Tuesday, June 28, 2005

One Love, Two Koreas?

This article in the Asia Times is quite interesting. Seems that a South Korean and North Korean worker plan to marry. The couple work in Kaesong, North Korea -- Kaesong is a city on the border of South and North Korea where there are currently some development projects going on such as a new electronics factory and other businesses operated by South Korean companies -- and its possible that maybe that more relationships like this will develop as the two countries create more ties. Also on NK is this article on the appearance of new restaurants in Pyongyang by John Feffer. Maybe it will be frequented by workers in these new factories. I guess the question many have had for a while is if this new South/North economic zone is going to work. It seems that it may indeed take off, perhaps putting NK on a trajectory similar to China's, but its way too early to really tell...

Minjung debates

There has been a bit of discussion over our last article, The New Minjung posted below, so I've decided to collect the comments and publish them here as a seperate posting for easier reading and to perhaps give a chance for our other readers to join in. Just click on the view full posting button and all will be revealed, but I suggest reading the original article first.

kotaji said...
Enjoyed the article a lot. The linking of the minjung movement with the contemporary migrant workers' movement is interesting. Although you have to be careful, I think, not to give the impression that the struggles of Korean workers are over and they're all now living the life of Riley (it would clearly be wrong to give this impression about Britain or Canada too). Obviously, though, some sites of struggle are more acute or urgent than others.

Although I haven't looked at the history of the minjung movement closely, I have seen 'minjungism' from the perspective of Korean historiography. To me it represents an attempt to 'fudge' class relations that comes from a number of factors. Perhaps the most obvious are the influence of Stalinism on the Korean left and the perceived need to form a popular front against the military dictatorships; the strong nationalist tinge to the Korean left, dating back to the colonial period and reinforced by division; and the relatively large peasantry. All this led to the creation of an amorphous social category - not a social class in the sense of a Marxist analytical category, but rather an ideological concept that could be used in opposition to the ruling class's 'minjok'. I know that's a bit of a dry theoretical view - there's much more to it than that - minjung theology etc. One interesting thing I do know is that one of the originators of the concept was the anarchist Sin Ch'ae-ho (there's something on this in the book 'Colonial Modernity in Korea').

I must admit that contemporary Korea is not my area of research at all. Hence the need to blog about it really. My 'real' work is on 19th century Korean economic history.

I wonder if you're familiar with Kevin Gray's research? He's at Newcastle University and he's working on migrant workers' unions and the Korean labour movement in general. He made a very interesting presentation at the recent Korean Studies conference we held at SOAS.

3:56 AM
Antti Leppänen said...
I enjoyed the article as well. It surely makes sense to apply minjung to the emerging migrant workers' movement and consciousness. For I've always seen the consciousness of one's position in history and potentiality for change as the defining characteristic of minjung, as opposed to seomin, the term for "people" that I've been dealing with more in my own research (on keepers of small businesses in a Seoul neighborhood) and which I also discuss in it at length and compare the two concepts a bit. Partly also due to the sphere of my own interest in Korea, I've for a longer time been of the opinion that the importance of minjung (as a concept) has been a bit overemphasized, and especially now it doesn't have the power it once had in certain circles. Actually, Kim Dae-jung who's been said to have used the minjung rhetoric earlier in his political career is I think mainly responsible for the current popularity of seomin as a political term...
(I just read an entry at the Jinbonuri board which told that books with minjung in its title were strictly censored by jail authorities in the 1980s while "philosophy" (ch'ôrhak) books with a much more subversive contents easily passed.)

By the way, it makes an interesting case to compare the Korean minjung to the same word in Japan (minchô); the social and political connotations of the word are similar, and its relation to the "sister concept" of sômin (Jap. shomin) as well – not surprising in the light of the Korean contemporary history. I've seen only English-language work on that though, Monumentalizing the Everyday: The Edo-Tokyo Museum by Jordan Sand in Critical Asian Studies 33:3 (2001). (I have it as pdf, in case.)

4:58 AM
Jamie said...

I agree with Kotaji in exercising caution in what one considers to be minjung or not. Hagen Koo considers it something as a proto-class identity used to unite disparate segments faciing similar oppressions during the military period and this kind of works because, in my view, legally speaking, these groups did form something of 'multitude' or a coherent groups of disparate actors in that they were excluded from proper legal recourse and where often easily killed or injured by the authorities in an anonymous kind of way. Beyond that, and after the military period, I think that more class specific language and identities as well as the language of rights and citizenship (simin) has replaced it as a better understanding of oppression, nonetheless when I think of the plight of irregular workers, migrant workers, sex workers, and other marginalized people, the minjung comparision still seems to unite them in that they are often excluded from both rights as labourers or citizens.

