Saturday, 24 October 2009

South Korea's despicable treatment of migrant workers

On Wednesday, Amnesty International released a report entitled Disposable Labour: Rights of migrants workers in South Korea. In the report, Amnesty documented how migrant workers often work with heavy machinery and dangerous chemicals without sufficient training or protective equipment and are at greater risk of industrial accidents, including fatalities, and receive less pay compared to South Korean workers.

According to Asia-Pacific Deputy Programme Director Roseann Rife, "Migrant workers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation largely because they cannot change jobs without their employer’s permission. Work conditions are sometimes so bad that they run away and consequently, lose their regular status and are then subject to arrest and deportation."

The 98-page document tells of how, "with the implementation of the Employment Permit System (EPS) in August 2004, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) became one of the first Asian countries to legally recognise the rights of migrant workers." Despite this, "five years into the EPS work scheme, migrant workers in South Korea continue to be at risk of human rights abuses and many of the exploitative practices that existed under the previous Industrial Trainee System (ITS) still persist under the EPS."

It highlights a number of problems, from lower wages and having to pay broker fees, to a tie to their employers that amounts to contractual slavery and a lack of training that makes them more vulnerable to industrial accidents. Gender discrimination is also an issue, as "many [women] are sexually assaulted or harassed by the management or their co-workers." One example on offer is particularly shocking;
Under the entertainment work scheme, several female E-6 workers, recruited as singers in the US military camp towns, have been trafficked by their employers and managers and live in slavery-like conditions. Upon arrival in South Korea, they discover that their job in reality is to serve and solicit drinks from US soldiers and at some establishments they are forced to have sex with their clients. With little recourse available to them, trafficked E-6 workers either remain in their jobs or run away. Those who run away are doubly victimised, first as trafficked women and then as “illegal” migrants under South Korean law.
Brutal government crackdowns on "illegal" workers, many of whom have that status simply for fleeing slavery-like employment conditions, are condemned in the document. As is the fact that "migrant workers, in particular those with irregular status, are not free to form and join trade unions of their choice," with the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union (MTU) denied legal status by the Ministry of Labour and subject to victimisation by immigration officials.

In response to these findings, Amnesty International is calling on the South Korean government to;
  • ensure that employers respect, protect and promote the rights of migrant workers through rigorous labour inspections so that the workplace is safe, training is provided and migrant workers are paid fairly and on time;
  • protect and promote the rights of all female migrant workers and stamp out sexual harassment and sexual exploitation;
  • allow irregular migrant workers to remain in South Korea while accessing justice and seeking compensation for abuses by employees;
  • ensure that during immigration raids, immigration authorities adhere to South Korean law requiring them to identify themselves, present a warrant, caution and inform migrant workers of their rights, and provide those under their custody prompt medical treatment when needed or requested.
But that is not all that is needed. As Wol-san Liem, International Solidarity Coordinator for the MTU wrote over a year ago;
While it is clear that the situation of migrant workers in South Korea is particular to the country's history, legal system and society, it should also be clear that there are many parallels between the struggles of migrants here and those of migrant/immigrants in the United States and indeed all around the world. The phenomenon of migration cannot be separated from the process of globalization in which we are all engulfed. Like in most other countries, the response to this reality in South Korea is one of policing borders, illegalizing people and exploiting them as a cheap labor force. The tragic fire in Yeosu and the repression against migrant workers' organizing, then, should not be seen as merely South Korean problems. Rather, they are representative of the human rights and labor rights abuses against migrant workers everywhere. The struggle to win protection of these rights is a global struggle, to which international solidarity- collective sharing of information, strategizing and action- must become a greater part.
The migrant workers of South Korea need international solidarity. Moreover, the news that at least two workers have been sentenced to prison terms for taking part in the Ssongyang Occupation highlights the fact that natve South Korean workers are hardly in a better position. The time has come for the two groups to unite and to fight back.