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?


  1. As you say, this stuff is not bad per se, but there's something about it that makes me feel slightly nauseous. It has the hallmarks of the tokenistic, patronising, bureaucratic practices which I think are quite common in a number of areas of Korean government. These gestures are designed to look good but are pretty empty in reality.

    In the same way that the MOCT packages up its version of 'Korean culture' to display to the 'foreigners' it helps to perpetuate certain views and images of 'foreign' workers as victims who need to be helped and taught about (civilised) Korean ways, while censoring their real hopes and fears.

    Call me cynical, but I think this is part of the same offensive being carried out by the immigration office / justice ministry - the Ministry of Culture and Tourism know what's going on and are playing their part.

  2. You do have to wonder just how much communication and synergy there is between the different ministries. Are they acting independently or is there a great deal of communication between them?

    The Joongang article on the Migrants' Arirang said the MOTC asked the Justice ministry to lay off on the day of the festival. It also said there will be many more of these festivals throughout the country. I really do wonder for whose benefit these will be put on. It certainly makes for good PR on the government's part.