Reckless inequality: Dramatic arrests of Migrant Trade Union leadership highlight South Korea’s failed labour and migration policies
Entire MTU leadership arrested
On Tuesday, November 27th, the entire executive of South Korea’s Migrant Trade Union was arrested by immigration officials in three co-coordinated morning actions targeting these migrants at their places of work and residence.
The MTU is a courageous union of undocumented migrant workers, supported by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) that has been active for three years in advocating for migrant workers rights. In recent months they had held a mass memorial service for migrants that had died in Korea, whether on the job or off. They also won a precedent-setting case at the Seoul High court which had ruled that the government must accept the legal registration of the Migrant Trade Union, something which the government failed to do, preferring instead, it seems, to arrest the union’s leadership rather than recognize it legally.
At roughly 9:20am on November 27, MTU President Kajiman was leaving home to attend a planned protest in front of the Seoul Immigration Office when more than 10 immigration officers who had been hiding confronted him in front of his house.
General Secretary Masum also left his house the morning of the 27th in order to attend the protest in front of the Seoul Immigration Office. As he walked down the street, four 4 large men passed by who were laughing amongst themselves. He originally did not pay attention to them; however, immediately after, roughly 10-20 immigration officers and other people came up from behind and surrounded him.
At roughly the same time 4 immigration officers in front of the factory where he worked confronted Vice President Raju. When he demanded to see the officers’ identification cards, they presented him with a detention order and arrested him. Within hours, all three men were sent to a detention center in Cheongju, Northern Choongjeong Province, south of the capital Seoul.
In response to the arrests the KCTU has issued a petition for the release of the MTU leadership and have charged that the simultaneous arrest of three MTU leaders is a clearly a targeted attack, part of an intensification of the immigration crackdown against undocumented migrants in South Korea since the beginning of August of this year.
During this time more than 20 MTU members and officers of the MTU have been arrested. As with previous crackdowns, the authorities have admitted that the numbers of undocumented workers have not significantly decreased. The number of foreign residents in Korea has recently approached 1 million with some 230,000 said to be undocumented.
Failed migration policy reform
These numbers have swelled in recent years with the expansion of the Employment Permit System (EPS), an increase in the number of transnational marriages, and new laws governing the migration of ethnic Korean Chinese.
The EPS, designed to replace the discredited Industrial Trainee System, remains flawed in protecting migrant’s rights and encourages illegality as it has not been configured to factor in the actual costs of migration to individual workers (in the sense of hidden and illegal recruitment and brokerage costs that persist for migrants from particular regions; short, 1-3 year time horizons for employment that leaves both workers and employers with incentives to overstay the contract; and problems associated with the initial implementation of the EPS which ignored the majority of undocumented migrants in Korea by excluding them from access to permits).
Thus, a large portion of the increase in the number of undocumented year by year consists of overstayers rather than new migrants. Rather than correcting the system, the government, largely at the behest of the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Government and Home Affairs, has chosen to pursue crackdowns on the undocumented while recruiting newer workers from overseas.
As has been documented by South Korea’s own National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) , immigration officials routinely ignore legal procedures for dealing with migrant workers such as arranging prior warrants and disclosing their identification, and the immigration detention centers are often ill-equipped to deal with the large number of migrants they arrest in terms of safety, space, and medical care.
This message was brought home this past February when a fire at the Yeosu detention center left nine migrants dead and more injured. The fire exposed the shoddy safety conditions of migrant detention centers and the way in which the migrants who survived were treated (deported with slight compensation and before their injuries had fully healed) shocked many in Korean civil society and the public in general, spurring a further investigation by the NHRC.
The be fair, the government has attempted to make progress in terms of programs for transnational brides and children of migrant workers and Koreans as part of its anti-discrimination policies. Civil society groups have even participated in this reform and in designing service delivery. However, a number of grassroots organizations have been critical of the ways in which these services have been designed (such as education around traditional manners for foreign brides rather than education in their legal rights and resources in cases of abuse) and delivered (the creation of separate programs for ‘Kosians’ -- children of Korean and other Asians -- rather than anti-discrimination education in schools and workplaces, etc).
Fundamentally, however, anti-discrimination policy will remain stalled unless it can deal with the issues of migration policy design and the procedural violation of migrant’s rights inherent in this unjust crackdown and in the Employment Permit System itself.
