Written By Seo Yun Son
Dear Jeon Tae-Il,
You were only 22 years old when you self-immolated in the middle of Seoul’s busy Pyeonghwa “Peace” Market to protest against the inhumane working conditions of garment workers in Korea. Before you collapsed onto the concrete, you mustered enough strength to scream, “We are human beings, too! We are not machines!” On November 13, 1970, you called for the enforcement of the labor code. With one last breath while clutching a copy of the Labor Standards Act close to your heart, you ignited the Korean labor rights movement.
I first heard your story during my time working at KIWA (Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance), a worker center that organizes Koreans and Latinx immigrant workers in low-wage industries to fight for economic justice. Inspired by the “worker classroom” your mother and friends established in the wake of your death, my colleague and I formed a committee called Jeon Tae-Il Justicia, a space for workers to organize for dignity in the workplace and raise worker consciousness through their own material conditions and struggles.
Born into poverty, at age 17 you started working at a garment factory in Pyeonghwa Market that employed around 20,000 workers, 90% of them women. You witnessed Korea’s “miraculous” economic growth during this time made only possible through cheap labor. You were horrified to see “progress” meant exploiting young girls and women for long hours with little pay, hunched over machines in rooms with no sunlight. Radicalized by your own working conditions, you organized your colleagues in your mother’s living room by candlelight to end workplace exploitation and abuse.
I think about the undocumented women in my family who worked in a garment factory in the U.S. during the export-led boom of Korea’s garment and apparel manufacturing industries. Considered “unskilled” labor, my aunt and grandmother were paid in piece rate of 5 cents, working 60-hour weeks to put food on our table. I followed in their footsteps as a twenty-year-old making minimum wage in garment and retail where wage theft, discrimination, harassment, and exploitation were rampant. What hope did I have as a young undocumented worker? I looked to your light.
Silenced under the oppressive dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, you decided your only option was to start a fire. With a single spark, your body was aflame, shining light on the workers and their struggles. Your desperate cries ignited the minjung, the people, to rise up for democracy and workers’ rights. Your commitment gave me the courage to stand up against injustice by organizing alongside immigrant workers and forming a staff union with my co-workers—because you taught me that we cannot build fires alone.
I honor you, the women in my family, the Pyeonghwa Market garment workers who formed the first women-led union in your legacy, and the workers who still hunger and dream today. Because of you, I believed that an immigrant worker like myself could be part of a mass movement. Your story taught me that our own power emerges from collective struggle and organizing. You remind me that organizing is a part of our history.
In my last 3 years at KIWA, I helped organize a campaign with worker leaders from an upscale Korean BBQ restaurant, many of whom were Korean and Latinx immigrant workers who came together to fight against wage theft. The business was cited for $2.1 million in labor violations—a major win for restaurant workers in Los Angeles. Organizing taught us to confront fear and lead with courage and compassion. Today, we pass the torch to all the essential workers who are standing up against widespread exploitation.
Despite all the violence and oppression, you once wrote in your journal “love before arms.” Your sacrifice is a testament of love for your people. May we remember your light as we continue to combat all forms of oppression and exploitation. Rest in power.
Love & solidarity,
Seo Yun Son is an artist, educator, and labor organizer living in Los Angeles, California. She received her BFA in Fine Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles and is an organizer at amwa (collective of femme and non-binary pan-asian art workers) and AFT1521 (Faculty Guild at LACCD).