Written by Kellyn Gross
Interview by ISC Media Team
“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” -Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14(1)
On December 15, the ISC media team attended the 2013 Migrant Workers Assembly at Seoul City Hall’s Annex Building. The conference was in commemoration of International Migrants Day, and migrants were in attendance from such countries as the Philippines, Mongolia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Participating organizations included the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the Alliance for Migrants Equality & Human Rights, the Joint Committe with Migrants in Korea (JCMK), the Gyeonggi Alliance for Migrants’ Rights, and the Incheon Alliance for Migrants’ Rights.
Before the assembly, we sat down with Nazmul Hossain, the Incheon branch secretary of the Migrants Trade Union (MTU). The Migrants Trade Union started in 2005 and is included the KCTU.
Hossain is a refugee in Korea from Bangladesh, where he feared for his life from police reprisal due to his student activitism. He holds a refugee passport issued from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Although Korea has been a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees since 1992, it has failed to abide by the convention’s protocols. Particularly, Korea hasn’t given “sympathetic consideration to assimilating the rights of all refugees with regard to wage-earning employment to those of nationals, and in particular of those refugees who have entered their territory pursuant to programmes of labour recruitment or under immigration schemes”.
Hossain initially came to Korea eight years ago on an international trainee visa. He then applied for and was granted refugee status by the UNHCR. Yet the Korean government has denied him basic protection as an asylum seeker, and his trainee visa has since lapsed. He has chosen to remain in Korea as an undocumented worker rather than leave the country and risk deportation back to Bangladesh. He, like many others, are thus left in stateless limbo. Of the about 4,700 people who have applied for refugee status here since 1992, Korea has only approved about 300 applications. This six-percent figure is dismally low.
We discussed migrants’ fight for equal labor rights in Korea with Hossain, as well as MTU’s call for an end to the government crackdown of undocumented migrant workers and their continued exploitation under the Employment Permit System (EPS).
ISC: Can you give us a brief background of yourself? When did you come to Korea, and how did you get involved with the migrant workers trade union?
Nazmul Hossain: I will talk about my past myself. In 2006, I came to Korea under an international trainee visa. But the Korean labor situation is very hard. Labor is low-standing, and there are many problems. The Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor gives no benefits to laborers outside of just work. That’s all. Work, sleep, some food, a workplace and nothing else.
In 2008, the Korean international trainee laws changed into the EPS. But the EPS is in the same category, with problems remaining because foreign laborers in Korea are given very hard work for no salary. The situation is impossible because migrant workers are given little money for a lot of work.
What is the international trainee visa like?
The international trainee visa promises foreign students work training if they come to Korea. But in the end, this is impossible. Instead it’s, “Come to Korea! But labor.” The Korean government says training isn’t a right. There is only the right to do labor.
So they aren’t actually offering any training? You just have to work?
Yes. International trainees can only be in Korea for one year. I first came to Korea for training in engineering things like this microphone, and mechanical training in general. I came to Korea for training, but I only labored. When you go to a Korean company, you only labor. No training is given. Just labor. The salary is the same, but the Korean government issues no training certificate. And I’ve asked this since my arrival, why didn’t the Korean company give me my certificate? Why doesn’t the government give me my certificate.
What were you coming to be trained for?
In 2008, I came to Korea for the same reason that others do, to be trained in something and return to my country in order to open a factory or branch of the Korean company that I trained under. But when we come, we just do common labor.
What did you want to train in?
It wasn’t about any particular skill but the promise of learning a skill that I could take back to my country, and then from there build a factory or start something based on that skill. Yet no certificates are given, and trainee workers are just working.
What is the work?
CNC machining. We were using CNC machines to make machine parts like pistons and gear boxes.
(CNC stands for computer numerical control, essentially computer-controlled machines making parts for other machines.)
Also, EPS is the same thing as the international trainee visa without the promise of going back to your country and building a factory. And Korea’s labor promise to foreigners is now work for four years and ten months.
Why four years and ten months? Why not five years?
Because if you live in Korea for five years, you can legally apply for permanent residence.
So the visa is for four years and ten months, two months shy of five years.
In Korea, workers are not thought of as people, but are thought of as machines. Like robots. How can people work for 12, 13, 14 hours?
Migrant workers can be in Korea for up to four years and ten months. But it’s very difficult to come back to Korea after this time period.
Why do you think they make it difficult for you to come back?
It’s because if you are here for longer, you could have permanent residence. It’s just the legality of the system.
