Changsin-dong shows rise, fall of sweatshops


Sewing History Center opens in Seoul’s central district

By Park Jin-hai

The sound of sewing machine runs down the maze-like small alleys from a ventilating pipe that is connected to a basement workshop of a family-owned small sewing factory. Fabric rolls are sitting in corners and motorcycles carrying fabrics and clothes run down the alleys.

Located in Seoul’s central district of Jongo, Changsin-dong, a region densely packed with textile factories established in the 1970s, is home to the labor-intensive garment industry. Clothes produced there are sent to the nearby shopping district in Dongdaemun for sales. The whole area is called a “living sewing street museum” where visitors can get a sneak peek into the rise and fall of the country’s textile industry that was one of the main locomotives of the rapid economic growth called the “Miracle on the Han River” in the 1970s.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government opened “Iumpium Sewing History Center” in Changsin-dong, in order to commemorate the textile industry and female sweatshop workers for their sacrifice behind Korea’s remarkable economic growth during its industrialization period.
The four-story building displays vintage photos that tell the history of the area and introduces sewing masters’ stories and showcases their 20 to 30 year old scissors and small workshop tools.

“As the 19th century industrial revolution contributed to women’s participation in labor outside the home in Europe, Korea’s textile industry was where the female workers’ labor was officially compensated. Under the conservative society deeply influenced by male-dominant Confucianism, those factories were the places where young women could get jobs and earn money. This area is where we can find the last remaining debris of those female workers’ contributions to the economy,” said Joon-sik, founder of Very Joon Oh (VJO), a creative design consulting firm that curates the space.

The export-oriented, labor-intensive light industries devised by the Park Chung-hee government resulted in the textile boom in the 1960s and ’70s. Young, female manufacturing sector workers were lauded for their critical role behind rapid economic growth during those times.

In 1977, about 70 percent of all textile industry workers were female.

But their working conditions in sweatshops were horrendous, working overtime without proper compensation in unventilated small compartments made by factory owners who would squeeze as many sewing machines and workers into their factories as possible. Female workers, as young as thirteen would work 14 to 15 hours a day.

Jeon Tae-il, a tailor and activist, chose self-immolation in 1970 in an effort to make his and fellow textile workers’ voices heard as workers at Pyeonghwa Market suffered from harsh working conditions.

Following his martyrdom, unions sprang up. Factory owners at Pyeonghwa faced rising rent and costs to meet stricter labor standards and relocated to new places in nearby Changsin-dong, opening their own small sweatshops.

Kim Mi-kyoung, a 54 year-old master specialized in making garment samples, says nothing has changed much over the past 30 years. Riding on the textile boom, she came to work at a factory as a part-timer when she was a high school senior. Like many others of her time, she was called by a number as a helper, instead of her name.

“I started ironing clothes and cutting overhanging threads of clothes. Then I took it as my job. Although the whole process of making clothes was somehow interesting, it was only some ten years ago when I finally found fun in my work. Before, it was just a means to feed me and my family,” said Kim.

As her over 20-year-old scissors, displayed in the center, she became skilled and thought of leaving the job like many others. “Although I could do my job as easy as, say, blindfolded, the payment rate has remained almost the same for the past 30 years. It was only my situation _ living with my grandparents and taking care of children _ that didn’t allow me to do something else,” she said, adding that flat labor charge discourages the sewing industry the most.

Considering rising living costs, the rate is tantamount to one third of the rate 20 years ago.

Changsin-dong’s textile industry has declined, as many factories moved their production lines overseas to China and other Asian countries in search of low labor costs.

With average workers aged 48, the district with over 3,000 factories clustered in 1980s have less than 1,000 small businesses surviving.

“Skilled sewing masters are mostly in their 60s and it is even hard to find 40-something workers now. Many young people enter the fashion industry dreaming of glamour of fashion designers. But, few want to become skilled tailor or sewing masters,” said Kim. “If nothing is done, when living masters are gone, we cannot guarantee the future of Korean design 10 or 15 year from now.”

Oh says the museum is part of a government effort to revive the district and the industry. “Sewing is like a root sustaining the fashion industry. Without good tailors and skilled sewing masters, the country cannot have good fashion designs. Still, now many inspiring fashion designers find this place to make their creative ideas into samples. In a single day, they can see ideas tried on clothes nearby,” said Oh. “It means a lot to have such manufacturing industry in an urban area. It is the birth place of all Dongdaemun clothes and high-end fashion design.”

Categories: Asia, Business, Europe, Korea, Textile

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