Coincidentally, what I find in some interpretations of the minjung, and I may be going out on shaky ground here, is something similar to Giogio Agamben's Homo Sacer -- a difficult but usefull notion. Homo Sacer is a form of 'bare life' basically a living thing that can be 'killed but not murdered' as there ceases to be a form of taboo or law prohibiting it. Homo Sacer is 'sacred' in the sense of being simultaeniously outside and inside the law in the form of being an exception to the law. Agamben uses this for his own purposes to advance some thoughts on modern sovereign power but I won't go into that except to say that this 'sacredness' of homo sacer confuses some of our everyday associations with the word sacred. In my essay I actually get it wrong when I say that migrants and the minjung took refuge in the church because they ceased to be 'sacred' but what I really should have said was that they took refuge because they were 'sacred' in the sense of being easily subjected to arbitrary force without any form of recourse to the law. Sacred in that they were given over to be able to be sacrificed, killed but not murdered in the sense of it being a legal act of murder.

Agamben uses the concept with examples from the holocaust to contemporary brain death (the schiavo case may be a good example here), as a similar legal form of exception -- deciding what is bare life and what isn't -- governs them both. This may raise some eyebrows here, but the same form of exception could be expanded to our understandings of any kind of life, from fetuses to kidneys, to animals, in that there is a threshold where force against them as a form of life is prohibitied or subject to conditions and where these forms of life are made political in terms of being subject to rights with a threshold established where force is allowed without the threat someone being charged with a violation. This exception has operated in the law and is a defining feature of sovereignty, who or what has rights and what doesn't ---the really 'political' aspect of it though is a what point the threshold is drawn, to mark a living, thinking, breathing being as bare life instead of a subject of rights is what really is at stake here when we look at victims of massacre, war, and overwhelming oppression. The fact that due to racism, xenophobia, or otherwise, in history someone can kill a whole person and not think of it as a 'person' in the sense of a murder but as bare life in the sense of the removal of a kidney or a toenail is, well, freaky. Nonetheless, in the case of brain death, abortion, assisted suicide, some form of exception is considered legitimate, but the threshold of which the exception is applied is something that still causes a great deal of controversy and rightfully so.

The only example of this idea of homo sacer being applied to Korean history that I know is by Sonia Ryang when she describes the murder of Koreans after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in Japan where some 10,000 koreans where killed afterwords by the police and other citizens, and she gets into some grisely comparisions in the manner that this happened as compared to the 5000 leftists that were actually 'murdered,' not simply killed as were the Koreans. I can't do the article justice here, so you look for it for further reference. Nonetheless, it may be the case that the Korean Paekjeong (outcastes) faced similar conditions as outsiders in Korean history, and some of the minjung at various moments in Korean history as well.

For me, there are some correspondences that make migrants and the minjung almost like the homo sacer's in that they have no labor or civil rights, and it is very easy for them be abused, exploited, and sometimes killed without it appearing as such, they are kind of de facto homo sacer's but maybe not complete ones, so I may be guilty of exaggerating a bit, in that I don’t think that the above description of homo sacer can completely double with minjung, but definitely the fear and anxiety of an utterly nameless death, of becoming homo sacer, is a factor that seems to unite various descriptions of the minjung throughout Korean history, coupled, of course, with an understanding of the physical toil and oppression from overwork and other pressures of external force. This description of the minjung, once again, is very general, and I think that is why is has had so much currency in those periods when indeed these conditions approached the general experience of the popular masses: backwards from Kwangju, to the Yushin period of rapid industrialization, division, occupation, Dong Hak, and back even further if you consult some of the historical scholary sources.

1:18 PM
Jamie said...
Oh, kotaji, I've seen some of Kevin Gray's work online, well just one paper on social unionism. I didn't know he was working on something about migrant worker's unions. Definitely someone to check out some more.

Oh, as for influence of stalinism and popular fronts. I'd say that that minjungism predates stalinism and other forms of class understanding as an indeginous understanding of oppression and I still agree with Koo's analysis that it helped form some early understanding of class oppression by industrial workers and became an influential part of protest culture and tactics, however, its use as a protest tactic, especially in the eighties and even now if you think of the ubiquitous use peasant dance at rallies and demos, was certainly selected as a strategic tool by activists informed by a variety of political perspectives, from NL and PD (and they variant forms of marxism, marxist leninism, and maybe an occasional quasi-stalinism) to forms of populism, neo-populism, rightist anti-imperialism and so on...

Thus, building on Antti's comment, the overemphasization of the category of the minjung may also be due to the influence of some of these perspectives in ways that may be a little out of date... who knows?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The New Minjung?

Here's something I just wrote for Korean Quarterly and which paints a more general picture of migrant rights in South Korea. It should be out next week in a better-edited version, but only in print I think.

