Saturday, May 14, 2005

Crackdown Starts With Arrests of High Profile Migrants

I wrote a quick story on the latest arrests quickly last night, should be up somewhere soon. I've included a longer background to the migrant's rights movement that I had written a while ago.

South Korea Rounds Up Migrant Activists
May 14th 2005
By Jamie Doucette

In the last 48 hours, two of South Korea’s most high profile, undocumented migrant worker activists have been arrested. Anwar Hossain, head of the new Migrant’s Trade Union that was inaugurated last month, and Kabir Uddin, founder of the Equality Trade Union – Migrant’s Branch were both arrested by officers from the immigration control division.

Kabir, who was interviewed by ZNET in January 2004 (see interview), had been quietly working and hiding out in the south of the country to avoid immigration officials since his involvement in a high profile year-long sit-in that ended in November and which saw him personally targeted and singled out by immigration officials the police on numerous occasions. Kabir won a high profile human rights case for unlawful arrest back in 2002 and became, along with Mohammed Bidduth, the first migrant worker to beat a deportation order in South Korean history.

Meanwhile, Anwar, on the day he was arrested, had just been featured in a prominent national paper criticizing the government’s policy towards undocumented migrant workers.

“Migrant workers have been working in undesirable jobs commonly known as the 3 Ds ―difficult, dirty and dangerous ―for 17 years, yet our contribution to this country has gone unnoticed,” Anwar stated in an interview in Saturday’s Joong Ang Daily.

“It's quite hard to understand why we have to become illegal immigrants while the government here brings in new workers while forcing previous workers out of the country. We're only here because we want to make a living, and it is time that our voices are heard.”

Anwar announced in the interview that the Migrant Trade Union is planning to propose a bill to the National Assembly in August that aims to abolish the three year time limits on E-9 Employment Permits for migrant workers, and extend further health benefits and labour rights to them.

In Saturday’s article, Anwar was also quoted as saying that if authorities wanted to, they could deport him, and that, within hours, is exactly what they did.

Activists close to Anwar are also reporting that his hands, arms, and head were injured during the arrest that involved over 20 immigration officials and police.

The arrests of both these activists in the last 48 hours follows on the tails of the slated deportations of a number of other migrant activists–two Bangladeshi members of the ETU’s sit-in team by the names of Abu Bakar and Jewel were picked up earlier this month, as were two important Nepali activists named Jibon and Gagendra.

Members of the MTU and other migrant activists are meeting Sunday to discuss what action to take in lieu of the recent days’ events.

Currently activists can post solidarity messages on their website at

Background: Labour Migrants to Korea and the Migrant’s Rights Movement.

Mass labour migration began to pick up shortly after the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and from that period on it has increased steadily, declining only for a brief moment during the aftermath of the 1997 Asian monetary crisis, or IMF crisis as it is perhaps more appropriately called in Korea. Currently, South Korea is home to about 450,000 migrant workers, about 185,000 of which are undocumented. This large proportion of undocumented migrants in South Korea, and the lack of political space accorded to them, is largely the result of reluctance on behalf of employers and government lawmakers to formally recognize the rights of migrant workers and the issues they face.

South Korea’s policies towards labour migrants were hashed out in the years following the Seoul Olympics and in 1992 the Industrial Trainee System (ITS) was formally established. Under the ITS, workers were recruited overseas by a network of recruiting agencies assisted by the Korea Federation of Small and Mid-sized Businesses (KFSB for short) and entered the country to work as foreign trainees, not workers. Yet, in reality, these workers were performing jobs termed 3-D work -- work that is dirty, dangerous, and difficult – for a fraction of what local workers were paid. Thus there was a large incentive for these workers to become undocumented by seeking work elsewhere, in workplaces where they could earn considerably more.

Korea’s small and mid-sized businesses welcomed these workers with open arms. After years of successful export led growth, the Korean working class was seeking better jobs and higher wages, and these sectors had taken a hit. For those companies who couldn’t export their operations overseas or improve the productivity of their manufacturing process through technological investment, migrants were seen as a cheap, renewable source of labour.

As Timothy Lim mentions, despite constant defections from the trainee system by migrant workers, reaching as high as 60% of trainees per year, the system was not reformed but expanded. And Lim argues that in this respect the South Korean government and KFSB encouraged – or even planned – the growth of undocumented immigration in South Korea. Lim writes that:

This should not be surprising, for the ability to criminalize immigrant labour serves a very useful purpose. Illegal immigrants ipso facto have little or no claim to protection under Korean laws, to compensation for accidents, or to other basic rights. As illegals, moreover, it is easier for employers, the government and society to ignore, or better still, to justify their subordination and exploitation. It is also easier, at least in principle, to deport such workers when the need arises (17).[1]

Therefore, as the Trainee system continued to expand, so did the number of undocumented workers, to the point that they became the clear majority of the migrant population by the late nineties.

The government did little to remedy the situation except offer legal amnesties to workers who volunteered to register themselves and leave within a year, and these offers were usually followed by periods of deportation and crackdowns against the rest. Thus year-by-year, though the documented or undocumented status of individual migrant workers would change slightly, the basic system stayed in place.

Movement Emerges

As the nineties progressed, a migrant’s rights movement began to form that aimed at getting the government to recognize migrant’s rights and change state policy. A number of NGO’s, church groups, and labour activists banded together to form an umbrella organization, the Joint Committee for Migrants in Korea, and used their ties to local social movements and contacts within the South Korean government to advocate on behalf of migrant workers. The result was that, by 1998, these groups had won a number of legal victories for undocumented migrant workers and trainees, including, in precedent at least, protection of their contracts and severance pay, compensation for workplace accidents, and inclusion under the Labour Standards Act (Lim, 2002). In practice, however, these victories were seldom enforced. Migrants whom were injured, or spoke up to their employers were frequently deported or sent back to their countries. Therefore, the JCMK and other migrant groups increasingly singled out the Trainee System itself as the single major cause of injustice against migrant workers.

