Friday, February 29, 2008
The Migrant Workers’ Struggle in South Korea and International Solidarity
International Solidarity Coordinator, Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union
February 9, 2008
As the issue of immigration has come to center stage in policy debate in the United States over the last several years, grassroots organizations, NGOs and labor unions have put forth strong calls for increased rights form immigrants, pathways to citizenship and an end to raids and deportations. While organizing, public education and lobbying efforts have been lively, however, as with many movements in the U.S., discussion of the issue’s international dimension has been relatively lacking. In fact, the issues of immigration policy reform and undocumented immigrants/migrants are central to countries across Europe and Asia. At the same time struggles against raids and deportations and for immigrant/migrant workers’ labor and human rights are growing in many of these countries. Of these, the struggle in South Korea is significant for the central role played by undocumented migrant workers organizing as part of the labor movement.
The purpose of this article is to introduce the U.S. immigrant rights movement to the migrant workers movement in South Korea. It focuses on the development and current work of the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union, a union build by and for migrant workers regardless of visa status, whose entire leadership is made up of undocumented migrant workers. It also covers the heavy government repression against MTU and ends with a call for solidarity actions in timing with the commemoration of a tragic detention center fire in February of last year and, more widely, greater international solidarity in the immigrant/migrant workers movement worldwide.
There are currently roughly 400,000 migrant workers living in South Korea who work in a number of industries, in particular manufacturing and construction, and in services such as restaurants and entertainment. While their numbers may seem small compare to those in the United States, it must be remembered that the history of the current labor migration to South Korea is only twenty-years old, and the country has traditionally implemented strict policies concerning inward migration and long term settlement. In addition, the numbers are steadily rising and migrant workers have become centrally important to the South Korean economy, particularly in specific industries. Migrant workers come from nearly 100 countries including China (Chinese and Chinese of Korean origin), Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal, and West African countries. While conditions, of course, vary depending on industry, country of origin, gender and visa status, migrant works in general face low wages, poor working conditions, ill-treatment at the hands of employers and racism and discrimination from society at large.
Migrant workers first began coming to South Korea in the 1980s, when small and middle-sized manufacturing, construction and other companies began to experience severe labor shortages. Migrant workers, most of whom entered South Korea on tourist or other short-term visas, began to fill this need for additional manpower. Because of the economic necessity, the South Korean government condoned and even encouraged the influx of migrant workers through relaxation of immigration procedures after the 1988 Olympics even before drawing up a formal policy to regulate migrant labor. Eventually, the government developed and implemented the Industrial Trainee System, which brought migrants to South Korea as ‘trainees’ as a way to skirt labor laws concerning wages and work conditions, in order to provide cheap and regulated migrant labor to companies experiencing shortages. This system was severely critiqued by civil society for causing vast abuses of human and labor rights and leading to an increase of undocumented migrants. Negative public opinion forced a change in the system. As such, the government implemented the Employment Permit System (EPS) in 2003, claiming it would protect migrant workers’ rights. This is, however, far from the truth.
III. Employer Permit System
The EPS is currently the main system governing migrant labor in South Korea. While unlike the Trainee System, it does legally acknowledges migrant workers as 'workers', it is in fact designed to preserve the benefits business owners received from the previous system by creating a labor force that is cheap and exploitable.
Under the EPS, migrant workers are prohibited from changing their workplaces at will. If a migrant worker wants to change to another job, he/she must obtain consent from his/her employer and apply to the Ministry of Labor. This process is very difficult for many workers, especially because employers are sometimes unwilling to release their employees. What is more, migrant workers are only allowed to change workplaces three times, except in exceptional circumstances. As such, many migrant workers are stuck at companies where they face unsafe working conditions, low or unpaid wages and inhumane treatment. Female migrant workers are often effectively trapped with employers who sexually harass or abuse them. In addition, because migrant workers are required to renew their contracts each year of the three-year period of the three-year residence period allowed them, they become completely subordinated to the will of their employers, making the exercise of labor rights completely impossible. Finally the sort term 3-year residence period is often not long enough to make enough money to pay off debts incurred during migration and save money to support families back home. The EPS system has, as such, also received strong criticism from human rights, social movement and labor organizations in South Korea and the attention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.
