A long struggle for part-time lecturers in Korea

by E Wayne Ross on September 14, 2010

A long struggle for part-time lecturers
Couple lives in tent for 1,000 days in protest
By Park Si-soo

For 1,000 days, a couple in their 60s has lived in a worn-out, small tent pitched on a sidewalk leading toward the National Assembly in Yeouido, Seoul, demanding the passage of bills to improve part-time lecturers’ employment status and working conditions.

Kim Young-kon, 62, and his wife Kim Dong-ay, 64, started their protest along with other part-time lecturers on Sept. 7, 2007 when then three major political parties submitted the bill.

Initially, they thought the legislation would be passed soon but their hopes have not materialized yet. In the early days of the protest, many part-time lecturers joined them but now just the couple remains.

Mr. Kim regularly lectures on Korean labor history at a Seoul university part-time and his wife once taught Chinese history. Last winter, Kim’s wife collapsed from chronic fatigue by constant exposure to cold and since then has trouble walking.

Despite the hardship, they are still eating, sleeping and studying under the extreme conditions in their form of silent demand for the establishment of legal grounds for the increase of part-time lecturers’ wages and other improvements to working conditions.

“Nothing has changed,” Mr. Kim said in an interview with The Korea Times. “We will continue our struggle until the bills we have fought for will be passed.”
Paychecks and welfare for some 70,000 part-time lecturers, who cover nearly 40 percent of classes at universities nationwide, have stalled for decades despite their rapid growth. Unlike regular professors, they have not been guaranteed “teacher’ status.”

A report issued by the education ministry in April said a part-time lecturer’s annual income was estimated at 7.68 million won ($6,380), way below per capita gross national income of 20.45 million won last year. Part-time lecturers are not protected by pension or insurance schemes that are provided by schools to other professors. Nine lecturers have committed suicide since 1999, denouncing the poor working conditions.

“They are being exploited without official contracts,” Mr. Kim said.

Lecturers began to receive such unfair treatment from 1977 when the Park Chung-hee authoritarian government downgraded their legal status as a punitive measure against those who instigated students to stand up against the government.

‘Also meaningful for students’
The poor working conditions drew fresh attention after a part-time lecturer took his own life, leaving behind a suicide note in which he accused some universities of having requested kickbacks in exchange for full-time professor jobs. A police investigation of the alleged universities is underway.
The tragic news provided a snapshot of long-established corruptive practices in academia, but at the same time, gave great leverage to the rally.
Scores of supporters from civic and parents’ groups and students’ associations are working with the couple at present, staging a one-man protest at twelve locations nationwide.

“It’s a positive sign, but I don’t think the increasing attention is a surefire way of ensuring the amendment,” he said, calling for more active participation of college students who he claims are firsthand victims under the current system.

“They think this struggle is only for ourselves (part-time lecturers). No, it’s for all,” he said. “With part-time lecturers covering nearly half of all classes, improved working conditions for them should serve positively to students’ achievements.”

At present, two bills designed to upgrade their status by Rep. Lee Sang-min of the ruling Grand National Party and Rep. Kim Jin-pyo of the main opposition Democratic Party, are pending at the National Assembly. But their endorsement is unlikely in near the future as they have been put on the back burner.

“I will never give up,” Kim said, with his eyes showing some fatigue. “I strongly believe this campaign is valuable not only for lecturers but also our society.”

Following the one-hour interview, he rushed to a civic group building for a lecture.

“I’m supposed to sleep in the tent tonight. It’s quite nice to sleep there thanks to the warm weather,” he smiled, showing off a thick draft of his new book on emerging labor issues in Asian states. “It’s my home and research lab as well as the campaign headquarters.”
An event to celebrate the 1,000th-day anniversary of the protest will be held at 6 p.m. today in front of the tent.