Migrant Workers in South Korea: The New Minjung?
By Jamie Doucette

The Korean word minjung translates roughly into English as ‘the people’ or ‘masses.’ By adding a simple suffix (-chok), minjung also becomes the adjectives ‘popular’ or ‘democratic.’ In the phrase minjung undong, minjung retains both senses and means ‘popular’ or ‘peoples movement’ and has two common usages: as descriptive phrase for a popular social movement; and the proper name of a particular social movement that began in the 1970s and continued to the democratic uprising of June 1987.

For the movement that carried its name, the word minjung represented people as both the victims and agents of history. The minjung were the broad, popular masses who bore the brunt of rapid industrialization but remained excluded from its material benefits. Like the dwarf in Cho Se-hui’s celebrated novella A Dwarf Launches a Metal Ball, they were stunted by poverty, toil, and lack of civil rights but had the potential for heroic acts if only they could be recognized.

To be of the minjung was to wear a mark of exclusion. At times, the minjung would experience a culmination of feelings of han or resentment at their situation and speak out in whatever ways possible, ranging from the self-immolation of Jun Tae-Il in 1971 that kicked off the democratic trade union movement, to the democracy protests in June 1987 that brought down the dictatorship. Protests and demonstrations such as these were called hanpuli, outpourings of han, and helped form the mythology of the minjung movement.

Though Korean citizens now enjoy a broad range of civil, political, and labor rights and improved standards of living, I’d like to argue that the collective suffering that once defined the life of the minjung today seems to shape the lives of a new group of people in contemporary South Korea. These people are the undocumented foreign workers who now toil in those jobs done by the minjung of the past, in the 3-D (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) industries where, like the minjung, their toil seems endless and their struggles often go unrecognized.

Foreign labor in South Korea

Foreign labor is a relatively new import in South Korean, emerging shortly after the Seoul Olympics of 1988 and formally inaugerated with government’s Industrial Trainee System (ITS) established in 1992. Under the ITS, migrant workers were recruited overseas by a network of recruiting agencies assisted by the Korea Federation of Small and Mid-sized Businesses (KFSB) and entered the country to work as foreign trainees. Though not recognized as workers, these ‘trainees’ performed 3-D jobs under the ITS for only a fraction of what local workers were paid.

Many ‘trainees’ left their designated workplaces and began working illegally as undocumented workers in other factories, where, because of the demand, they could earn higher wages for the same work they did for ‘trainees’ rates. Many local workers were unwilling to perform these jobs and some had coined the term 3-D disease (3-D byeon) to describe the burden of overwork and stress they often suffered in these sectors. Thus, employers welcomed undocumented workers fleeing the trainee system with open arms.

Despite a runaway rate that reached as high as 60% of trainees per year, however, the trainee system was not reformed as one would expect but expanded to bring more and more workers into the country. Likewise, undocumented workers increased and soon became the clear majority of the migrant population while employers and government lawmakers remained reluctant to formally recognize their rights and the issues they faced.

Workplace accidents are common in 3-D jobs, and undocumented foreign workers in these sectors frequently suffered accidents for which they were rarely compensated. Whether or not workers were trainees, undocumented workers, or women trafiked into the country under the E-6 entertainer visa program, they had little recourse to the law because in all cases they were not considered to be legal ‘workers’ for the tasks which they were nevertheless performing.

By 1998, a number of NGO’s, church groups, and labor activists had banded together to form an umbrella organization, the Joint Committee for Migrants in Korea (JCMK), to advocate on behalf of migrant workers. These groups, and, later, other migrant groups such as the Equality Trade Union Migrant’s Branch (ETU-MB), pressured the government to introduce 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 bill was certainly a improvement from the trainee system, including provisions that granted migrant workers access to health insurance, minimum wage and formal protection under the Labor Standards Act for a period of three years. However, it was only offered to those workers whom had been residing in Korea for less than four years in order to discourage permanent settlements of migrant workers in the country.

The migrant’s rights movement saw this as the biggest betrayal. Half of the existing migrant population at the time was left without a deal and with no choice but to remain illegal if they hoped to remain in the country in order to work and save up money to send to their families back home or to repay the onerous recruitment costs that were associated with their induction into the trainee system to begin with. These were 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.

Crackdown and protest

After passing the EPS bill, the government announced its largest crackdown effort to date, which began on November 16th 2003 and has continued on periodically since then. The original crackdown targeted some 150,000 undocumented workers, and in its first two months over 40,000 migrants either left voluntarily or were deported; at least nine migrants committed suicide in the first two weeks alone.

