Unskilled migrant workers: South Korea’s invisible minority?

Sunday 26 October 2014

Date: 20 October 2014

Source:Deutsche Welle

Type: News

Keywords:Migrant workers

Titled "Bitter Harvest" and based on interviews with 28 migrant workers in South Korea’s farming industry, the Amnesty International report examines a range of issues including incidents of contractual deception, intimidation, trafficking, violence, squalid accommodation, excessive working hours with no weekly rest days and unpaid overtime.

The document, released on October 20, found that on average the interviewees worked more than 10 hours a day, 28 days a month, which was usually 50 hours more per month than stated in their contracts. The rights group argues that South Korea’s 10-year-old Employment Permit System (EPS) - a government-run work scheme designed to provide migrant labor to small and medium-sized enterprises - "directly contributes to human and labor rights violations by severely restricting migrant workers’ ability to change jobs and challenge abusive practices by employers."

In a DW interview, Daniel Corks, research fellow at the Korea Human Rights Foundation, explains that this issue still doesn’t seem register in the Korean social consciousness, and says that considering general labor conditions in South Korea, combined with the power that employers have over migrant laborers under the law and the fact that there are very strong racial prejudices against South and Southeast Asians, a situation in which even more severe abuse and mistreatment are commonplace is all but guaranteed.

DW: There are approximately 20,000 migrant agricultural workers in South Korea, with many arriving from Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam under the EPS. What attracts these workers to the South Korea job market?

Daniel Corks: Korea’s foreign population stands at roughly 1.5 million - around three percent of the total population. Ever since Korea emerged on the world stage as a rich, developed country, immigration to Korea has rapidly increased. The majority of those immigrating to Korea are coming from developing or undeveloped countries in Asia, primarily Southeast Asia, in search of a higher quality of life and better economic opportunities than those in their home countries.

At the same time, Koreans entering the job market are very reluctant to take unskilled labor positions, preferring white collar jobs, and leaving rural areas in huge numbers in favor of large cities. The manufacturing and agriculture industries in the country are large, and the absence of a local labor force is what has led the government to encourage immigration to fill these positions.

The AI report states that some migrant workers in the farming sector have to deal with intimidation, contractual deception, squalid accommodations, and sometimes even violence. What is your view on this?

AI published two other reports about this same issue, one in 2006 and one in 2009, and the UN has repeatedly issued recommendations for revisions to the country’s labor laws to improve working conditions. This tells us much about the current situation, but there has been very little internal reporting about this by the government or local NGOs and solid information such as statistics is hard to come by.

The report also states that the Employment Permit System (EPS) is heavily loaded in favor of employers, leaving migrants trapped and vulnerable to abuse. What exactly is the role of the EPS?

The EPS was created in 2004 with the purpose of dealing with the increasing number of unskilled laborers coming to South Korea. The system had many goals, one of which was to create a standardized system through which job seekers could apply to work in Korea, with the EPS acting as an intermediary of sorts between South Korean companies and potential workers.

Prior to the establishment of this system, communication between employers and employees was very difficult, and smaller employers did not have the resources to deal with the bureaucracy of hiring foreign workers, let alone recruit them. There were also many instances of brokers taking advantage of this situation to charge unreasonable fees to set people up with work in Korea.

In that regard, the EPS would have to be seen as a success as it handles nearly all of the unskilled labour migrants coming to Korea, including running offices overseas to field applications and do Korean language proficiency testing in the applicant’s home countries. The system is now very standardized and streamlined.

But why is the system so controversial?

In terms of problems with the EPS system itself, the AI report appears to be completely accurate. The EPS ties employees to their employers, restricts the number of time workers can change jobs and disallows agricultural workers from seeking jobs in other sectors in the off-season. In addition to this, there is the fact that under the Labor Standards Act the agriculture industry is exempt from providing basic benefits such as paid holidays.

What sort of exploitation do these workers undergo in South Korea?

Personal stories of verbal or physical abuse are harder to come by. However, similar, but less extreme versions of most of the examples cited in the AI report can be found across South Korean society, regardless of whether or not the employees are migrants.

For instance, excessive working hours, including evening overtime, weekend overtime and even work on holidays are common in the Korean labor market - from convenience store employees to well-paid white-collar workers. It’s often complained about by South Koreans, but the culture of being "married to one’s work" is still deeply entrenched.

Also, verbal abuse is a common way for a superior to express dissatisfaction with a subordinate, even for minor issues. This is found in all sectors, and even in the education system. Corporal punishment bordering on abuse is not hard to find in schools and in the military.

Even some foreign professionals, such as language teachers on E-2 visas, have their visa tied to one employer, meaning that quitting that job results in the visa being immediately canceled, though this almost never results in arrests.

However, I do not doubt the AI report’s claim that arrests are common with those on the EPS system. Considering this background of general labor conditions in South Korea, combined with the power that employers have over migrant laborers under Korean law and the fact that there are very strong racial prejudices against South and Southeast Asians, a situation in which even more severe abuse and mistreatment are commonplace is all but guaranteed.

What is the South Korean government doing about this situation?

From what I can tell, nothing. This issue does not register at all in the Korean social consciousness or in Korean politics, and in my six years in the country I’ve seen it mentioned in newspapers only a handful of times.

This population of unskilled laborers are very much an invisible minority here. The only time this population is mentioned is when a crime is committed by someone in this community, or to say that areas where large numbers of South Asians or Southeast Asians live are dangerous and should be avoided.

South Korea’s foreign population was only around 630,000 - around 1 percent of the total population back in 2002 - and Korean society is still adjusting to the fact that the racial make-up of the country is changing. It will likely be a long time before Korean society at large accepts that modern South Korea is racially different from the past and that the plight of non-Koreans can no longer be ignored.

Politically, the government has been reluctant to make the changes to its policies that were suggested by the UN and the government has been ignoring this issue for years, as the report details. Without a strong call for action from the Korean public, I can’t imagine there being any significant changes.

Daniel Corks is research fellow at the Seoul-based Korea Human Rights Foundation (KHRF). He is also managing editor of the South Korean Human Rights Monitor, a human rights portal supported by the KHRF.

See online : Deutsche Welle

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