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Gwangju News

International Magazine for Gwangju and Jeollanam-do

February 2010
Volume 10, Issue 2
Current Issue

A Voice for Migrant Workers

S o, I bet you’ve heard about the great job total workforce are employed in the Republic of Korea.
opportunities in South Korea, right? How much More than half are believed to be unregistered and face
easier it is to get a job here than back home and an uncertain future as the nation faces criticism
the solid benefits that abound, not to mention the ease internally and internationally to reform its once
of the South Korean way of life. While English teachers progressive laws for migrant workers.
and other foreign professionals might be attracted to
working around Korea to put their education and skills Raising the Bar?
to work, migrant workers may not be so lucky. Prior to the Seoul Olympics in 1988, no laws existed to
protect migrant workers in South Korea. At that time
Often lured by promises of a better life, a living wage,
the government started the Alien Industrial Trainee
as well as fair and equal treatment in the workplace,
System (AITS) to allow migrant workers to be hired
migrant workers from developing Asian countries are
through private recruiters and ostensibly become
becoming more vocal about their plight. As the
exploited due to the exorbitant fees required up front
economy improves, the need for migrant workers will
for employment. AITS theoretically gave workers
definitely increase. However the discrepancy between
vocational training after working a specific number of
the ads recruiting them and the stark realities of their
years, but this was often used as an excuse to withhold
working environment are now becoming more visible
pay. Critics complained AITS was aimed more at
as the government cracks down on illegal immigration.
“training” workers rather than hiring and
A 2009 Amnesty International report, Disposable compensating them outright.
Labour: Rights of migrant workers in South Korea, The Employment Permit System or EPS in 2004 was
painted a grim picture of the current situation. As of then implemented as a government-to-government
June 2006, 360,000 migrant workers or 1.5% of the scheme aimed at eliminating illegal recruitment and

Migrant workers enjoying a cultural trip organized by the Migrant Workers' Center Cho Yong-seok

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Left: Celebrating Seollal with the Migrant Workers' Center Right: Sri Lankans working in Gwangju
Migrant Workers' Center, Alva French

offering foreign workers equal pay, rights and benefits sometimes violent crackdown on migrant workers.
with South Koreans. Under EPS, workers are required Immigration officers and the police are accused of
to pass a language and qualification test before being sometimes using excessive force against migrant
invited to work in South Korea. The EPS system is in workers and operating outside the law.”
place between Korea and 16 other countries including
the Philippines, Cambodia, East Timor, Sri Lanka, Working in 3D
Pakistan and Vietnam as part of a Memorandum of I spoke to Mr. Cho Yong-seok, director of the Gwangju
Understanding (MoU) between these foreign countries Migrant Workers’ Center in Cheomdan and asked him
and the Korea Ministry of Labor. to tell me about the plight of migrant workers here in
While the EPS may have attempted to raise the bar, the Gwangju. While he tells me there are about 10,000
reality on the ground is quite different. “Migrant legal migrant workers in the city, there are also about
workers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation 2,000 non-registered migrants on top of that. They
largely because they cannot change jobs without their often are recruited to do what is known as “3D” work –
employer’s permission,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty Dirty, Dangerous, Difficult – or work the native
International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Programme Koreans refuse to do in the manufacturing sector.
Director. “Work conditions are sometimes so bad that Today under EPS, the laws continue to evolve. Initially
they run away and consequently, lose their regular workers were required to return home after working
status and are then subject to arrest and deportation.” three years, then work another two years. Now they
can work for five years straight. “Which is both good
Change in Status and bad,” according to Mr. Cho. Good because their
Losing a contract mid-stream might seem like a minor contracts guaranteed them work for an extended
obstacle to other foreign employees stuck in a labor period of time, “but bad because if work conditions are
dispute in Korea. Just ask around and find a new job, difficult, these must be endured for five years without
right? Go home for a few months and come back and renegotiation or change of job.”
find a new employer, maybe? For migrant workers,
they not only lose their status making them now illegal Also, while a meager living space or “container box” is
workers, but they may have had their pay docked provided, migrant workers must still provide $3-4000
among various other infractions and may be too up front to cover training, insurance, payment and
indebted to their employers to afford their return airfare. Although this is significantly lower than the
ticket. initial fees required under AITS, it is still a major
hurdle for some. According to Mr. Cho, the
Adding insult to injury, the South Korean government government’s attempts at changing the law to at least
has avowed to cut the number of illegal workers by provide additional money for shelter have been
halving the estimated 220,000 of them by 2012. As a unsuccessful.
result, the Immigration department has launched what
Amnesty International has called, “a massive and While the possibility of working at equal status as
South Koreans is very attractive to foreign workers, the

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Current Issue

reality quite different, Mr. Cho explains to me. “Their The most common rights violated include non-
labor environment may be sub-standard, they may payment of salary, uncompensated accidents and
incur many injuries, and work in dangerous places.” violence on the job. Mr. Cho explained the plight of a
Furthermore, he acknowledged many are afraid of typical worker, a Sri Lankan who was unregistered
coming forward for fear of losing their pay, their status when he started working in Korea from 2005-2007. He
or both, not to mention the hidden injuries left was only paid four times during that time and came to
unreported due the language barrier. the Gwangju Migrant Workers’ Center in 2008 for
assistance. As of today, his case remains unresolved.

