The Two Faces of Sotuh Korea

So that peoples of the world may know…

Korea is showing the world a welcoming foreigner-friendly face to the thousands of visitors attending the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup games. But the face that the Korean government isn’t showing is its unfair treatment of an estimated 300,000 migrant workers living and working here. Migrant workers – commonly referred to as 3D workers as the work they do is dirty, dangerous, and demeaning – comprise close to 80% of all foreign workers in Korea.

Fearing deportation, in many cases they are forced to endure dire human rights abuses. On average paying brokers $6000-$8,000 U.S. just to get to Korea, they came here via an unfair trainee system which forces them to work for 2 years at drastically substandard wages, and at the mercy of their bosses who can treat them unfairly with impunity, using deportation as a threat. Understandably, the majority of them fled their original work places, seeking fairer work conditions.

In May 2001, the ETU-MB (Equality Trade Union, Migrant’s Branch) was formed by migrant workers, a precedent setting union comprised of migrant workers demanding the abolishment of the trainee system and the implementation of the visa-granting WPS (Work Permit System) which would allow them to freely choose their work without fear. The ETU-MB is entirely without precedent in Korea and is a ground breaking labour development for workers worldwide.

This year, the Korean government issued a moratorium on the workers, promising no deportations if the undocumented workers register with the government, giving them until March 24th, 2003 to leave the country, and making promises to enact a fairer policy toward them. Hypocritically, this stance coincides with an all-out attack on the ETU-MB and migrant workers in general. The ETU-MB harshly critises this stance, saying that it is mere posturing for popular consumption and it doesn’t reflect the reality of the government’s attack on migrants.


What the Ministry of Labour says:
"We will toughen surveillance on illegal labour practices of employers."

The trainee system is unfair. Period. Even if monitors regularly visit work sites to ensure that the workers are being paid, it doesn’t detract from the basic fact that they are being paid substandard wages. The trainee system is a form of slavery. Until it is removed, the problem remains unsolved.

What the Ministry of Labour says:
"We will set up counselling booths for migrant workers to fairly reconcile disputes between the workers and the employers."

Any proposed counselling booths are bound to be heavily biased in favour of the employers and ineffective in meaningfully resolving disputes. The Korean government has repeatedly suppressed attempts on the part of migrants to organise unions. It also recently declared a proposed migrant’s rally illegal, threatening to deport attending workers. And more recently, the government threatened to raid and cleanse factory towns, most notably targeting the town of Masok where many key members of the ETU-MB work in an effort to destroy the union (called off at the last minute out of fear of international attention, the crackdown will promptly resume after the World Cup). Until the workers can freely organise, they are in a disadvantaged position to fairly negotiate their work conditions.

What the Ministry of Labour says:
"We will overhaul the system under which workers are hired and managed to fundamentally resolve the problems related to foreign workers."

The Employee Permit System vaguely proposed by the government will in no way solve injustices incurred by migrant workers. On the contrary, it entrenches those injustices by legally perpetuating the trainee system. Instead, the ETU-MB calls for the WPS (Work Permit System). The current registration program and the proposed EPS is a thinly veiled attempt to cleanse the country of the close to 300,000 existing workers (many of whom will work the rest of their lives to pay back loans taken to come to Korea and all of whom support families), destroy the ETU-MB, and import a more docile migrant workforce.

Foreign Workers Deserve Welcome, Respect

Another week is starting and there will be many things to do as usual: foreigners to welcome and listen to their problems regarding delayed salaries, health problems, industrial accidents and so on.

While on my way to the office my head is filled with thoughts regarding the fact that many workers are anxious about a large government crackdown on illegal aliens following the expiration date of the deadline for registration. Suddenly a phone call comes in: "Father, please help me, I am at the Hwasong detention center, I was arrested the other day and my husband is still working in a different company." "OK, calm down, what happened? Do you have your passport? What about the plane ticket? Do you have enough clothes with you?"

One after another many calls are coming in and because of their requests we try to help out by contacting their friends here in Korea in order to arrange for their belongings and tickets. We also contact the embassies and Immigration to know about their situation, legal matters and the chances of them leaving Korea as soon as possible.

What is happening? Every day newspapers, radio and TV are reporting news about foreign workers; their way of life, the sacrifices they make, the worries and anxieties they carry in their hearts, the Sri Lankan worker who jumped under the subway and the Bangladeshi who killed himself, both rather than go back to their countries. What is happening?

To have only sensational news does not help very much in understanding a phenomenon that is affecting Korean society, we have to get proper information so that we can have a better picture.

In the last 10 to 15 years many foreign workers have entered Korea with a dream of a better future for themselves and for their families. Mainly from China, Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union (we also have people coming from very far away, like Africa and South America).

But why did they choose Korea? Simply because it has some attractions due to an economy that is much more prosperous than their own; this is a social and historical phenomenon affecting all the so-called industrialized countries. In Italy, for example, we have more than 2 million migrants and there are no ways to stop people from coming in; we can at the best regulate it with humane and appropriate legislation.

Here in Korea the shortage of human resources, particularly in the manufacturing sectors of small and mid-size companies, has created space available for foreign workers. Altogether they now represent one percent of the Korean population; can we dispose of them like any other disposable items? When we feel they are not necessary, just throw them away and replace them with new ones? Is this a policy we can consider respectful of people who are giving their best in order to make our nation more prosperous?

We have to know and consider the fact that foreign workers are working in places where Koreans are not present, either because they do not like the so called 3D (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs, or because the salary is too low.

In the past weeks many managers have called our offices wondering what to do: "Father, I have some foreigners in my company, now due to the government policy, I really do not know what to do: If I send them out, they have no place to go and I’ll be forced to slow production or even stop the machines, if I let them stay and work I might have to pay a penalty up to 20 million for each one of them."

I have to confess that I do not know myself what to do, because the problem goes beyond any particular and practical solution. The presence of migrant workers has to do with
information, and more than that, with a formation which embraces welcome, acceptance and respect.

By Giovanni Zevola

The writer is an Italian missionary and director of the migrant workers apostolate in Suwon, South Korea diocese.