The crackdown was an unnecessarily violent process including physical assault by police and immigration officials on protests and rallies by migrants and raids on the public spaces where migrants often congregate in their host communities, provoking public outrage at the government’s heavy handed measures. Prominent migrant organizars -- Kabir Uddin, Samar Thapa, Anwar Hussain -- who established the Equality Trade Union and the Migrant’s Trade Union have all also been deported as the crackdown has continued into recent months.

During the recent crackdown, indefinite detention also became a serious issue for undocumented workers. Migrants are held in a jail or detention center before they are deported, and if they cannot raise enough money for a ticket home they are frequently held even longer. Migrants often languish in these jails waiting for employers to pay wages owed to them or for their friends and family to raise enough money to send them home.

In addition to garnering human rights complaints, the government’s crackdown was also largely ineffective in controlling the number of undocumented migrant workers, which has continued to increase over time -- today there are estimated to be some 200,000 undocumented workers in Korea. The increase in these numbers is largely due to constraints within the EPS bill that make it difficult for workers to renew their visas or change workplaces.

The new minjung?

In response to the November 2003 crackdown, the migrants’ rights movement began a nationwide sit-in on November 15th 2003. The longest (380 days) and most visible of which was the Equality Trade Union’s sit-in in front of downtown Seoul’s MyeongDong Cathedral, a historical site of refuge for dissidents in South Korea, and, coincidentally, a key site for the minjung movement of the eighties.

As an observer, this protest is what made me, personally, start to think about the comparision between the historic meaning of the minjung and today’s migrant workers. I have to admit that at first glance it seemed slighty ill-fitting as, historically, the minjung movement remained within the confines of Korean national identity, but gradually I warmed up to the comparision as I began to learn more about the minjung movment and its own particular understanding of poverty and oppression.

For example, in his famous poem Letter to the Tuman River, Ko Un directs his resentment at the national division of the country between North and South, as a contributing factor to the anonymous suffering of the minjung:

My sister dear, one hundred times dear, ever dear sister, suppose that you die up there one day and I down here? But that’s our people’s life, age after age, that kind of hidden, nameless death.

The feelings expressed here, though used for nationalist purposes, are largely concerned with fears and frustrations of anonymous suffering, of being a victim of violence and oppression without recognition or redress. Similar emotions are mobilized by Choe Se Hui in his novella A Dwarf Launches a Metal Ball to describe the sufferings of one family during the period of military dictatorship and rapid industrialization in the seventies.

Those who dwell in heaven have no occasion to concern themselves with hell. But since the five of us lived in the hell, we dreamed of heaven: not a day passed without thoughts of heaven. Each and every day was an ordeal. Our life was like a war. Everyday we lost the battle.

These feelings of abandonment and anonymous suffering experienced by the minjung explain, in part, the selection of church sanctuary as a key site of engagement by both the minjung movment and contemporary migrant workers. Church sanctuary was the last site where they felt they could be defended as human beings. Their own lives had ceased to remain ‘sacred’ in the sense of a protection from harm and they felt that somehow the taboo against violating church sanctuary would protect them instead.

Better days to come?

My comparision between the migrant and the minjung is not meant to be absolute, but I think it is important to make the point that there is something particular in the minjung understanding of suffering that resonates with the way migrant workers are treated and I hope that this similar history or sensibility can be useful in forging a common basis for solidarity between Koreans and migrant workers. Just as the outpourings of han by the minjung brought down the military dictatorship, it is possible that the protests of Korean citizens and migrants themselves will change Korean policies toward undocumented workers.

There several reasons why I’m optomistic that this may be so. The first is that in recent years, the government has been more willing than in the past to respond progressively to the public protest it has garnered over the plight of migrant workers. The 200,000 or so migrants who are, temporarily, protected under the EPS have a handful of significant rights that allow them some access to the law, minumum wage, health insurance, and employment benefits. Migrant workers under the EPS experience oppression in many ways, such as long-term exclusion from settlement in Korea and everyday forms of cultural stigmatization and/or discrimination, but these workers do not share a similar fate as the minjung or undocument migrants for the time that their status is valid. For undocumented workers, however, their fate remains similar to the minjung in as much as they lack civil rights, are subject to the arbitrary excesses of the immigration police, and toil anonymously in their workplaces without legal recourse for abuses when they do occur.

Yet even for undocumented workers, there are a number of recent initiatives that look promising. Progressive lawmakers have been trying to introduce legislation that would see all migrants have access to a minimum level of health insurance regardless of their status. Other lawmakers are fighting for better recognition of undocumented workers’ civil rights so that if they do make a complaint to government institutions they will not be immediately deported or indefinitely detained while awaiting recourse; however, progress on these issues has been painstakingly slow.

