By Ko Dong-hwan
Men's toilets in Korea have been places of embarrassment and the subject of debate for years, especially among non-Koreans, because of women cleaners there.
Whenever females enter, wearing rubber gloves and holding brushes to scrub urinals and toilet seats, male patrons cannot help feeling embarrassed.
The cleaners, mostly ajumma ― Korean jargon for tough middle-aged women ― apparently cause serious mental discomfort to men who cannot handle the awkward situation.
Some patrons are philosophical with the attitude that the women are simply doing their jobs. But other patrons claim the presence of the women is violating the men's human rights.
"I haven't seen this trend in other countries, but the fact that women clean men's toilets, while men are busy urinating, is a violation of basic human rights," said South African Francois Pieters, who has lived in Korea for almost four years and was shocked to experience such an encounter on Sep. 7.
"Most of the foreign men in Korea, if not all of them, are shocked by this and yes, we do feel violated."
Pieters claimed he went to a toilet in Seolleung Station in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, to change clothes for a wedding, but could not do so because two cleaning women were there.
"If they can put up a sign, like almost all of the other countries I've been to, then that would not violate anybody's human rights," Pieters said.
Others who agree with Pieters also claim that such encounters cause "the strict line of public etiquette to totally break down" and that toilets should be a private space.
One blogger said the cleaners were a"culture shock."
A New Zealander, Jeff Pete, 41, said in a KBS News report that when he first saw the cleaners he thought he was in the women's toilet and left.
Some Koreans are also uncomfortable with the female cleaners.
An office worker surnamed Park, in his 40s, said he had always wondered why women cleaned men's toilets and that he became"fidgety" whenever they were there.
It is true that this questionable system is one of several conventions that Korea must tackle to meet global expectations of a developed country.
For example, male toilets in North America and Europe have male janitors, while toilets in Japan have a "cleaning in progress" sign at the entrance while the women are at work.
So what do the cleaners think? It turns out the experience is as embarrassing for them as it is for the males.
And they did not take the job out of choice.
A Korean cleaning industry insider said there were never enough men available, so there was no choice but to hire women.
"When we post job opportunities for male toilet cleaners, men almost never apply, or they quit after only a few days," the insider told KBS.
At one Seoul metro station, women clean 18 of the 19 public toilets. One woman said the situation had reached the point that it would be "unnatural" for a women to work with a male cleaner.
Back in 2006, a cleaning woman surnamed Lee described her work in an interview on CBS news radio. She said some of her most difficult experiences violated her human rights as well.
"Out of all the cleaning duties for women, cleaning male toilets is the worst mentally and physically," Lee said. "The first-timers often suffer serious psychological distress."
She said she sometimes had to distance herself from male patrons in toilets so she would not have eye contact.
She said that being an ajumma also entailed being the subject of unpleasant remarks or jokes about sexual orientation, such as "a third gender."
"Most male cleaners are assigned to duties demanding hard labor like moving and arranging heavy objects so the male toilets are left for women," Lee added. The Citizen's Coalition for Restroom is a civic federation dedicated to improving toilet culture in Korea. It believes signs should be displayed outside male toilets while cleaning ladies are working.