Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Triangle Shirtwaist and the Yeosu Fire

Detail, History of the Needlecraft Industry (1938), by Ernest Fiene, High School of Fashion and Industry. A mural commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGW). [from New Deal Network]

I posted a short commentary on the Yeosu Fire, as well as the MTU petition, over at Interlocals the other day (link). I'll reprint some of it here. I think there are lot's of comparisons that can be made between the Yeosu and Triangle shirtwaist fire: especially the potential for immigrant based unionism and greater health and safety regulation. If you have your own comparisons as well, please post a comment.


The Yeosu Fire: Korean Migrant's "Triangle Shirtwaist"

In the wake of a tragic fire that ripped through the Yeosu detention on February 11th, migrant's groups in Korea and internationally have been mobilizing to bring to light the injustices that surround migrant's lives in Korea and elsewhere.

According to an evolving media story, the reaction to the fire -- which killed 9 and injured scores more -- may have been just as deadly as the fire itself. An emergency protest rally shortly after the fire revealed some grisly testimony.

At the rally, as reported by Chamsesang news:

Hyeon-mo Choi, the representative of Human Rights for Migrant Workers pointed out the horrible condition of migrant workers in the detention centers. "One staff member and two police officers just sprayed fire extinguishers from the outside of the metal bars, and left the people inside. But the fire wasn't put out. While they went to the 1st floor to bring the keys, more people went dying." The Democratic Labor Party members said that they saw three patients handcuffed to their bed frames in the hospital after being saved from the fire. This shows that the Ministry of Justice keeps violating the human rights of migrant workers even after the disaster."

Recriminations and resignations are sure to follow in the weeks ahead, already arrest warrants have been sought for the security guards and attempts have been made to deflect responsibility onto the detainees themselves. But others wonder if warrants will be sought for those that permitted an 7 story detention center to be built with flammable materials and no sprinkler system.

There are perhaps some important correspondences here to the 1911 triangle shirtwaist fire in New York City, one of the largest industrial accidents in US history. That fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry.

The Yeosu fire brings with it a similar potential for better legislation, not just of detention centers, but of both the shady workplaces and ill designed migration policies that surround labour migration in South Korea, through which the Korean government keeps migrants in fear of public space through daily crackdowns and vulnerable to exploitation from their employers.

The Migrant Trade Union, who issued the petition included below, has fought for both the rights of migrant workers and for reform to the government's labour migration system. However, the MTU and its predecessor, the ETU, have consistently been denied a seat at the negotiating table by the Korean government which has in the past regarded it as an organization of the undocumented. That this taboo has been repeated by some charities and NGOs speaks to a real problem in recognizing migrants as agents of change rather than as simply victims.

This has all changed in the wake of the fire, however; both because of the vocal response by the MTU to the incident, and because of a recent landmark ruling by the Seoul High Court calling on the government to recognize the MTU and register it as a legal organization. With this legal hurdle removed the MTU will have greater liberty to engage the government and employers on their migration policies, and to advocate for wider social justice. There are certainly important parallels here with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and a sense that real change can be made in the coming years with migrant organizations in the forefront. However, this will depend not simply on how this important struggle unfolds, but also on the support it receives abroad.

Below is the MTU's petition on the Yeosu Fire:

Please take a moment to express your solidarity for the struggle of migrant workers in South Korea by going to this link.

Scroll down for the text of this petition and background on the Yeosu fire tragedy.

Justice for Yeosu Detention Center Fire Victims and All Migrant Workers

Summary of the Incident

At 4:00 am on February 11 a fire swept through the locked cells of the detention center at the Yeosu Immigration Controls Office, killing 9 detainees and wounding 18 others. Neither the alarm system nor the sprinklers operated when the fire broke out. The detention center staff tried but failed to put out the flames using portable fire extinguishers. Even so, they did not unlock cells to free the detainees. The detainees were forced to breathe in toxic fumes emitted from burning mattresses. These fumes were the cause of most of the deaths and injuries.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. The South Korean government says it suspects arson by one detainee, but has not produced any evidence. Despite this alibi it is not hard to see that the real roots of the tragedy lie elsewhere- in the government's inhumane policy towards migrant workers.