In the absence of national policies recognizing the rights of undocumented residents, city and regional governments are increasingly trying to play a role. Many communities where migrants live and work have begun to organize cultural festivals aimed at fostering better integration of foreign workers into their communities. These festivals have gotten bigger over the years and on June 5th, 2005, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism held the largest to date, the “Migrants’ Arirang” at Seoul Plaza, in front of City Hall. Other alternatives to national policy have included doctors, lawyers, and educators devising their own ad hoc initiatives aimed at serving and integrating the undocumented into public institutions and host communities.

In conclusion, it seems that whether or not my comparison of undocumented workers with the minjung will continue to resonate in the future depends very much on whether these developments succeed or fail. As Korea continues to require foreign workers for its economy, the plight of undocumented migrant workers is bound to continue unless steps are taken to recognize their human rights. Only then will it be able to begin to tackle the other issues that are bound to arise with the sustained use of migrant labour, such as pressures for permanent settlement and the demand for citizenship. If these issues are not dealt with, feelings of han, or resentment, are bound to be left to accumulate, and to burst forth as protest and displays of hanpuli, seeking to restore to the anonymous victim of suffering the justice which they have been denied.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Tragic death of a union leader

I'm sure some of you have heard by now about the death of Kim Tae-wan, head of the Chungju branch of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU). He was run over this week while he and other labor activists were trying to block trucks that were being driven by replacement drivers at Sajo Remicon, a cement company where truck drivers have been on strike for a collective bargaining agreement and representation under the labour standards act. Cement truck drivers are considered self-employed small businesses and thus labour standards don't apply in the traditional sense.

Here's the link to the original KOILAF article (here) and a column in the Hangyoreh (here). The FKTU also has a story and picture up on their site (here). Apparently this incident took place in broad daylight. The driver says in his police statement that he was unaware that anyone was in front of him at the time. Activists are calling for an investigation into the incident and what the police on the scene did at the time. The FKTU are not known for militant activities, not that any degree of labour militance should ever provoke a reaction such as this, but it is even more surprising that it happened in this case.

In other news. It seems the Migrant's Trade Union was denied accreditation last week. No surprise there. Their leader Anwar Hussain is still in jail, you can read more about this on the blog here and here for the petition. In terms of other stories we've featured, it seems the bill on non-regulars workers still has chance of passing unaltered so the KCTU has established a contingency plan to commence an indefinite full-fledged strike from June 20 if the bill is passed at the Sub-Committee for Bill Deliberation of the National Assembly. More on the nature of the bill here also. Finally here is something more academic, a paper by Martin Hart Landsberg presented at a Democratic Labour Party event in March. Hart-Landsberg has written some great stuff on the Korean economy and labour relations. Here's the link.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Refugees in South Korea

Looking about the Asian Human Rights Commission website, I found this appeal to stop the deportation of nine Burmese National League for Democracy (NLD) members, whose refugee applications have been rejected by the Korean government. This led me to wonder about just how many political refugees had been accepted into Korea; I was sure it wasn't many. This article, from earlier this year, has a good summary and is recommended reading.

Of course, a distinction has to be made between refugees from North Korea and those from other countries. As this article from a few months ago by David Scofield makes clear, South Korea's constitution declares all North Korean citizens to be under the jurisdiction of the South's government. Therefore, any North Koreans who arrive on South Korean soil must be accepted as citizens. As the article states, "more than 6,000 North Koreans have arrived in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. In, 2004, however, 1,890 defected to the South, an increase of 50% increase over 2003. Earlier this year, the South, in an effort to appease (yes, I think that is the right word) the North and perhaps deal with its own fears about too many refugees arriving (it's a well known fact that North Korean refugees in South Korea are generally not treated well by South Koreans), announced that no more mass deportations from China or third countries would be encouraged or carried out.

Of course, this kind of spineless policy ('Jellyfish Diplomacy', perhaps?) is nothing new. In September 2002, Seoul city officials cancelled an awards ceremony for the winner of an online policy debate contest when it was discovered the winner was Chinese dissident Xu Bo. Xu had been here since 1999 and had applied for refugee status. Later that month he was allegedly threatened with deportation by immigration if he continued his pro-democracy activities in Korea, and another article stated "The Korean government has refused to recognize him as a refugee apparently out of concern that doing so may strain its ties with China."

But I digress. Unlike North Koreans, people from other countries must apply for refugee status, and only a handful have been accepted.

South Korea became a signatory of the International Convention on Refugees in 1992, but did not admit any refugees until February 13, 2001, when it recognized a 26-year-old Ethiopian man, who feared persecution at home for his anti-government activities, as a refugee. At that point, a total of 104 people had sought asylum in South Korea since 1992.

