Rights for Migrant Workers in Korea- NOW!

By Taryn Assaf

As has been the trend in most First World nations, Korea’s labor economy has shifted away from so-called 3D jobs –dirty, difficult and dangerous- towards the more consumer-friendly service and business sectors. Jobs in construction or in factories are considered undesirable not only because of their 3D character, but because of their low wages; they are no longer connected to notions of success. A severe lack of domestic labor in these sectors paired with an undeclining need for this labor has led to a boom of migrant workers in Korea. Hundreds of thousands of people from South and Southeast Asia have been hurdled into the country in the last decade to make up for this lack.

The migrant worker’s story in this country is all too familiar. Workers leave their lives in their home countries for the chance to make better wages and pull their families out of poverty. They are enticed by the promise of learning a new skill that they can take back to their country. Instead, they are shown to assembly lines or construction sites with little training, long working hours and little pay. They are abused and exploited on many levels, and are given little to no support by the Korean government when standing up for their rights. With no government support, they have turned to each other to build solidarity and to bring attention to the grave injustices perpetrated against them.

The ISC media team attended a migrant workers assembly in Seoul commemorating International Migrant Workers Day and was able to learn about these injustices. A panel of six migrant workers spoke on the issues they’ve experienced in their time in Korea and about what needs to be done to improve human rights for others in similar situations.

First in the panel was Sreina, Chair of Cambodian Migrant Workers in Korea. She spoke of the difficulties in dealing with factory owners, who rarely follow labor laws and standards given the absolute power granted to them by the Ministry of Labor. Workers often work overtime with no overtime pay and are routinely threatened by managers

Sreina calling for and end to the EPS system

Sreina calling for and end to the EPS system

and owners. When a worker approaches the Ministry of Labor to report a rights violation or to ask to change jobs, they are told to go back and apologize to their bosses and to plead for their jobs. She asks, “If there were no problems in the factories, why would we want to change jobs? To the Ministry of Labor- have you thought about the problems that are arising?” Many of these problems emerge because migrant workers can’t obtain legal status in Korea. This is due to the Employment Permit System (EPS), which is a temporary worker visa granted to migrant workers for four years and ten months- just two months shy of the five year mark allowing a person eligibility for legal status. When their permit expires they must go back to their home country, after which it becomes extremely difficult to re-apply for another working visa. Without legal status, workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace and have little agency when making decisions related to their employment. For Sreina and the migrant workers at the rally, an end to the EPS system and legal status for migrants is integral to the realization of full human rights in Korea.

Sardip from the Migrant Trade Union spoke next about the manufacturing industry. Like Sreina, he noted factory owners abusing workers. There are many instances, he said, where workers are given extra tasks outside those assigned to them. Factory owners and managers are not legally permitted to assign extra tasks, but they do it anyway. Workers are not compensated for this work, even when it requires overtime hours for doing so. In addition to working extra time without extra pay, owners verbally abuse workers. Women are even sexually harassed. Sardip emphasized the need for more oversight of employer conduct to ensure that migrant workers are compensated fairly for the work they do. Workers must be ensured of a harassment-free environment, one where women can feel safe and where all workers are treated as equals and spoken to with respect.

WenBaja Wu from Vietnam spoke about the treatment of workers in the construction industry. Since construction is a dangerous trade, injuries occur quite often. Whether the injury is mild or severe, he explained, workers are not treated properly and are not offered proper medical care. Owners encourage workers to resolve the injury themselves to keep their insurance premiums low. Without the guarantee of adequate medical treatment, workers are left extremely vulnerable to infection, improperly healed wounds, amputation -or worse- death. He says this occurs in all sectors, not just the construction industry. Workers must have access to medical treatment to lower their risk of work-related injuries and disabilities.

Two Wansang, representing refugee migrant workers, detailed the difficulties facing new refugees to Korea. Those who come to Korea applying for asylum face extreme hardship upon entering the country. Refugees are not permitted to work while applying for refugee status- a process that can take anywhere from six months to one year. Many refugees come to Korea with nothing, yet without permission to work, they can not properly secure housing, food, education or health care for themselves or their families. To avoid total homelessness, they work illegally, despite the threat of being caught and thrown in jail. “When refugees first come to Korea, they must be provided with the essential resources to live,” explained Mr. Wansang. “They should have the same rights as Koreans, but they have none. They have no help. They must figure it out alone.” There are no education opportunities to help new refugees integrate into Korean society. In a foreign environment with a new language, writing, culture and customs, figuring out things like shopping, taxes, housing, banking etc. is next to impossible. Some new refugees with families, he says, visit multicultural centers in hopes of receiving some support. But these centers prioritize families with one Korean parent, resulting in refugee families being denied service if there is no space. It is imperative that refugees be offered basic rights and freedoms upon arriving in Korea and that education and integration programs be set up by the government.

Next on the panel was Dean Tantwi from Vietnam. She represented marriage migrants and spoke about the plight of married migrant women. To obtain a Korean citizenship as a migrant wife, a woman must pay 38 million won (about 38,000 USD), making it incredibly difficult for her to obtain equal citizenship rights to her husband and potential children. She says that many women come to Korea from countries in Southeast Asia as brides without ever having met their husbands or taking the time to test their compatibility. If the couple marries and then realizes they are incompatible, divorce is a much easier option for the Korean man. He will be free from stigma and can easily re-marry, whereas the woman must immediately go back to her home country to face the stigma of divorce. Tantwi believes that migrant women should be permitted to stay in Korea for three years to be able to work, regardless of whether or not her marriage succeeds. If the marriage does succeed, marriage migrants still have limited freedoms. It is illegal for them to work[i], so many are forced to take exploitative jobs due to economic necessity. A marriage migrant is therefore always living in fear- fear of deportation if the marriage ends, fear of being caught working illegally, and fear of being exploited or harassed in the workplace. Marriage migrants must be offered full human rights.

The panel of migrant workers

The panel of migrant workers

To say a nation is truly concerned with human rights, it must concern itself with the practice of equal rights for all people. Their right to equal pay, to health care, to a harassment-free workplace, to work and to change jobs must be guaranteed. The Korean government and the propertied class have a long way to go, it seems, in order to support such rights and the people who are fighting to have them. But the future of migrant rights is not without hope. Migrant workers, refugees and marriage migrants are leading their struggles with the support of the Korean labor movement. As Shin Seung-Cheol, President of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), noted in his speech, “If you’re not united across regions, then the struggle is not united. If we want to change the world, we must cross those lines. It is time for Korean workers to unite in this fight and demand changes.” Because, migrant rights are human rights, and it’s about time they become realized.


[i] A difference should be noted between different types of married foreigners in Korea. Marriage migrants usually come from Southeast Asia, China or Japan for the sole purpose of marriage. A Korean man often chooses them before they come to Korea, without the pair having ever met.

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