By 1999, a new trajectory emerged within the migrant’s movement itself. Migrants within the JCMK began to feel that if migrants were going to win broader rights and better working conditions, migrants would have to begin to organize themselves both in the workplace and at the policy table. In 1999, a group of migrants from the JCMK began to form their own group with the support of labour activists from South Korea’s democratic trade union movement. In 2001 they officially formed the Equality Trade Union-Migrant’s Branch, perhaps the only union anywhere consisting mostly of undocumented migrant workers. Espousing an organizing model that could be called social unionism or direct-action casework, their tactics included a mix a protest, counseling, and workplace action.

The ETU-MB represented a very public question, and that is whether or not there is a political space for the undocumented in South Korean society and politics. The answer to this question depends on official policy, of course, but also on the potential for migrants to organize themselves and the solidarity they receive from local social movements. To date the labor and civil society movements have supported many migrant-led initiatives from unions to television broadcasts. At the local level of the municipality there is a lot of support for migrant workers and efforts to integrate them into their local communities. There have also been efforts to secure migrants access to health care from local hospitals and to legal services by progressive lawyers. Yet at the level of government, the attitude is more ambivalent. Although steps have been made to see that migrant’s contracts are respected and workplace accidents compensated, undocumented migrants whom try to play a public, political role are almost always excluded.

The ETU-MB took the trainee system to task right away, and in a very public way, conducting large rallies of thousands of undocumented workers through downtown Seoul, and pressuring the government to follow through with introducing a proper work-permit system, which it finally did in July 2003 when it passed the bill for a 3-year Employment Permit System (EPS).

The EPS was certainly a step up from the Trainee system, including provisions that granted migrant workers access to health insurance, and formal protection under the Labour Standards Act. However, it was unevenly implemented and had several flaws that migrant’s groups were quick to point out. First, the EPS was only valid for three years, and migrants’ groups claimed that this would not be long enough for workers to save up and pay back the onerous debts they occurred to get to Korea while also provide for their families back home. Thus, at the end of three years, migrants under the EPS would most likely be encouraged to overstay. Second, migrants had to have their contracts renewed yearly by their employers and could not change workplaces, thus limiting their ability to collectively organize or leave an abusive workplace. Finally, the EPS was only extended to workers whom had been residing in Korea for less than four years, and this was seen by the migrant’s rights movement as the biggest betrayal. The workers whom been in the country the longest, who were more likely to have good relations with their employers, speak Korean, and feel a sense of belonging to the communities where they lived and worked were to be excluded.

Upon it’s introduction, Labour minister Kwang Ki-hong expressed himself that one of the purposes behind the bill was to limit the permanent settlement of migrant workers in South Korea, so it makes sense, in some ways, that workers with the strongest sense of belonging would be targeted, and, of course, this is exactly what happened.[2] After passing of the EPS bill, the government announced it largest crackdown effort to date, to begin on November 16th 2003, and targeting some 150,000 undocumented workers, including the majority of politicized migrant activists who had fought for the EPS.

The crackdown proceeded at a brutal pace. In the first two months of crackdown over 30,000 migrants left voluntarily while the government detained and deported over 10,000, at least ten more committed suicide. This was an unnecessarily violent process. A veritable state of exception was decreed around migrant’s rights, and this included the refusal of due process, indefinite detention and deportation, and physical assault by police and immigration officials on protests and rallies. As substantial as the number of deportations the crackdown had dual purpose and that was to also silence those migrant workers that were not scared into leaving. In an interview with the Korea Times during this period, Lim Chae Lim, an immigration official with Immigration Control Division of the Ministry of Justice stated:

The intention of the roundup is not to deport every undocumented migrant worker in the country but to give a warning to the rest. Even if we are successful in rounding up only some 10,000 (undocumented foreign workers), it will certainly give a warning to the remaining 110,000.

What was also unique about the crackdown and which confirms my argument about the government trying to silence workers was that it occurred, overwhelmingly, in public space. Though workplaces were periodically targeted, sting operations were carried out predominantly in the places where migrants congregate, denying migrant’s to what geographer Don Mitchell call’s the right to the city -- the right to be seen and heard in public space, to exist in public space in the barest possible sense-- confining them, instead, to the industrial estate areas where they work. The only public space migrants have safely occupied in South Korea is church sanctuary. Though many groups have tried to remedy the fact, participation in all other spaces brings with it the threat of danger, whether in the form of racialized harassment from employers, or the threats of immigration manhunt and police repression.

In response to the crackdown, the ETU-MB and the JCMK began nationwide a sit-in on November 15th 2003. The largest and most visible of which was the ETU-MB’s sit-in in front of Downtown Seoul’s MyeongDong Cathedral, a historical site of refuge for dissidents in South Korea. Over the first four months of this struggle from late October 2003 to late February 2004, the ETU-MB lost several of its key organizers to the immigration department but managed to keep up the sit-in for over a year until it ended last November. Currently, the number of undocumented migrants continues to rise, but for these migrants, the situation is far worse than before as the manhunt goes on and wages decline due to the increased desperation and precariousness of the situation for undocumented workers.

Jamie Doucette lives and writes from Vancouver, British Columbia. He helps maintain a blog on Korean social movements at

[1] Timothy Lim. The Changing Face of South Korea: The Emergence of Korea as a “Land of Immigration.” The Korea Society Quarterly, 16, Summer/Fall 2002.
[2] In an April 3, 2003 press conference, Labor minister Kwon Ki-hong mention that one of the purposes behind the implementation of the EPS was to keep foreign workers permanent settlement to a minimum. See


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