Forty-five of them had been denied refugee status, 11 had withdrawn their applications, and deliberation was still then underway for 47 others. Due to this, Korea was facing international criticism, and some observers thought the man was admitted just to save face, especially considering how the government announced its decision and even publicized the man's name. Soon after this the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged changes to Korea's admission process and wondered why 4 others had been denied refugee status that month when two of them had cases similar to the man who was accepted.

Two months later, in April 2001, UNHCR opened a liaison office in Seoul, while in June a group of lawyers and human rights activists launched the nation's first legal aid group for foreign asylum seekers. In a December, 2001 interview, Seoul UNHCR mission head James Kovar said Korean immigration officials tended to think asylum-seekers were economic migrants, rather than those who had left their countries for political reasons.

An August, 2002 article makes this connection between migrant workers and asylum seekers clear:

"Korean officials asked us to submit forms that can prove that we have been fighting for democracy in Burma," says Mr. Kyaw, known as "Sharin" to his friends. "But how can we obtain such forms when we are not even allowed to go back to our own country?"

Technically, Mr. Kyaw is an illegal resident in Korea; his visa was granted only for a six-month stay when he entered the country in July 1994 as an industrial trainee, a program the government launched to ease the labor shortage in industries Koreans shun because the work is considered dirty or dangerous. He worked at several companies in Incheon for a couple of years. Now he works part-time jobs in the nearby Bucheon area. He says he is committed fully to the democracy movement in his country.

It was not until late December 2002 that a second person was granted refugee status in Korea, this time a Congolese dissident. In late January 2003, 4 more people, three from Myanmar and one from Cameroon, were recognized as refugees. By July 2003, the number had grown to 12, with 2 more being accepted by the end of the year; 17 people were accepted in 2004, bringing the total to 31. According to the aforementioned article from this past January, 360 people have applied to stay in Korea as political refugees. Fifty-one have withdrawn their applications, while the government has rejected 61; thus out of 92 cases which have been considered, one third have been accepted. Of course, if you consider that in February 2001, 46 cases had been heard and only one accepted, but that by early this year, 46 more cases had been heard, and out of those, 30 had been accepted, it's obvious the odds have gotten much better. I should note that this is based on information current in January - as the appeal above states, 12 more people were recently accepted.

I've posted links to many of the relevant articles, but if you're want to learn more, you can browse around the Korean UNHCR website's article board (many articles are in English). If you read Korean and are interested, 2 decisions can be found here.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Migrant Worker Chemical Exposure

There's a good article over at the Joongang Ilbo about several Thai migrant workers who were exposed to an industrial solvent which left some of them paralyzed. The article looks at the government response, which includes more factory inspections by the Ministry of Labor, and lots of fines. Some quick math makes it clear that these factories are getting fines of, on average, 1-2 million won, which really isn't that much. And wondering about synergy between government minstries again, I would hope the Ministry of Labor isn't using these inspections as an opportunity to find illegal migrant workers.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Hypocrisy Wears a Happy Face

On Sunday, June 5th, the 2005 "Migrants' Arirang" was held at Seoul Plaza, in front of City Hall. As it was put on by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, I was expecting a criticism-free cultural festival which would quietly ignore the current crackdown and the unpleasant treatment migrant workers deal with every other day of the year. My expectations were essentially fulfilled; worth pointing out is that the above photo is from the Korea Times, which sports the caption "Migrant workers try on traditional South Korean royal court attire at “2005 Migrants’ Arirang,” a culture festival for foreign workers held in front of City Hall." There were many such cultural activities there, as well as a concert in the evening featuring both Korean and foreign performers, which drew a large crowd (and also featured a pair of insipid MCs). Worth noting is that the names of the festivals in English and Korean differ in their use of 'Migrant' in English, but 'Oegugin Nodongja'(Foreign Worker) in Korean, as opposed to 'Iju Nodongja'(Migrant Worker).

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There were a few spaces where resistance to this saccharine vision could be found, however. The "Photo Exhibition of Migrant Workers in Korea_Co-existence" featured dozens of photos of migrant workers depicting their intregration into normal Korean life, as well as their struggles against the injustices that are often a part of working in Korea.

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Members of the MTU (Migrants' Trade Union) stood near the photo exhibition and gathered around 1000 signatures on a petition for Anwar Hossain's release, and a message board had, written in dozens of languages, slogans criticizing the EPS and the crackdown on migrant workers. The band, 'Stop Crackdown' was not allowed to play the song of the same name, and instead played a song with the lyrics 'We Love Korea/ We make Korea'; on the other hand, their name, in Korean, was written for all to see - it does help when your band's name is a political statement. The Joongang Ilbo has an article on the Migrants' Arirang, but more importantly, it actually has a good article about 'Stop Crackdown', and mentions that "the Ministry of Culture and Tourism reportedly asked Immigration Bureau to lay off the crackdown for fear of scaring away migrant workers". It's well worth your time, and can be found here (scroll down). Christian has many reasons to criticize the Migrant's Arirang, which you can read here.

