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[From the scene] Death of subway worker triggers wave of protests

Citizens pay tribue to 19-year-old worker, surnamed Kim, who was killed by an arriving train while repairing a safety door on subway platform, at the memorial site inside Guui Station in eastern Seoul, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Citizens pay tribue to 19-year-old worker, surnamed Kim, who was killed by an arriving train while repairing a safety door on subway platform, at the memorial site inside Guui Station in eastern Seoul, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

On Saturday, a week after a 19-year-old irregular worker died while repairing a screen door on a subway platform at Guui Station, hundreds of people took to the streets calling for a fundamental change to a “money-focused” society.

Since the worker’s death on May 28, platform 9-4 at Guui Station has turned into a massive memorial site, drawing thousands of sympathetic mourners who left flowers, food items and post-it notes on the screen door. 

Post-it memos attached to a screendoor on subway platform inside Guui Station. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Post-it memos attached to a screendoor on subway platform inside Guui Station. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

The majority of the post-it notes lamented businesses attempting to slash costs at the expense of workers’ safety and welfare. Some of them said: “How many more people should die in the name of efficiency?” “His death was not a mere unfortunate accident” and “I am here thanks to you who have worked in dangerous conditions.”

The subway mechanic, surnamed Kim, was killed after being trapped between the screen door and an arriving train while fixing a malfunctioning safety door on the platform by himself at Guui Station in eastern Seoul.

The death of Kim, who was hired in a temporary position through subway operator Seoul Metro’s subcontractor Eunseong PSD, shed light on a myriad of structural problems including companies’ cost-saving practices, negligence of safety guidelines and poor working conditions.

“I came because I realized that I could not sit back any lo
nger. I felt that my husband could die like Kim someday,” said a 29-year-old freelance designer Lee So-young whose husband also does a maintenance job on subway platforms.

“What I am sorry about the most is that I could not take action earlier, though I knew about the situation facing irregular subway workers,” she said while shedding tears. She is now one of scores of volunteers taking it in turns to watch over the memorial site at Guui Station.

It was later known that the young contracted worker was paid 1.44 million won ($1,237) per month, little more than the minimum wage, and was expected to fix the screen door within an hour to avoid penalties. 

Flowers, food items and birthday cake on a subway platform at Guui Station. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Flowers, food items and birthday cake on a subway platform at Guui Station. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

At the memorial site, there was a birthday cake to celebrate Kim’s birthday on May 29, hot meals, bread, snacks and instant noodles. The teenage mechanic’s bag had contained cup instant noodles presumably because he had no time to have a proper meal.

“Dear Kim, I am sorry that I cannot do anything for you. I prepared a meal, spoon and chopsticks for you for your birthday. Enjoy it and hope you rest in peace in heaven. This wasn’t your fault,” wrote a mother of two girls, who left a plate of hot rice and bulgogi on the platform for Kim.

Hong Eun-jeon, a 38-year-old teacher, said that Kim’s death has highlighted the obsession with efficiency and money that prevails in society. “I came here because I am angry about the government and companies putting workers in danger only to save costs. I feel that I cannot be safe anymore in the society.” 

Citiznes pay a silent tribute for the deceased 19-year-old worker at Guui Station. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Citiznes pay a silent tribute for the deceased 19-year-old worker at Guui Station. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

When the deadly accident took place, Kim was not accompanied by a supervisor or a walkie-talkie to warn him of an arriving train as required by formal regulation. Kim was required to work in a team of two, but such rules are seldom kept to save time and cost, according to testimonies by Kim’s colleagues and other maintenance workers at Seoul Metro.

Seoul Metro initially blamed the subcontractor for failing to abide by safety guidelines. According to the contract, the subcontractor is required to take charge of any accidents.

As public criticism surged, the subway operator later offered an apology and pledged to create a subsidiary in charge of maintenance operations at subway stations to directly manage the platform doors.

The outsourcing of safety-related jobs is what labor unions and civic groups see as a reason behind the continued occurrence of fatal accidents. In 2013, another screen door maintenance worker was killed after being hit by a train while fixing a screen door at Seongsu Station. An employee from the same company died from a similar accident at Gangnam Station in 2014.

The subway workers’ union and civic groups called on Seoul Metro to stop outsourcing safety-related workers and hire irregular safety workers as full-time employees. 

Citizens march in a rally on Saturday in tribute to a subway worker who was killed while repairing a screen door at Guui Station on May 28, sparking heated debate over the unfair treatment of irregular workers. (Yonhap)
Citizens march in a rally on Saturday in tribute to a subway worker who was killed while repairing a screen door at Guui Station on May 28, sparking heated debate over the unfair treatment of irregular workers. (Yonhap)

At around 6:30 p.m., some 200 mourners gathered outside exit 1 at Guui Station to hold a rally demanding safer working conditions for irregular workers after paying a silent tribute on platform 9-4.

Park Beom-jin, 21, who works as a subway mechanic for one of the subcontractors under Seoul Metro, argued that Kim would have not died if he was a regular employee.

“He had hoped to become a regular worker one day. It could have happened to me or to my friends. At this very moment, young irregular workers are being injured or killed because of dangerous working conditions,” he said. 

Mourners hold up posters reading
Mourners hold up posters reading "Human lives should come first before money" and "Stop outsourcing safety-related work" outside Guui Station, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

As dusk gathered, they silently marched about 2 kilometers toward Konkuk University Hospital where an altar to Kim has been set up. The participants held up placards that read: “Human lives before money,” “Death of Kim is not accidental” and “We have responsibility to change the society.”

Many of the participants were in their 20s and 30s.

“I agree that this is murder by the flawed structure of the society,” said a 22-year-old university student Lee Young-seon while marching.

“I now know that we cannot improve our lives simply by working hard. We (the young) are crushed by life. As it is difficult to get a regular job, I could be the next one holding an irregular job and suffering from poor conditions,” she said. “I thought that raising my voice was a first step to improve the situation.”

As the mourners arrived in front of Konkuk University Hospital, the deceased Kim’s mother greeted them and expressed her gratitude. 

Mourners vow to mother of the deceased 19-year-old worker in front of the altar at Konkuk University Hospital, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Mourners vow to mother of the deceased 19-year-old worker in front of the altar at Konkuk University Hospital, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

“Thank you for coming despite your busy schedule. My son’s honor was restored by citizens here,” she told the unexpectedly large crowd, weeping. “I hope my boy doesn’t get hungry anymore up there thanks to you.”

The crowd holding flowers and candles in response said, “Cheer up! We will stand by your side until the end.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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