As the national daily Hankyoreh reported earlier this week, progressive reform to immigration legislation does not seem likely in the near future; in fact, the opposite seems the case:
An even greater problem is that earlier this month the government revised the Immigration Law to allow agents to question foreigners based on suspicion alone, without regard to time and place, further angering migrant workers. It is not that one cannot understand wanting to provide in the law some tools to work with while enforcing it, but it is a problem when the law just gives agents wide-ranging authority and includes no stipulations on procedures.
A law governing the national police requires that a police officer present identification and identify himself when stopping someone for questioning. Similarly, at the very least, immigration officials need to be required to prove who they are. It was in 2005 that the National Human Rights Commission officially recommended that immigration be given clear conditions, parameters on authority, and procedures for arresting illegal aliens.
This failure of immigration law reform has led, as the MTU and other migrant groups have complained, to a near permanent state of immigration crackdown targeting migrants in their places of work, residence, and in public space.
One of the reasons why the MTU has been targeted, perhaps, is that they have been the most vocal in creating an organization led by the people most effected by the crackdown -- the undocumented themselves – and, along with Migrant Worker’s Television and a handful of other grassroots groups, have been the most vocal in representing their plight. Their struggles has been recognized in statements by leading Korean unions and NGOs, as well in their interaction with international organizations including Amnesty International, the UN Special Rapporteur on Migrants, and the International Labour Organization, among others, which have brought attention to the Korean government’s migration policies.
However, as has been reported in Znet and elsewhere over the last few years, the MTU and its predecessor, the ETU, have lost the majority of their leadership over the years to targeted crackdowns and government repression.
If one steps back for a minute, it is easy to see that a lot of the suffering caused immigration law is part of a larger symptom of Korean labour market policies that attempt to create flexible labour markets with little concern for those affected.
Since the 1997 crisis, and indeed before, labour law has been used to flexibilize the employment relationship and has contributed to rocketing social inequality that harmful for both politics and the economy, undermining democratic process and making the Korean economy more dependent on exports and financialization to maintain domestic demand.
The ‘participatory government’ of former labour lawyer Roh Moo Hyun has used an incomplete tripartite committee (passing agreements without consent of the largest trade union federation), unpredicted use of damage claims against workers for illegal strikes, and repression of union protests in order to get these reforms past.
For what it is worth, the KCTU has attempted to assist workers affected by these policies but has encountered its own difficulties both internally and externally. These contradictions were exposed this summer after the new labour law on irregular work was passed and strikes and sit-ins of a largely female-led force of irregular workers proliferated. In the weeks after the events, the ability of the KCTU to mobilize solidarity did not live up to what was promised and the strikes fizzled and were marginalized.
Some attribute the lack of solidarity for grassroots struggles from the KCTU to be a matter of a dominant and nationalist oriented leadership faction that dominates both the KCTU and the Democratic Labour Party, but the reasons are complex and also involve the rise of more bread and butter concerns in some of the dominant sectoral unions of the KCTU whom are affected by neoliberal restructuring, and whose concerns about job security make it difficult to organize across both place and industry.
These criticisms aside, the KCTU does remain more mobilized than national confederations in most developed countries even if it remains internally and externally fragmented, and it is important to keep this in mind. Worker’ s protests on November 11 of this year saw pitched battles between police and workers in the downtown streets of Seoul, and extreme government efforts to silence dissent such as roadblocks, water cannon, and brute force. These protests came during the yearly national day of action commemorating the death of labour activist Chun Tae Il, whose suicide during the repressive dictatorship days helped spur the largely female-led democratic trade union movement of the 1970s.
On a tragic note, the week before the protests had seen two more worker-suicides in protest of the situation of irregular workers and the new labour law. Lee So-Seon, mother of Chun Tae-il and a heroic activist of her accord, took the opportunity to criticize both the tactic itself – “Don't die any more, instead, live and fight” – and point to the lack of unity between labour and progressive groups, and lack of a progressive media, as contributing factors to the sense of despair among workers.
On a brighter note, the KCTU has been able to start to break out of enterprise level confinement and begin the slow process of establishing industrial level unions. Earlier this fall, the Korean metal workers federation announced a collective agreement that included wage negotiations not only for regular unionists but also agreements on wages and working conditions for irregular and migrant workers working in metal industries. Collective agreements have also been signed in medical and financial industries, so progress in political rights at an aggregate level among regular workers is improving but more grassroots activists within the labour movement worry about how the situation of more marginal workers without industrial or enterprise representation can remain a priority if the trade union movement becomes more concerned with sectoral issues than grassroots struggles.
