Annual Workers’ Rights Day

Yesterday was annual 빼빼루 – Pepero – day. I used to enjoy these snacks back in Canada, but in Korea the company has declared Sunday, November 11 a national day to gift Pepero to your loved ones.

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Admittedly, this is a vast improvement on a celebration of imperialist war. But unless there’s some centuries-old corporate tradition that I don’t know about, this seems to be the Korean equivalent of Love Day. However, the second Sunday of November is also annual workers’ rights day, commemorating the life and self-immolation of Jeon Tae-Il, the textile worker who organised a union and got ignored by his employer and the government. He set himself on fire holding a book of labour laws: from his death, the modern Korean labour movement was born.IMG_3825
Tae-Il’s statue is just round the corner from he worked at the textile market.

The rally actually starts the night before, with a cultural festival. Since it’s a national demonstration, workers have to come from all over the country, and the rally is a chance for them to hang out and meet other activists. So on a chilly night I met my Korean friend outside Seoul Station, where the labour activists had gathered.

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Labour martyrs from the democracy struggle in the 1980 and 90s.

There were a few hundred people – later I learned the crowd swelled to 2000, but in a way this was better, because it made it easier to get near the stalls. I found the Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered stall:

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Their board asked questions like how you’d react if you learned one of your coworkers was gay; would you talk to them or ostracize them? If they came out to you in confidence, would you gossip about them or keep their secret? Passers-by were encouraged to put a sticker under their own response. I’m used to TBLG activism focusing on being ‘Out Loud and Proud’, and here this struck me as asking for acceptance, rather than demanding it. But I’m not a TBLG activist and don’t know the Korean cultural context, so I can’t judge. Maybe in a collectivist society, what your coworkers think really is more important. In any event, I enjoyed seeing the well-dressed younger TBLG activists with good hair mingle with the crowd of grizzled labour veterans.

There were many middle-aged men with hard, lined faces, eating chicken and drinking rice wine at the aptly-named Redundancy Bar, a nearby food stall. But there were others too: this light display was from a musicians’ union or a guitar-makers’ union, I wasn’t sure which. I got an explanation and then the woman told me, in Korean, that I should learn Korean. No arguments here.

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It wasn’t all in Korean:

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And some of it didn’t need translation. I was lucky enough to witness these incredible traditional drummers, drumming for the labour movement. Apparently all Koreans learn this kind of drumming in elementary school. It’s much harder than it looks, I can’t imagine adding in the dancing as well. Hippies with a bongo wouldn’t last a minute.

I was a little worried about the visually impaired guy who jumped in with them, and soon after I took this footage a bystander took his arm and asked if he needed help. But, even though the guy was getting bumped into, he made it adamantly clear that he liked being in the middle.

The square started filling up, and it began to feel like a night festival:
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But I was getting cold and hungry, and then the extremely amplified performance started. It was too loud to stand and watch, so we left, but not before I filmed one song. Westerners, take note: how many night-time labour choirs have you seen? My friend explained that their lyrics were very militant; I guessed as much from their tone. In a country drip-fed pop music from birth, a folk singer on an acoustic guitar would be booed off the stage. (Or politely endured, but it would mean the same thing.)

The next day I went to the labour march proper. I’d guess at least 10,000 people, with representatives from unions across the country, all carrying flags and chanting. There was a flatbed truck with dancers, and a giant pink cardboard stage backdrop with stylized drawings of male and female workers, carrying a torch, and the slogan “We need a new labour party!” I explained to a comrade that May Day in Canada has 300 communists from different far left groups, and Labour Day has 5000 workers who shuffle quietly along, bribed with new sweatshirts and free entry to the CNE. “I’m sorry for you,” my comrade replied. I’m sorry for me too.

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I tried to capture the autumn colours as we marched by.

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At the end of the demo. I was too cold to sit down for long, but these people stayed.

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Not only was there a stage, but enough people that a separate viewing screen had been set up. So they could see the coordinated dancers, of course.

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Finally, someone in a keffiyeh! I’d missed that.

For weeks I’ve been intending to blog about my employment non-prospects, and how difficult it is to secure work in Korea because of the arcane, Byzantine immigration rules. I probably will anyway. But going to the workers’ demonstration did more for my sense of well-being than any number of blog posts. Seoul is a city filled with spectacle: monuments to capital rise on every corner, the recent past is swept away, and you’re bombarded on all sides with images – and actual people – with wealth. But just below the surface, there are workers creating that wealth, and sometimes those workers get together to fight for their rights. I felt privileged to see a tiny sliver of that struggle yesterday.

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