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Increased labor force participation

The state-led economic development program during this period mobilized women into the industrial workforce. Women formed much of the workforce in the labor-intensive light industries, such as the textile, garment and leather sectors, and their low wages enabled these industries to enjoy acomparative advantage for along time. Women workers also played aleading role in the labor movement against company-controlled unions in the 1970s.

Women were excellent workers in terms of skill and diligence. They moved to the cities for jobs to support their poor families in the villages, stayed in dormitories or poor private housing, and endured long working hours of more than 12 hours per day. It was estimated that 2 million women worked in these industries.

The shift of employment patterns from primary industries to manufacturing increased the size of the female labor force. In 1963, the number of women having jobs or seeking work was 2,835,000 and their labor force participation rate was 37.0 percent. The number nearly doubled to 5,349,000 and the participation rate rose to 43.3 percent by 1979.

Figure 6-48. Labor force participation rate

Young women between the ages of 15 and 19 formed a major part of the labor force in the early stages of industrialization. In 1963, 14 percent of this age group worked and this increased to 17 percent by the early 1970s. The portion of young female workers declined after 1975 because of improved access to education.

The Korean government focused on light industries during the early stages of industrialization due to the comparative advantages offered by cheap labor, but this strategy was soon challenged by other emerging economies. As a result, the government decided to strengthen capital-intensive industries from the mid-1970s. These industries had less use for female workers. Woman accounted for 22 percent of the manufacturing workforce by the mid-1970s, with most women finding clerical, service and sales jobs instead.

Although increased opportunities for secondary education were becoming available during this period, half of the women in the mid-1970s entered the job market with only an elementary school education, with most of the rest having attended secondary schools. Only a very small number of women had access to higher education.

Although women did not participate actively in politics during this period, they were important actors in their local communities. They were involved in community development projects, family planning programs, and the Saemaul (new village) movement. However, the role of women was limited somewhat by the fact that the community development projects were mostly organized and operated on a semi-governmental basis that resorted to traditional stereotypes of gender roles.

Source : SaKong, Il and Koh, Youngsun, 2010. The Korean Economy Six Decades of Growth and Development. Seoul: Korea Development Institute.

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