Gwangju Migrant Another unresolved case involved two workers in car

disposal who complained their work environment was
Workers’ Center too violent and dangerous. After one week they asked
to change jobs, but were refused, so the two employees
quit. However, since they “abandoned” their job for
more than fourteen days, the employer had the right to
sue the two workers and did so. Since they were
already non-registered or illegal they were both in a
precarious situation, especially since only an employer
may withdraw a lawsuit. As of today, only one of the
two was asked to continue working, while the other

One case which came across Mr. Cho’s desk that

Mr. Cho, director and labor rights counselor fortunately was resolved involved two Chinese seniors
explained the objectives of the Gwangju Migrant who went years without being paid. Both men came to
Workers’ Center. It is basically a shelter and the center for help. With the center’s assistance the two
counseling center,” he tells me. On average men went to court and won their overdue
there are 3-5 males who stay at the shelter at compensation.
any given time. Today, there are six people
housed there. Mr. Cho went on to say that there Mr. Cho says although some foreign workers typically
are about 250 migrant workers advised a year. lack professional skills, some come to Korea after
The center is not only a safe haven for those in working as computer engineers, pharmacists and civil
need of housing while injured or in between servants. Forced to take jobs that in their home
jobs, but also a Korean cultural and historical countries would be beneath them, they come seeking
education center, complete with computers and better wages. Often intimidated by the language and
televisions. A sports day and cultural trips are unaware of their rights, they languish in seemingly
often planned as well as Hangeul classes. dead-end situations before seeking solace at the
Church services are even held every Sunday at Center. Even trivial matters get swept under the table
the chapel downstairs from the center. While because workers can’t communicate effectively with
the Korean Labor Ministry introduced the their employers. Finally, migrant worker complaints
center to some, most workers find their way are often ignored by employers whose sole concern is
there through word of mouth. productivity at all costs.

“Despite the advances of the EPS system, the cycle of

abuse and mistreatment continues as thousands of
Voicing Complaints migrant workers find themselves at the mercy of
While at the center, I also met Agit from Sri Lanka employers and the authorities who mistreat them
whose left index finger had been chopped off while knowing their victims have few legal rights and are
working as a machine operator in a steel unable to access justice or seek compensation for the
manufacturing plant in October 2008. Although Mr. abuse,” said Ms. Rife of Amnesty International.
Cho explains Agit received compensation from the
Korean government for his injury, he has yet to receive
anything from his former employer since the company Seeking Reform
shut down. His case is still pending. You would think a labor union might be able to help,

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right? In theory, since migrant workers enjoy the same

rights as Koreans, they may bring their complaints to
labor unions, but, Mr. Cho tells me, “This process takes Gwangju Migrant Workers’ Center
too long, often more than five years which exceeds the
length of a typical migrant worker’s contract.”
Gwangju Migrant Workers’ Center, in Chomdan area,
serves to protect workers’ human rights, and help them
Mr. Cho agrees there is a tremendous need for reform. adapt to Korean life, realize the extensive and valuble
Even with the well-intentioned EPS, workers are still human rights, as well as strengthen the image of
locked into non-negotiable servitude for years. Most Gwangju as a human rights city, so that foreigers and
are forced to suck it up and stick it out, and have little Koreans can live in the global village community
recourse except to seek out help from small centers like together.
his around Korea. Mr. Cho tells me the government is
currently discussing the situation in response to Human rights: late or non-payment of wages, industrial
increased frustration and complaints by migrants and accident violence, homecoming, problems sending
others in the international community. money, problems with medical treatment etc. Help
foreign laborer solve the problems of living in Korea.
Furthermore, Mr. Cho acknowledges the need for Free medical treatment and Medical Benefit
multicultural understanding when it comes to working Association: free treatment for people who couldn’t find
with migrant workers. “We need to respect differences hospital easily, because of poor working condition,
and focus less on capitalistic concerns,” he says. Finally translation, money, time and so on. And foreign laborer,
he states, “We need to raise awareness about the who need treatment but don’t have medical insurance,
situation and make sure everyone understands the will be able to have the same discount with medical
plight of migrant workers.” insurance in the hospital and drugstore.
By Alva French
Korean Language and Computer Education: In order
to solve the problem of language and increase the
understanding of Korean culture, the center offers
Korean language classes and computer education.
Amnesty International calls on the
government of South Korea: Resting place: We provide a resting place for people
who suffered pain or hurt in working. Besides providing
! to ensure that employers respect, protect and room and board free, we help them recover soon.
promote the rights of migrant workers through
rigorous labour inspections so that the workplace is Visit Korean Family: Foreign laborer will be invited in
safe, training is provided and migrant workers are Korean family, to learn more about the culture and
paid fairly and on time; custom of Korean family and have a great time together.
Korean family can go to center directly for application.
! to protect and promote the rights of all female
migrant workers and stamp out sexual harassment Visit Korean Culture: In order to increase the
and sexual exploitation; understanding of Korea, you may visit Korean historic
! to allow irregular migrant workers to remain in sites.
South Korea while accessing justice and seeking
compensation for abuses by employees; Telephone: 062-971-0078
! to ensure that during immigration raids, Address: 816-11, Wolgye-dong, Gwangsan-gu
immigration authorities adhere to South Korean law Bus: 9, 16, 30, 39, 51, 91, 700 (get off Chomdan
requiring them to identify themselves, present a 2(i)dong Juminjachicenter bus stop)
warrant, caution and inform migrant workers of their Conversation hours: Monday-Thursday (9am.-6pm.)
Resting place: everyday
rights, and provide those under their custody prompt
Korean Language and Computer education: Sunday
medical treatment when needed or requested.
Free treatment: Sunday 2pm.-6pm.
(Emergency treatment: at ordinary times)
updates/report/migrant-workers-treated- Gwangju Migrant Workers’ Center

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