Background on Migrant Workers in Korea

There are currently roughly 400 thousand migrant workers in South Korea, of whom about 189,000 are undocumented. Migrants in Korea have come under either the "Industrial Trainee System" or the "Employment Permit System," which place them at specific factories and prohibit them from freely moving to other jobs. Most migrant workers experience inhumane treatment, unsafe working environments and low and unpaid wages. Therefore, many must leave their assigned jobs in search of better conditions, thus becoming undocumented.

The government has responded to this situation with a brutal crackdown. Migrant workers are frequently injured and killed in surprise immigration raids. What is more, they face inhumane conditions and human rights abuses in detention centers like the one in Yeosu, which are worse than prisons. Migrants' organizations and their supporters believe that the only true way to solve the issue is to stop the crackdown, improve the migrant workers system and legalize all undocumented migrants.

Human Rights Abuses in the Aftermath of the Fire

Injured migrants have been forced to receive treatment while handcuffed to their hospital beds. 28 migrants who were deemed to need no treatment were transferred to Cheong-ju Detention Center. Of these, 17 were forcibly deported without begin given any compensation. The government is also refusing to reveal information about the case to bereaved families and civil society organizations.


In response, MTU has come together with migrant and civil society organizations to form the 'Joint Committee for Counter Measures to the Tragic Fire at Yeosu Foreigners Detention Center.' We are working to raise awareness about the incident and its roots and investigating the actual conditions in detention centers around the country. We held a memorial service and mass rally on February 25, which was met by police violence.

Now more than ever, our struggle needs international support. The situation of migrant workers in South Korea must be familiar to all those who come from and/or work in immigrant working-class communities in throughout the world. Please show your solidarity by signing this petition to the South Korean government!


We, the undersigned, believe that to truly resolve this issue and ensure that such an incident does not happen in the future the South Korean government must comply with the following demands:

1. Full disclosure of the real causes and facts of the tragedy, punishment of those responsible, resignation of the Minister of Justice and compensation to the bereaved families.

2. Closure of all detention centers for their inhumane conditions and implementation of steps to revise the system.

3. An end to the brutal crackdowns and legalization of all migrant workers.

4. Institution of a system for the payment of back-wages and protection of migrant workers rights.

We want the South Korean government to know that this incident and the situation of migrant workers in South Korea have come to the attention of people around the world. The international community will not condone the human rights violations perpetrated by the South Korean government against people who work honestly and contribute to the Korean economy. Urgent action is needed.


Greetings from the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants Trade Union!

We are a union formed by and for migrant workers in South Korea. Our members come from many countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines, the U.S., Indonesia and Sri Lanka. We are contacting you to ask for your solidarity in our struggle to improve the situation of migrant workers in Korea.

You may learn more about MTU and the situation of migrant workers in Korea by visiting our website at

In the interest of building the global struggles for workers and migrants rights we would also like to learn about similar organizations and unions around the world. We believe this is the first step to establishing solidarity between us. Please take a moment to send us information about your work.

In solidarity,

Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants Trade Union

** This petition was initiated by Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants Trade Union and Nodutdol for Korean Community Development (Queens, NY)

1 comment:

  1. Fires seem to be a regular feature of immigrant detention centres here in the UK too. There was one just two days ago at the Campsfield centre in Oxfordshire and a much worse one a few years ago at Yarl's Wood detention centre. The fact that the 'inmates' (who of course are not criminals when they go in) end up going to such extreme lengths as setting fires and starting riots probably says something about the sort of treatment they get inside these places and the desperation that they feel. The whole existence of these places is premised on racism, whether they're in South Cholla or Oxfordshire.