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U. Maryland professor shares women's labor experiences with UA


Aaron Farnsworth
Arizona Daily Wildcat

University of Maryland women's studies professor Seung-Kyung Kim participates in a discussion yesterday concerning women's rights and working conditions. Kim drew points from her paper, which focused on South Korean women factory workers.

By Hillary Davis
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
February 23, 2000
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A casual lunch setting was the background for University of Maryland professor Seung-Kyung Kim to offer her brown-bag discussion at the UA yesterday on the lives of women factory workers in South Korea.

Kim, a women's studies professor from UM, focused the discussion on her paper, "Productivity, Militancy and Femininity: Gendered Images of South Korean Women Factory Workers."

Kim said that even though more than half of the female population in South Korea is employed outside the home, many women - especially married women with children - are ridden with guilt stemming from traditional obligations to their families.

"Those married women are culturally defined as not having to work outside," Kim said. "The guilt is very strong in their conscience."

To justify their employment, Kim said many women tell themselves they are working for the benefit of their children - even though the youngsters are unsupervised during the day and usually spoiled by their guilty parents.

"What they want to provide for their children in the future is going very much against what is happening in the present," she said.

Kim said after 1987, women workers started a movement to install day care centers at the factories, but the issue of child care remains a largely unsolved one.

Also, Kim said most Korean women would rather have white-collar service jobs, such as department store saleswomen, even though they would have to stand all day.

"If anything, many workers would like to go into (the) service sector," for the cleaner, higher status responsibilities, Kim said.

Kim was also able to add a timely American angle to her talk. Like student activists in the United States - most notably Students Against Sweatshops - college students in South Korea are also concerned with bettering the working conditions of factory workers.

Kim said Korean students often feel they have to do something to improve their country's class-divided, dictatorial society - and in a hurry, as students must complete university studies within four years.

Although students were crucial to improving South Korean factory conditions in the 1970s and 1980s - often sacrificing themselves to arrest, torture or even death - Kim said the idealism and mixture of ideologies the students bring in tend to eclipse what the workers want and need.

Kim added that many workers harbor animosity towards student activists, or "experimenters," who take jobs in factories because they have the liberty to quit at any time.

However, Kim urged members of University of Arizona's Students Against Sweatshops organization - which co-sponsored her presentation - to visit sweatshops and factories to get a first-hand understanding of workers' experiences.

"To really understand what it is these workers want, unless you get to know them, you cannot judge," she said.

Banu Subramaniam, a UA women's studies professor, said Kim made the concept of factory workers and the goods they produce in far-off countries a reality.

"The way in which we think of things isn't so abstract," Subramaniam said. "I think she added a great deal of complexity to the issue, showing there are many factors."

Kim's visit was also sponsored by the UA women's studies, anthropology, geography and political science departments.

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