IV. Undocumented Migrant Workers and the Current Crackdown
There are over 200,000 undocumented migrant workers in South Korea, more than half of the total population of migrant workers. Many migrant workers have become undocumented by overstaying their visas. This is often inevitable because low-wages make it impossible for migrant workers to save enough money to pay off debts or support their families. Migrant workers may also become undocumented because they are forced to flee difficult conditions at their legally registered workplaces. It is clear that in addition to being an effect of war and neoliberal globalization, which have created situations of unemployment and poverty in migrant-sending countries and vast inequality between nations, the high percent of undocumented migrant workers in South Korea is a direct result of the government misguided policy governing the migrant labor force.
While acknowledging undocumented migrants as a serious social problem, the government has made no effort to find a root-level solution. Instead it has, since 2003, carried out a brutal policy of crackdown and deportation against undocumented migrant workers. This, however, has done nothing to reduce their numbers, which continued to increase after the EPS was implemented. Most recently, a mass joint crackdown (carried out by the Ministry of Labor, the Immigration Authorities and the police) was carried out from August to December in 2007 during which thousands were arrested. What is more, the crackdown, which, like raids in the U.S., is carried out using brutal and results in the imprisonment of migrants in detention center that are no better than prisons, has been the result of 100s of deaths and injuries. The most tragic of this was a fire that broke out at Yeosu Foreigners’ Detention Center on February 11, 2007 killing 10 migrant workers and wounding dozens of others. This event received international attention and also became a catalyst for more unified work between migrant organizations.
The truth is the South Korean economy, like the U.S. economy, needs the labor of undocumented migrant workers, and the government is well aware of this. The recent intense crackdown should, then, not be seen as an effort to solve the undocumented migrant problem in entirety, but instead to reduce the number of undocumented migrants (at 230,000 before August 2007), to the level of estimated need. The crackdown is also clearly a fear tactic used to keep documented migrant workers from leaving their assigned workplaces.
4. Migrant Worker Organizing and the Migrants’ Trade Union
Migrant workers have not been passive in the face of the oppression they face in South Korea, and it is in their resistance that MTU’s history is found. Since soon after they began arriving, migrant workers have come together in communities and formed community organizations in order to aid each other in confronting the difficulties they face. After several years of organizing in this fashion and working in alliance with Korean organizations, migrant workers came together with Korean activists to discuss the formation of a union, the result of which was the founding of the Migrants’ Branch of the Equality Trade Union (ETUMB) in 2002. The activities of ETUMB culminated in a sit-in protest at the Myeongdong Cathedral, a historic site of the South Korean democracy and labor movement, calling for an end to the crackdown and deportations and critiquing the EPS. The sit-in began in November of 2003 and continued for 380 days. In the course of this struggle, migrant worker activist came to believe in the importance of forming an independent union by and for migrant workers themselves. As such, these activists came together with migrant community organizations to form the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union on 24 April 2005. MTU is the first independent labor union in which all officers, beginning with the president, are migrant workers.
5. Labor Repression
Since its establishment MTU has faced continuous repression from the South Korea government. MTU’s notification of union establishment was rejected by the Ministry of Labor on the basis that its leadership was made up of undocumented migrant workers without the same legally protected labor rights as Korean workers. The Ministry of Labor’s rejection initially upheld in a district court, but then overturned by the Seoul Supreme Court on 1 February 2007, which ruled that the right of migrant workers to freedom of association is protected under the South Korean Constitution, regardless of their visa status. Refusing to give up, the Ministry of Justice has appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, where a final ruling is still pending.
In addition to this legal process, the South Korean government has also carried out a targeted crackdown against MTU’s leadership in an attempt to stop the union’s activities. MTU’s first president was arrested in a targeted crackdown, soon after the union’s founding and held in a detention center for nearly a year before he was finally released for medical reasons. During the joint crackdown at the end of last year, dozens of MTU leaders were also arrested and deported.
The government’s attack culminated with the arrest of MTU’s President, Vice President and General Secretary on 27 November 2007 all at roughly the same time in the morning at three different places in Seoul. In each case, several immigration officers lay in waiting in front of the man’s house or workplace in what was clearly a pre-planned effort. The three men were detained in Cheongju Detention Center, two and a half hours outside of Seoul. Despite massive protest from MTU, supporters and the international labor and human rights communities, the men were taken secretly from their cells in the middle of the night, taken out a hole in the fence at the back of the detention center to avoid supporters who were guarding the front gate and then deported early in the morning of December 13th.
