Struggling for human rights in South Korea

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Up to two-thirds of the migrant workers in Korea are considered illegal — people without papers. They have to contend with low wages, discrimination and the constant threat of deportation.

Life isn't easy for the 400,000 migrant workers who do the 3-D — dirty, difficult and dangerous — work for South Korea's small to mid-size enterprises. They have to contend with low wages, discrimination and the constant threat of deportation, not to mention to loneliness of being separated from their families back home. With the government's new Employment Permit System (EPS), life isn't getting any easier.

Up to two-thirds or close to 300,000 of the migrant workers in Korea are considered illegal — people without papers. Most were recruited overseas by Korean companies and entered the country as industrial trainees under the old Industrial Trainee System (ITS) that the EPS replaces. The trainee system worked through an elaborate system of recruiters that charge exorbitant fees to book the passage to Korea. Typically, this can be up to US$10,000 and workers work up to three years to pay back this loan.

They quickly find that the ITS is just a scheme for their employers to pay them substandard wages (US$400 per month or less) for extremely long hours, often withholding payment, passports and medical insurance, or charging huge sums of money for room and board. Predictably, these “trainees” often flee to greener pastures and seek work in other small to mid-size factories that are experiencing the brunt of Korea's labour shortage. Here they are paid double the amount afforded under the trainee system and have selectively better conditions than under ITS.

In the last two years, illegal workers and trainees have banded together to protest the dehumanizing conditions they face under the government's ITS regime. The Equality Trade Union – Migrants Branch (ETU-MB) has been at the forefront of this struggle and as a result, its members have been politically targeted by the government for deportation.

After a series of large demonstrations for working visas, labour rights and health insurance by migrant workers in the spring of 2002, the government drafted the first EPS, a one-year work permit for illegal stayers, and at the same time announced a crackdown on all illegal workers. The government crackdown started last September with the arrest of two of the ETU's central organizers, Kabbir Uddin and Mohammed Bidduth. In a remarkable twist of fate they were able to prevent their deportations through a human rights claim in court. With an upcoming election and wide public pressure from trade unions, civil society and international solidarity, the government eased off on its crackdown and re-modeled the EPS.

The new EPS that came into effect at the end of July restricts workers to factories that sponsor them for a period of up to three years, but no further, at which time they must leave the country, hardly enough time to pay back the loans they incurred to get to Korea. It also denies migrant workers the right to strike or take collective action which is protected under Korea's Labour Standards Act, an act intended to cover all workers in Korea regardless of origin. Most importantly, the EPS does not apply to the migrant workers currently residing in Korea illegally (most of whom have been there for 5-10 years since the beginning of the labour shortage and are well-trained, Korean-speaking workers accustomed to the Korean labour market) or under the trainee systems. In short, it applies to newcomers only.

The government has once again threatened to deport the remaining “illegal stayers,” prompting protest by not only the workers themselves but by their employers, the Korean Federation of Small Businesses (KFSB). In opposition to the EPS, the ETU-MB is calling for a Work Permit System (WPS) that is in accordance with International Labour Organization standards and that is valid for at least five years, reducing overstaying by allowing migrant workers time to pay back their debts and save for their future. Furthermore, the WPS could be given to workers who are currently overstaying as amnesty. “We don't want to see any more cases of human rights abuses or discrimination and crackdowns against innocent migrant workers who are working for their families' survival,” states the ETU-MB's Kabbir Uddin.

This year's crackdown is expected to be more severe than last year's. The government has announced that it aims to deport 200,000 workers. The ETU-MB has responded by a call for international support to pressure the Korean government to recognize their rights as workers and as people, including protests at Korean consulates and embassies worldwide.

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