So, migrant workers’ activities are currently campaigning to be able to bring their families to Korea. And they believe that regardless of what your status is—whether you are undocumented or documented—you should be able to get legal residency after living here for ten years. That way, workers can live well in Korea.That’s the struggle people are waging.
The five-year rule doesn’t apply to me, even though I’ve been here eight years because of my undocumented status.
And my labor union, MTU, isn’t legally recognized yet, although our case is at the Supreme Court. If we’re legally recognized as a union, then we have legal recourse at the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Employment and Labor.
I hope you can understand me. Korea doesn’t have human rights. The Korean government tells all other countries that human rights are good here, but it’s impossible. There are no human rights for workers.
Not in reality, just talk.
Yes. Korea has 7,000 refugees, but only 270 people are legal. Almost seven thousand people are illegal! So, they can’t work. It’s a very hard life for refugees in Korea.
Do you want to live in Korea permanently? What are your future goals?
(Gesturing to his UNHRC passport) Actually, I want to leave. But this passport isn’t acceptable in Korea. I can’t get through airport immigration to go to another country. I can’t go outside Korea legally with this passport.
You haven’t left Korea?
No. I’m living in this country because Korea doesn’t have human rights.
What country would you like to go to?
Oh, the US, Canada, France, Spain because these countries’ human rights are very good. Many refugees are living in these countries, I know, but I like these countries. I like Korea, but Korean law is very hard. No human rights here, only talk.
I went to the Ministry of Justice office and told them I wanted to leave Korea, and they said I can’t with this passport. Then I said I wanted to legally live here, and I asked for a residency visa permit. But they wouldn’t give me one. So, how can I live? They just said to wait.
The problem is that because Korea doesn’t accept my asylum status, they would just return me back to Bangladesh. So, I can’t leave Korea, while at the same time, I can’t live here in Korea because of the human rights conditions and my illegal status.
I share this information, while countrywide newspapers say there is no problem. Korean law states that I have 100-percent rights. Yet currently, 7,000 refugees have very hard lives and are in hard situations right now. I hope US, Canada, France and Spain—all countries push Korea to protect human rights and accept refugees.
Can you tell us about the history of the MTU? And what do you do at the MTU?
I told you previously about how I came to Korea, and how the labor situation was hard. And I thought about why. Why did Korea not give international trainees rights? I went to the Ministry of Labor office and asked this question, why not give trainees rights? The office said that this is how it does things, and it can’t change it.
I joined MTU as a migrant worker in Incheon in 2008, and the MTU itself started in 2005. I came because there were a lot of problems with the labor law. I couldn’t change things working by myself, but I knew I could change things with others in an organization. MTU is the only migrant union in Korea.
Korea has a lot of factories, and it needs workers. Bangladesh has a lot of people, and not much work. So, this is why people come to Korea. The wages aren’t high in Korea, maybe a little over one million won per month. But as long as there isn’t work in other countries, people will keep coming to Korea. Because of that, the Korean government isn’t giving migrant workers benefits or honoring human rights.
So, they’re taking advantage of the fact that there are impoverished people looking for work.
Yes. In ten years, if the laws don’t change and if there aren’t labor rights in Korea, then workers will stop coming here. And if there is no one to work the machines, then Korea won’t do well.
Already, the MTU president has submitted different legal documents requesting changes in the law. We don’t know when changes will occur, but we’ll persist until the changes happen.
Do people in Bangladesh or other countries know about these conditions? Do governments still project the idea that it will be beneficial for them to learn things here?
There are no workers from India who come here. The reason why is because the Korean government doesn’t offer training certificates.
Does the Bangladesh government have an arrangment with the Korean government?
No. People don’t know that human rights are absent in Korea. It’s impossible, and I’m only one person. I hope that next time people like you can help spread the news.
Yes. And we had a question about how men and women migrant workers are affected differently?
Men and women work equally hard in Korean companies. People are too busy working to think about anything else.
When you have worked in factories, were you working with men and women?
Yes, all together. No problem.
Do women have more problems as migrant workers, or the same kinds of problems as men?
All migrant workers have one problem, which is a lack of labor rights.
What are some of the daily struggles that you see or experience on the job?
I don’t know when we’re going to stop the work that we do, whether it’s in 20 or 30 years. No one knows when we’re going to achieve our labor rights, even though things have gotten better since MTU started. There are still a lot of issues, like people not getting paid, or people not being taken to the hospital when they are sick. So, we’re going to keep struggling.
This piece is from the ISC media team’s conversation with Nazmul Hossain. His statements and ours have been edited not for obfuscation but for clarity due to a language barrier.
 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.