6. Fighting Back
After the arrest of the three leaders MTU and supporters from the labor movement and civil society began an ardent campaign to win their release, end the repression against migrant organizing and stop the crackdown and deportation of undocumented migrant workers. This campaign has continued despite the three men’s deportation on December 13. It is February now, two months after the MTU leadership was first arrested and nearing the one year anniversary of the tragic fire at Yeosu Detention Center. As we go into a period of memorial for those who passed away, MTU also seeks to raise awareness of the repression against migrant workers and migrant workers’ organizing in South Korea. We are preparing a series of press conference, panels and rallies beginning on February 11 culminating in a nation-wide protest on February 24th. We are asking organizations in working for immigrants/migrants’ rights in other countries to give this period international significance by organizing solidarity actions in front of South Korean embassies and other significant sites.
While it is clear that the situation of migrant workers in South Korea is particular to the country’s history, legal system and society, it should also be clear that there are many parallels between the struggles of migrants here and those of migrant/immigrants in the United States and indeed all around the world. The phenomenon of migration cannot be separated from the process of globalization in which we are all engulfed. Like in most other countries, the response to this reality in South Korea is one of policing borders, illegalizing people and exploiting them as a cheap labor force. The tragic fire in Yeosu and the repression against migrant workers’ organizing, then, should not be seen as merely South Korean problems. Rather, they are representative of the human rights and labor rights abuses against migrant workers everywhere. The struggle to win protection of these rights is a global struggle, to which international solidarity- collective sharing of information, strategizing and action- must become a greater part.
No wage demands, labor boss promises
February 29, 2008
The new head of the moderate Federation of Korean Trade Unions, one of the nation’s two large umbrella labor groups, surprised union members yesterday by saying he would not press employers for higher wages this year.
You can read the whole article here.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Before y'day(2.25) in Montreal/CN..
..a delegation representing the following migrant justice groups:
- Coalition In Support of Agricultural Workers-Quebec
- Immigrant Workers Center of Montreal
- Migrant Agricultural Workers Support Centre-Quebec
- No One Is Illegal-Montreal
- PINAY, the Filipino Women's Organization in Quebec
- Solidarity Across Borders
delivered a protest letter to the S. Korean consulate in Montreal:
"Once again, concerned members of the Montreal community are making direct contact with your consular officials, to bring to your attention the injustices and abuses faced by migrant workers in South Korea. We would like you to bring these concerns to the immediate attention of officials at the highest levels of the Korean government.
This month marks the first anniversary of the tragic fire at the Yeosu Foreigners' Detention Center (February 11, 2007), which killed ten migrant workers and wounded dozens more. This event was a direct result of the South Korean government's policy of crackdown and deportation of undocumented migrant workers and the poor conditions in detention centers.
A year later nothing has changed and repression against migrant workers and migrant workers' organizing continues. The government has carried out a severe attack against the Migrants' Trade Union (MTU), a union built by and for migrant workers, arresting and deporting its leadership in a targeted crackdown at the end of last year. It is also attempting to change South Korean immigration law to make it legal to enter buildings without warrants during immigration raids and stop anyone on the street "suspected of being an undocumented migrant."
We support the main demands of self-organized migrant justice groups in South Korea: stop the crackdown and deportations; legalize all undocumented migrant workers; stop the repression against MTU and migrant workers' organizing; & stop the worsening of immigration law.
Yesterday, on February 24, a nationwide rally was held in South Korea in support of these demands. We visit your offices today to re-iterate those just demands, and to stand in solidarity with the demonstrators on the streets of South Korea's cities and towns.
The migrant workers of South Korea are not alone. Locally, we struggle too against deportations and detentions, against exploitive "temporary work" programs and employers, and for workers democracy and dignity in the workplace.
We will continue to visit your office in protest until the demands of self-organized workers in South Korea and met.
An injury to one is an injury to all.
Coalition In Support of Agricultural Workers-Quebec
Immigrant Workers Center of Montreal
Migrant Agricultural Workers Support Centre-Quebec
No One Is Illegal-Montreal
PINAY, the Filipino Women's Organization in Quebec
Solidarity Across Borders"
For more pics, please see also:
Already Feb. 16 there was a Candle Light Protest in NYC/U.S.A.:
And last but not least.. here you can read
☞ KASAMMAKO's protest message ..for last Sunday's MTU rally!
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
The MTU and their supporters have been continuing their weekly vigils since the their entire leadership was arrested and deported in December, and more members have been deported since then. It's also been a year since the horrific Yeosu fire, not to mention that factory fire last fall that claimed a number of migrant workers. So it is certainly important for the MTU and their supporters to continue this important work. Here's the link to the video via CINA.
