political scene of Korea – which may well be undermined by any of the major right-wing political parties that take office – including the ruling New Millenium Democratic Party of Kim Dae-Jung, which still receive a lot of support from NGOs. This will merely lead to more lack of hope for state-led labour policies.


Neo-liberalism was not something that hit Korea suddenly in 1997, but is a historical development of capitalism that has gradually taken form during the last few decades. It had been women workers who had felt the effects of globalisation first and thus were the first ones to resist. It was the women workers of Korea, who fought militantly during the 70s and early 80s for a democratic union and worker’s rights. Women workers formed the foundation for the modern labour movement, although this fact often tends to be forgotten. During the late 80’s, the Korean economy reconstructed itself into focusing on export-oriented heavy industries, whose workers were predominantly men, and women workers were left behind.

The onslaught of neo-liberal globalisation and the impoverishment that came with it was also felt first by women workers. Just after the economic crisis, the women worker’s movement moved a big step forward when independent women’s trade unions began to beformed5 . The unions came out of the need to address the specific issues of women workers that could not be properly dealt with in a general union -organising irregular workers, the unemployed, domestic workers and those women who worked in small companies where there are no unions. The percentage of women participating in unions still remain at a meagre 5%, due to the fact that general unions do not accommodate workers who are not regular workers. It was only in 1997, when the IMF enforced austerity measures and structural adjustment programs also affected male workers, that the people’s movement in Korea fully realised the destructive nature of neo-liberalism. From then on, flexibility of labour has become the main target of struggle for the working class. Spotlight was finally thrown on the fact that neo-liberalism attack women workers foremost, but unfortunately the longtime demands and struggles of women workers are being put aside, as the struggles against ‘irregular labour’ is again being organised in a male-oriented fashion.

The establishments of these unions are very significant in the history of the Korean labour movement and also in the women’s movement. Just as the strategies of capitalists change, the organisation of the working class also much change to resist effectively. The essence of neo-liberalism and its gender-bias cannot be resisted through the traditional method of organization concentrating on male, regular workers from big enterprises.

However, these newly formed women’s unions still have further developments to make and many obstacles to overcome, in their struggles against national and international capital. The unions must question the role of neo-liberal globalisation and its strategy of incorporating flexibility measures into the labour market, for a full understanding of the situation of women workers and organizing of more radical struggles that go into the fundamental core. And at the same time, the worker’s movement of Korea must go through structural changes to accommodate the ever increasing irregular workers, and must also make more effort into overcoming the patriarchal values that are still prevalent inside people’s movement. Many women activists and unionists have started to address the issues of gender discrimination and sexual violence inside the people’s movement, which up until now had been covered up. Over the years, many fervent and militant women activists have had to leave the movement because of discrimination and violence. It was always considered women’s fault, or victimized women were forced to ‘forgive’ for the ‘greater cause’. Many women activists, workers and unionists are uniting themselves and are calling upon the movement to tackle the problem of hierarchy, discrimination and violence.


As we have seen, neo-liberal globalisation affects all areas of society, to attain flexibility of the labour market solely for the interests of transnational capital. In the case of Korea, this process of enforcing structural adjustment and flexibility has devastated the lives of the people, especially women. Capitalist industrialisation has brought about the rise of the women’s proletariat and neo-liberal globalisation has further feminised the proletariat while at the same time impoverishing the proletariat into the verge of slavery.

This is not a matter of women merely being affected ‘more’ – we must look at the mechanisms of neo-liberalism that operate in a gender-biased way. Indeed, neo-liberal globalisation itself feed upon gender discrimination and effectively use traditional patriarchal values to exploit women further. Patriarchal ideologies act to crush any attempts of women to politicize and form resistance.

However, the essence of neo-liberalism is slowly being manifested and women have begun to fight back. Feminisation of labour and feminisation of poverty signify increased exploitation of women, but precisely because of that, provide the possibility for organization and resistance, nationally and internationally. Women must now go forth as subjects in uniting the people in our fight against neo-liberal globalisation. Instead of being incorporated into a ready-made movement of men or middle-class elite women, instead of taking the problems of discrimination for granted, women workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, migrants and other grassroot peoples of the Third World must form a broad solidarity. We must analyse globalisation from women’s perspective, plan strategies that conform with the particular needs of women, propose alternatives that include women as equal subjects, keep to the principle of internationalism, and unite with other oppressed groups in the mass resistance in the fight against neo-liberalism – and go beyond in creating a world based on equality.

* Joo-Yeon Jeong & Seung-Min Choi are with the Policy & Information Center for International Solidarity (PICIS), Korea. This paper was presented at the International South Group Network (ISGN) Asian Workshop on Women and Globalisation, 22-24 November, Manila.

[1] This is merely an ‘ideology’, because despite the fact that the state supports this perspective, in reality many men had lost their jobs during the economic crisis and many women are now the sole income providers in their families.
[2] The interesting thing is that government funded institutions analysed the same statistics and came up with the percentage of 27-28%.
[3] This refers to Korea Women Associations United, an umbrella organization of women NGOs. They identify themselves as being ‘progressive’ but after Kim Dae-Jung came into power, they participated enthusiastically in his policies and have become more middle-class oriented than ever.
[4] In Korea, already a whole series of revisions were made to the Standard Labour Laws after the economic crisis, more than any other time in Korean history. The illegitimate passage by ruling party members of the bill allowing layoffs and the introduction of transformational working time system in December of 1997 was first in the series that forecasted massive neo-liberal attacks on labour. The passage was so explicitly impudent that Korean workers went on a massive general strike and militantly struggled throughout the winter. Now capitalists are willing to throw a few carrots while pushing forth their interests. Then came the maternity-related clauses, and now another revision is about to take place that will exchange reduction of working hours for more deterioration of working conditions.
[5] Three unions were formed almost at the same time: Korean Women’s Trade Union, Seoul Women’s Trade Union and Seoul Regional Women’s Trade Union