Everyone Has the Right: An Interview with Nazmul Hossain from the Migrants Trade Union

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”[1].

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.

[1] Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.


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.