Monday, February 18, 2008
These statistics come from the yearly 2006 and 2007 'selected issues' reports from the IMF on Korea, available at their online archive here.
Wish this graphed the divergence between labour productivity and real wages back further (say to 1990) so one could grasp the larger trend. The dip in 2001 was probably from the credit crisis and a bit of a hangover from the 1997 crisis. At any rate, post-2002 it is clear that incomes are not rising with increased productivity.
I believe this figure (from SERI) is higher now, anyways, that exports and inequality seem to be going up together is certainly a indicator that not much is trickling down.
This last one is from a 2007 OECD report on labour market duality in Korea, it uses one of the more conservative measures of levels of irregular work (it does not include regular workers who are not paid bonuses and overtime which would make the 2005 figure approx 47%) but it still looks damning in comparision nonetheless.
The figure to look for here is adjusted consumption figure for Korea. The point here is that domestic consumption as % of GDP lags, link.
Here's a sample:
As the gap between rich and poor is expected to increase, the statistics typified a phenomenon that South Korea is facing: the co-existence of rich households with more income than those in a developed economy and poor households with income equivalent to those in an underdeveloped economy. Last year, the average monthly income of the bottom 20 percent households was 1,329,307 won (US$1,407). Given the average number of family members, 2.87, and a won-dollar exchange rate of 929.20, the annual per-capita income of the bottom 20 percent of the population was calculated at $5,982. In contrast, the average monthly income of the upper 20 percent of households was 7,234,415 won. With 3.64 family members, the annual per-capita income of the upper 20 percent was $25,667. According to worldwide income statistics for 2006, released by the World Bank, the standard of living of the bottom 20 percent of the population is similar to that of people living in Gabon and El Salvador, while the standard of living of the upper 20 percent is similar to that of people living in Australia and New Zealand.
The silver lining to all this may be the following:
According to recent surveys executed by Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun and Britain’s BBC, Korea has the highest ratio of people who are dissatisfied with socioeconomic polarization. Up to 86 percent of Koreans are discontent with the nation’s income disparity.I guess this is the major factor distinguishing inequality in Korea vs. other countries like the UK or the US, where people seem much more comfortable with the income gap, preferring to regard it as a failure of the individual rather than society. No such analysis seems possible in Korea yet -- I suppose because the memory of the developmental dictatorship, the economic crisis, and the clear structural biases of the different economic models Korea has followed (developmental dictatorship and some sort of chaebol-style or export push style neoliberalism) have always been apparent because of the rapid pace of economic mobilization (of getting people to work under bad conditions in export manufacturing to the neglect of domestic social issues and economic welfare), change (like flexibilizing the already precarious through their employment status), and reform (IMF and other shock therapy like labour legislation, FTAs, etc). All this creates winners and losers, or especially bitter losers judging as compensation for them is extremely low, just look at the figures on total welfare expenditure compared to other countries and you will see what I mean.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
A lonely death underscores sad migrants¨ plight
Immigration officials sympathize but say laws must be followed
February 11, 2008
A lonely death underscores sad migrants¨ plight
Immigration officials sympathize but say laws must be followed
February 11, 2008
Migrant workers stage a rally to protest a recent crackdown on illegal workers on Jan. 20 in Jongno, central Seoul. Advocates say Korea¨s 223,000 illegal workers often take jobs no one else wants. [NEWSIS]
＾For the first time in eight years, I saw my mom. She was lying cold on a slab at a morgue,￣ said Oh Jeong-hwa at a mourning altar for her mother at Seoul National University Hospital last week.
Oh¨s mother, Kwon Bong-ok, died on Jan. 15 after falling from the 8th floor of a motel in Seoul where she was working as an illegal immigrant. She had been dangling from the window ledge by her fingers to hide from South Korean immigration officers hunting for illegals.
The 51-year-old ethnic Korean from China came to Seoul in 1999 to earn money to pay off a family debt and provide college tuition for Oh. ＾My mother called me the day before she died and told me that she would come back to China soon. She said she missed me so much,￣ Oh said.
With the death of another migrant worker during an enforcement crackdown, the Korean Immigration Service has been facing criticism for its policies. Civic groups held a street rally last month to protest against the service¨s ＾merciless￣ inspection of workers.
Oh demanded that the service make an official apology for driving her mother into a corner. ＾How scared she must have been,￣ Oh lamented.
＾During past immigration inspections, several illegal aliens died after falling from buildings; some even committed suicide because they could not stand the pressure,￣ said Kim Hae-seong, the chairman of the Korea Migrants¨ Center, a support group.