Apparently, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has been working quite busily on the behalf of migrant workers' (much like another ministry I can think of):

Two comedians named goodwill ambassadors for migrant workers

Comedians Jung Chul-kyu and Yoon Jung-soo have become goodwill ambassadors for immigrant workers in Korea.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced on Wednesday (May 4) that it has named the two popular entertainers as the promotion envoys for expatriates residing in Korea. “The two are expected to spearhead the ministry's campaign to create a better environment for immigrant workers,” the ministry said in a statement.

Jung has gained public acclaim for his role as a Sri Lankan immigrant worker living in Korea named “Blanca” in KBS comedy program “Laughter Club.” In the program, Jung expresses an immigrant worker's culture shock and anger over the way he is mistreated by Koreans in a comical way.

Yoon also has served as a messenger between immigrant workers and their family members back home by arranging reunions in an MBC television program called “Exclamation Mark (Nukkimpyo).”

“Jung and Yoon are expected to participate in a variety of events for foreign workers,” a ministry official said.

I wonder just how funny that comedy show is for migrant workers. There's more, but this time it's Arirang TV pulling the strings (or is it funded by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism?)

Migrant Workers Meet Sponsors
-May 22, 2005
One hundred foreign migrant workers on Sunday met with Korean sponsors who would help them get through difficulties they may face in South Korea.

Arirang TV organized the meeting at the KBS 88 Gymnasium Lifelong Education Center in western Seoul with about 800 people in attendance.

Migrant workers who exchanged telephone numbers with their Korean sponsors will contact them whenever they need help from Korean-speaking friends.

The event is part of a campaign, titled ``Host Family’’ by Arirang TV and Migrant Workers Center in Korea to take care of migrant workers particularly from developing countries in Asia.

Those who volunteered to be sponsors of the migrant workers include senior government officials, politicians, professors and entertainers.

Not every Korea Times reader was impressed with this, however.

While these certainly aren't bad things at all, the fact is that while one branch of the government is trying to put a helpful hand forward to migrants and paint Korean-migrant relations in the best light possible, other branches are "checking door-to-door in neighborhoods with a high concentration of migrant workers as part of a crackdown", actively deporting them and banning their unions.


The Joongang Ilbo has an article from May 24 with the title Ex-laborers credit Korea for success:
At a forum hosted by the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business last week, two Indonesians, a Chinese, a Thai and an Uzbek described how their experiences in Korea helped them prosper.
Nice to see that the KFSMB has a reason to feel good about itself, considering its role in the Industrial Trainee System; the article really does put a happy face on mistreatment. It does, however, bring to mind a point raised by Joerg Baruth: "Migrant workers work hard in Korea to save money. They will invest that money in their native countries. The migrant workers of today are Korea's business partners of tomorrow." Somehow I doubt the government or the KFSMB are thinking that far ahead.

Also hopping on board the feel-good bandwagon is the Welfare Ministry, according to this Joongang Ilbo article from May 19th: (they even have a nice photo)

Illegal workers to get medical health cover

May 20, 2005 ㅡ Migrant workers and the homeless will begin receiving 5 million won ($5,000) worth of free medical care annually, the Welfare Ministry announced yesterday. The ministry said it will set aside 4.6 billion won to start the program this year, and will distribute funds to provincial and city governments nationwide.
"The free medical service is for those who cannot get benefits from medical insurance," said a ministry official.
As for migrant workers, the official added, they could be staying in Korea either legally or illegally and still receive the benefits.
"Their status won't matter because we think treating them comes before arresting them in a crackdown," he said.
The ministry expects about 190,000 migrant workers and 4,500 homeless people will be eligible for the benefits on production of a residents' card or passport.

"We think treating them comes before arresting them in a crackdown."
But will migrant workers believe this? I'm sure some will have no choice. Again, this isn't a bad thing, in fact it's a very good thing, as long as it isn't abused by the Ministry of Justice. Just as a new crackdown begins, in the space of 2 weeks we have seen several new initiatives for the benefit of migrant workers. Do these show that Korea is finally becoming aware of its shabby treatment (to say the least) of migrant workers and is trying to rectify things? Or is it an attempt to stave off criticism as the crackdown continues and the MTU is banned?

Korean Labour News Roundup

The ICFTU reports, in an article which also mentions the arrest of Anwar Hossain, that

In April, 825 unionists were arrested during a demonstration outside Ulsan City Hall in April and on 23 May, 600 trade unionists were arrested during peaceful and legal strike action, taking the total of arrests of labour activists to at least 1425 in the space of 8 weeks, or more than 1 trade unionist arrest every hour.

