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In the Shadow of Working Men: Gendered Labor and Migrant Rights in South Korea

Abstract

Based on ethnographic research in South Korea, this article investigates the gendered production of migrant rights under the global regime of temporary migration by examining two groups of Filipina women: factory workers and hostesses at American military camptown clubs. Emphasizing gendered labor processes and symbolic politics, this article offers an analytical framework to interrogate the mechanisms through which a discrepancy of rights is generated at the intersection of workplace organization and civil society mobilization. I identify two distinct labor regimes for migrant women that were shaped in the shadow of working men. Migrant women in the factories labored in the company of working men on the shop floor, which enabled them to form a co-ethnic migrant community and utilize the male-centered bonding between workers and employers. In contrast, migrant hostesses were isolated and experienced gendered stigma under the paternalistic rule of employers. Divergent forms of civil society mobilization in South Korea sustained these regimes: Migrant factory workers received recognition as workers without attention to gender-specific concerns while hostesses were construed as women victims in need of protection. Thus, Filipina factory workers were able to exercise greater labor rights by sharing the dignity of workers as a basis for their rights claims from which hostesses were excluded.

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Notes

  1. The names of all individuals and organizations are pseudonyms, except in the case of public events and official documents. For Korean names, last names appear before first names. I translated all quotes into English.

  2. As of 2009, among the 15,412 Filipina women living in South Korea with a legal visa status, 2,931 (19 percent) had industrial laborer visas and 2,806 (15 percent) had “entertainer” visas used for hostess work (Ministry of Justice of South Korea 2010). 6,130 (28 percent) were married to South Korean men, and the remainder were distributed across multiple visa categories including student, business, diplomat, agricultural work, etc.

  3. A small minority had previously worked as hostesses in Japan for Japanese customers prior to working in South Korean clubs.

  4. As part of my larger study, I conducted semi-structured interviews with Filipina migrant women (n=36) and South Korean migrant advocates (n=24) to understand their migration to South Korea and advocacy work as part of their broader life trajectories. While the interviews inform my analysis, the data for this article is based on fieldnotes I have taken from participant observations and conversations in natural settings. I have not used computer-based qualitative analysis software for this project.

  5. The amounts given hereafter are US dollars. Their earnings varied month to month, because of the unpredictable amount of overtime work. I use the estimated rate of one US dollar for 1,000 Korean won, although the exchange rate fluctuated during the time of my fieldwork during the global financial crisis, between 900 and 1300 won for one US dollar. In South Korean currency, this amount would range from approximately 800,000 to 1,200,000 won for women, and 1,100,000 to 2,000,000 won for men. This was according to the migrant factory workers who mostly kept a record of their monthly earnings in detail.

  6. Unlike in Japan, where clubs with women hostesses and transgender hostesses coexist (Parreñas 2011), there were only women hostesses in the camptown clubs in South Korea that I observed.

  7. The Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the US Department of State in 2001, which ranked Korea as a Tier 3 country that failed to make efforts to prohibit trafficking, provided the discursive devices for South Korean feminist organizations to reform the anti-prostitution law.

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Acknowledgments

I thank the special issue editors Rachel Rinaldo and Manisha Desai, the editor David Smilde and four anonymous reviewers of Qualitative Sociology, as well as Nancy Abelmann, Jennifer Carlson, Cynthia Cranford, Jennifer Chun, Jessica Cobb, Nicole Constable, Myra Marx Ferree, Phil Goodman, Chaitanya Lakkimsetti, Pei-Chia Lan, and Ching Kwan Lee, who offered valuable comments on earlier versions of this article. I also thank all of the participants in this study who kindly included me as part of their daily lives. This project received financial support from the Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship and the National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant in Sociology.

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Choo, H.Y. In the Shadow of Working Men: Gendered Labor and Migrant Rights in South Korea. Qual Sociol 39, 353–373 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-016-9332-9

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-016-9332-9

Keywords

  • Migration
  • Labor
  • Gender
  • Social movement
  • South Korea