The immigration service, however, says that sentiment is not the way to handle the issue of illegal immigration. With civic groups and some media emphasizing the hardships faced by illegal aliens, they neglect the fact that local laws are being violated and the service¨s enforcement efforts are hindered, immigration officials say. ＾We feel really sorry for her loss,￣ said Kim Young-geun, an official at the service. ＾Still, the inspection was conducted in accordance with the law and we cannot apologize for that.￣
According to the Justice Ministry, there were an estimated 223,000 illegal aliens in the country as of last year. About 22,000 illegal migrants were caught and deported last year, down from 23,000 in 2006, according to the service.
The risks of combating illegal immigration, say officials, run both ways. On Jan. 30, an immigration officer was stabbed in the thigh by a Bangladeshi illegal migrant who was trying to flee an inspection raid. Twenty immigration officers were injured last year, compared to six during similar enforcement drives in 2004, according to the service.
＾Because the media and civic groups protect illegal workers¨ rights, some illegals do not respect the officers¨ authority and are not afraid of attacking them,￣ said another official, who refused to be named.
According to police, Kwon locked herself in a room after she found out an inspection was underway at the motel in Jongno where she was working as a maid. When the officers opened the door after about 10 minutes, she had already fallen to her death eight floors below.
＾I went to the motel and I saw her fingerprints on the window sill. Her cell phone, the one she called me on the day before, was broken in half,￣ said Oh.
The immigration service¨s Kim claimed it was an unfortunate accident and that Kwon was likely trying to escape from the eighth floor to a seventh-floor window. ＾The gap between the two floors was just 1.5 meters (4.9 feet),￣ he said. ＾We agree with her family that she did not commit suicide. We think something went wrong while she was trying to go down.￣
Oh, who came to Seoul on Jan. 20 after learning of her mother¨s death, delayed the funeral until Feb. 5. ＾I was waiting for an apology from the inspection officers. But I decided to hold a funeral because I could not make her stay in a cold morgue during the Lunar New Year,￣ said Oh.
The director of the immigration service, Hwang Taek-hwan, attended the funeral but no official apology was made.
Migrant Trade Unions, a labor union of migrant workers in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, also has been holding daily protests since Dec. 13 after three Nepalese, who had been executive members of the union, were deported. The union and the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions argue that the service targeted union members.
＾They had lived here illegally for more than a decade. One forged his passport when he entered the country. It was an absolutely just decision [to deport them],￣ said the service¨s Kim.
The plight of the migrants, however, is understandable, said the migrant center¨s Kim. ＾Many paid a lump sum to a broker to come to Korea. They try to stay until at least they can pay back their debts,￣ he explained.
Soon Goon-saeng, a 40-year-old Chinese man, was one such worker. On Nov. 25, he was confronted by immigration officers as he was leaving a church service. He jumped from a third floor rooftop to the ground. He suffered two broken ankles and has been through two operations.
＾I paid 10 million won ($10,619) to a broker to come to Korea. If I return to China without paying back the debt, I will be harassed everyday,￣ said Soon, who has been hospitalized at a hospital run by the Migrant Workers¨ Center.
The center¨s Chairman Kim said the government should embrace illegal migrant workers by introducing a system in which they can go back to their country and return here with a valid visa. There is demand for their services and they do work that many Koreans no longer want to do, he said.
＾Most illegal migrant workers worked here for years before their visa expired. I think it would be waste for the government to force such experienced workers to leave the country,￣ said Kim.
Currently, foreign migrant workers are allowed to work under an employment permit system, which went into effect in 2004. Under the system, a worker can stay for up to three years and renew the visa for another three years the employee agrees.
For Oh, it is too late to worry about reforming a system that she believes is responsible for her mother¨s death. ＾I just hope there will be no one who suffers like my mother any more,￣ said Oh, sitting at the mourning altar alone.
Park Yeon-soo contributed to this article.
By Kim Soe-jung Staff Reporter [email@example.com]
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
For the moment, I would suggest keeping an eye on the Hankyoreh and on Chamsesang's new English service Newscham. There are interesting stories on both those sites about the Taean disaster, the split in the KDLP, and the slow emergence of Lee Myung Bak-ism all of which make a grim time for Korean progressive forces (hence the abyss) but also hopefully one that leads to better clarity and opportunity later.
Oh, and Matt's blog Gusts of Popular Feeling and his continuing play-by-play on the urban redevelopment of Seoul is not to be missed.