Read the full article here.

The Chosun Ilbo also reported that employing migrant workers would become easier this month. Nice to see the Chosun taking the point of view of employers for a change. There's only one instance where reducing the amount of time before migrant workers could return to Korea would be helpful - if it was reduced to nothing.

The Joongang Ilbo also has several articles online, including an interview with MTU leader Anwar Hossain which appeared the day of his arrest, an article about the reaction to his arrest, and a photo of a protest at the immigration office calling for his release.

The Joongang Ilbo tends to leave its articles up, unlike the Korea Times, but I will put the May 14 interview with Anwar Hossain below, just in case.

Migrant labor union chief seeks to be heard
by Lee Ho-jeong

May 14, 2005 ㅡ The head of the first independent union for foreigners in Korea said that he's willing to risk getting deported in order to publicize the plight of 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," said MD Anwar Hossain, president of Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants' Trade Union, during a recent interview with the JoongAng Daily. The union formed in April and is awaiting governmental approval.
Mr. Hossain said his organization is planning to propose to the National Assembly in August a bill that abolishes time limits on E-9 work visas for migrant workers, which is now three years, and provides them better benefits, including health insurance.
"We work 12 to 14 hours every day without taking a break even during the weekends. Still, after three years, we are forced to leave the country, which only benefits the companies," he said.
Mr. Hossain, 34, first came to Korea in 1996 from Bangladesh and stayed in Korea even after his visa expired. He said if the authorities wanted to, they could deport him, but there are bigger issues at stake.
"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," Mr. Hossain said. "We're only here because we want to make a living, and it is time that our voices are heard."

On May 22, the Korea times also posted an article about Hossain's arrest:

Migrant Workers to Ask ILO to Help Release Union Leader

By Moon Gwang-lip
Staff Reporter

Members of the labor union for migrant workers in South Korea plan to file a complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO) against the arrest and imminent deportation of their leader.

The reaction came, as the Immigration Bureau detained Nd Anwar Hossin, head of the Seoul Gyeonggi Incheon Migrant Trade Union (MTU), the first union for migrant workers here, for overstaying his visa on May 14.

The MTU is also preparing a legal battle against the government if it refuses to permit the creation of the union.

And Korean unions and human rights groups are backing the MTU’s fight to free Hossin and get government approval.

Hossin, 34-year-old migrant worker from Bangladesh, is president of the MTU, which was established on April 24.

A small group of migrant workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines and Indonesia organized the union and around 600 migrant workers joined it later.

The union then submitted an application for approval to the Ministry of Labor.

However, Hossin was arrested by officials of the Immigration Bureau on May 14 on charges of overstaying his visa and is in custody at the Chongju Immigration Processing Center in North Chungchong Province.

``The MTU will inform the international labor community of this incident and request they denounce it,’’ said Lee Sang-hoon, a representative the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), who is helping the MTU.

``We plan to bring this case to the ILO and ask the Korean government to release him,’’ Lee said.

Migrant workers, unionists and civic groups are denouncing the Ministry of Justice for the arrest of the leader of the first migrant workers’ union in Korea.

MTU members, the KCTU and human rights groups, such as Sarangbang, staged a joint rally on Thursday, calling for the release of Hossin in front of the Seoul Immigration Office in Mok-dong, western Seoul.

``The protest was organized to denounce the government’s ulterior intentions behind the arrest,’’ said Park Seok-jin, a Sarangbang activist.

``His sudden arrest just as the migrant workers’ union was waiting for approval is seen as a move to block the union’s activities in advance,’’ he added.

Park requested the government release Hossin, and said the large number of undocumented workers is the fault of the government’s shortsighted employment policy.

``For so many foreign workers here, they have no choice but to be illegal aliens because of the shortsighted employment policy for migrant workers in Korea, which just focused on meeting short-term employment needs. Hossin is one of those victims and we demand the government release him as soon as possible,’’ he said.

The Ministry of Justice denied their claim, saying the only reason for his arrest is his illegal status.

``We arrested him because he overstayed his visa. The immigration law stipulates those overstaying their visa should leave the country. And we will deal with him according to the law,’’ said Chun Seung-woo, an official of the Immigration Bureau.

As for the union activities, Lee from the KCTU said the MTU will continue its operations despite the absence of its leader.

He also said if the Ministry of Labor turns down the union’s application for approval, they will file a lawsuit against the ministry.

``In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that every worker, regardless of their legal status, should be guaranteed basic rights including the right to organize. Based on this, we will bring this case to the administrative court if the government rejects the union’s application,’’ he said.