Obviously there are no easy answers to these questions, gains in industrial level agreements notwithstanding, the growing majority of workers are irregular workers (recent estimates put this figure at 53% of the labour force) and in a climate of trade liberalization and labour market reform the situation for workers outside of heavy industries and strategic sectors looks difficult. Added to this is the problem of real-estate bubbles caused by financial liberalization and urban redevelopment that dramatically affect the urban poor, as has been evidenced by the struggles of venders and urban residents affected by redevelopment schemes.
It may be a bit of a cliché to say that Korean progressive movements find themselves in a crisis because of these developments. Indeed, if one looks back upon the last 30 or 40 years of the Korean labour movement, it is hard to find when a period without crisis has been the norm, but the question of how to improve the situation is not invalidated by this insight. Certainly, a large degree of the current problems can be related back to the inequality that exists between workers, citizens and the more powerful segments of Korean society.
More so, efforts by grassroots social movements to change the direction of government policy and corporate power has been further limited by the degree of participation afforded to them even by the ‘participatory government’ of Roh Moo Hyun, and the speed and scope of neoliberal reform embraced by that regime. Even those progressives from the 80s democracy movement who went into the current government have found many of their progressive reform efforts stymied both internally and by the opposition and entrenched economic bureaucracies. Thus, even the president’s more moderate former advisors have lashed out at this ‘turn to the right’. Lee Jeong Woo, former chairman of the Presidential commission of policy planning, criticized the government’s rush to sign the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement in an editorial earlier this past summer in the Hankyoreh:
The ‘‘Participatory Government’’ of Roh Moo-hyun has, over the last four years, worked in its own way to overcome a culture where ‘‘growth is everything’’ and ‘‘the market rules above all,’’ and I praise it for its efforts. The results have been a greater emphasis on harmony between growth, the re-distribution of wealth and the role of the public sector. Now, however, it is saying that it is suddenly going to trash that philosophy and go back to the familiar priorities of growth and the market. Put simply, it has turned to the right, and there ahead lies the cliff. Right now what is right for Korea is a greater turn towards the left. It is the Scandinavian social democratic model that has been judged the best of all the market economy experiments the human race has experienced so far. In public opinion surveys as well, it is the Scandinavian model that Koreans say they like the most. Though of course it would be difficult to move to that model right away, we should be gazing toward Scandinavia to get there. A free trade agreement with the U.S. means we are going to go in the wrong direction.
A “politics of solidarity”?
The broad liberal-left, however, seems at the current moment more fixated on a potential conservative conquest of political power than it is introspective on how some of this very inequality has permeated its own ranks: either in terms of the pursuit of neoliberal policy by economic reformers without the effective participation of those affected by it (which has served to eliminate much of the difference between liberals and conservatives on directions in economic policy, at least regarding labour if not trade and investment), or through neglect by more powerful and dominant actors in the political parties and union federations of grassroots struggles, often in favor of a political pre-occupation with the ‘national interest’ (in terms of ending the cold war division system) that has seen the bargaining away of much of the progressive content of the left-liberal platform and calls for progressives to unite around candidates whom seem set to pursue further neoliberal reform but have a pro-engagement stance toward the North.
Only a few on the progressive left have publicly stated that in a vibrant economic and political democracy (that could create a more viable dimension to any post-division political configuration) there needs to be more to progressive politics than furthering of neoliberal reform and the politics of growth. To this end, many hope, that whatever the results of the upcoming presidential election, a ‘politics of solidarity’ prevails on the left which puts the problem of marginalized political groups on the agenda, and includes genuine participation as a tool for achieving this – something which is going to require a genuine transformation of tendencies on the current liberal-left.
No doubt there is room for greater coordination at multiple levels between progressive forces interested in these sorts of political and economic issues, be they migrant and irregular workers’ rights or trade and financial liberalization. One place to start may be with the case with the leadership of the Migrant Trade Union currently being held in detention. Seeing as their case represents an important component of any politics of solidarity that involves the configuration of politics within and beyond national borders, it seems an appropriate place to start, perhaps both for Korean social movements and their international allies.
1. Seol, Dong-hoon et al. Survey on Undocumented Migrants in Detention Facilities of Korea. November 18,2005. National Human Rights Commission of Korea.