|Migrant workers in Korea and supporters of their human rights parade in Jongno-gu, Seoul, in December 2003, bearing photos of migrant workers who died during a crackdown on illegal migrants due for deportation. Protesters demanded no more forced deportations and that migrant workers who have been killed be remembered on International Migrants Day on Dec. 18. Korea Times file|
The Justice Ministry has ignored immigrants for more than 20 years, says the head of the Changwon migrant workers support center.
By Ko Dong-hwan
Two Cambodian female workers at a hot pepper and perilla leaf farm in the South Gyeongsang Province rural city of Miryang reported to police in June that their Korean boss consistently harassed them.
The migrants, aged 25 and 24, who worked there for 14 months and three months respectively, accused their employer, identified by his surname Park, to Gimhae Jungbu Police Station. Miryang police took over the case.
The following month, the women asked the employment and labor ministry to change their workplace.
According to the victims' testimonies, Park treated them like his property, touching and grabbing their buttocks and other body parts ― even in front of his friends.
Park forced them to work overtime past the hours stated in the employment contracts they had signed, and never paid them due wages. Often they were given tasks too hard for women ― moving heavy bags of onions or dismantling metal rods from vinyl houses by themselves.
Their accommodation was inhumane. They lived in a dilapidated hut without air conditioning or heating. The hut had a broken window hastily covered by a cardboard box, and a pit dug outside for a toilet. The place, shared by two other migrant workers, was vulnerable to the scorching summer and frigid winter. Park deducted 230,000 won (around $200) from their monthly wage as rent.
"After the ordeal, I was afraid and scared to look at his face," the 25-year-old, who started working at the farm in April 2017, told The Korea Times, speaking in Khmer. She looked far from relaxed, holding her hands tight and keeping her words to minimum. "I wish such humiliation will never happen to me again."
The other worker, who came to the farm in March this year, said that after Park harassed her, "I was afraid of doing any new task because it might entail more sexual harassment from him." She feared that another worker taking her place would suffer the same humiliation.
Before coming to Korea, the women had watched Korean TV news and drama series and dreamed of working in Korea. They also believed the Korean legal system would protect them if they were in a trouble. They were shocked and disappointed when their boss treated them "like a prostitute." The 24-year-old thought earning money in Korea would be easy, but she had been wrong.
"But coming here to see people helping me makes me feel that I'm not alone," the 25-year-old said at Gyeongnam Migrants' Center in Changwon, which since 1998 has been helping migrant workers claim their legal rights. The pair wished to meet a new, kind boss. They did not want to go back to Cambodia until their visas expire in four to five years.
|Cambodian migrant workers who suffered sexual harassment at the hands of their Korean employer at a farm in Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, throughout 2017-18 tell of their experiences via an interpreter at Gyeongnam Migrants' Center in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, on Aug. 2. Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan|
Two Bangladesh men also were victims of abuse by a Korean employer. Aged 22 and friends from back home, they worked at a cut-iron supplier in Namhae in South Gyeongsang province from August 2017 until March 2018 when they reported their boss to the city police for consistent beatings and labor abuse.
The employer, surnamed Park, contacted one of them four months later asking him to come back, but the men asked for a change of workplace. They also asked that Park be prosecuted and they be compensated for psychological damage.
"Even for simple mistakes we made, he got angry and beat us," one man said in Korean. They said the beatings were "so painful."
"When he made us work overtime and do tasks not stated in our employment contracts, we wanted to record the scene and his voice as evidence using our smartphones," one man said, referring to the times when Park ordered them to clean underground sewage near his home, build a new house and clean his wife's coffee shop. "But he confiscated our phones, screamed at us using expletives and told us not to go to the labor ministry where he could be sued."
Park not only physically harassed them ― throwing a spanner at them, beating them with a sweeper and kicking them ― but also fudged the hours the pair worked.
"As long as my working hours are fully paid, I want to work for my boss and call him my new family because I don't have my family here," one of the pair said, smiling.
In addition to these cases, an Uzbek student on a visa was assaulted by five Changwon Immigration Office staff members in July after being mistaken for an illegal alien, and charged for working without a permit stirred the public.
The officials' inhumane treatment of the victim and their failure to check the victim's status before assaulting him were widely criticized. A surveillance video that recorded the disturbing scene just outside a sewage tunnel construction company in Haman, South Gyeongsang Province, where he worked part-time was released at a press conference by Gyeongnam Migrants' Center later that month.
The justice ministry then issued a press release explaining that the officers "abided by rules in the process of apprehending the Uzbek." The statement did not contain a word of apology to the victim.
The explanation only fanned public anger. The student's testimony to the center revealed the recorded scene was not all that happened. While taking him to the immigration office and after locking him behind bars, the officers threatened him with an electric truncheon, demanding that he sign a paper admitting that he was an illegal alien who had tried to work.
Incarcerated for five days without knowing why, the tourism student from Suwon University and former English instructor in Uzbekistan, not understanding Korean, kept explaining, with the help of another inmate who spoke Korean, that he had a valid visa. But the officers did not listen.
The student, 24, was released July 20 after the school, informed by his school friend, filed a letter of reconsideration to the immigration office. The student was fined 500,000 won for working without a permit.
The case was sent to Gyeongnam Provincial Police Agency rather than local police due to its gravity. The authority plans to send the case to prosecutors. On July 30, a medical diagnosis showed he suffered concussion, had multiple signs of contusion and required two weeks' rest.
|During a press conference at Gyeongnam Migrants' Center on July 31, President Lee Chul-seung, third from right, speaks about Korean employers' abuse and sexual harassment of migrant workers. The latest victims, two Bangladesh men, far left, and two Cambodian women, far right, and Subedi Yagya Raj, a Nepalese-Korean activist for migrant workers, third from left, attended the conference. Courtesy of Gyeongnam Migrants' Center|
Callous authority, unchanging awareness
|Gyeongnam Migrants' Center President Lee Chul-seung.|
"You know what the ministry's slogan is?" Lee Chul-seung, who has been leading Gyeongnam Migrants' Center since its establishment, asked rhetorically. "Fair and Just Society Where Human Rights Are Respected." He mumbled and pondered upon the "human rights are respected" phrase. Then he continued. "I wonder whether officials at the ministry even keep that phrase in their heads. It should be in their hearts, not just in heads. But seeing that video showing the beat-up student from Uzbekistan, where those assailants used their authority as an excuse to brutally trample his human rights, I think the phrase must have been lost in their heads."
Lee, with decades of experience in helping migrant workers unfairly treated at workplaces, was upset at the ministry's press release, claiming it was "an irresponsible excuse that disregarded its own slogan." None of the explanations sensibly justified the brutal beating of the student in broad daylight, he said
"Who are they to say they are from the justice ministry so above the law? Aren't we all equal?" he said.
There are now 2.3 million foreign residents in Korea. Yet the nation's immigration policies and the ministry's handling of those laws are still largely bound by administrative services catering to foreign "visitors" ― lacking practical solutions for the vast number of foreign "residents." In other words, the authorities still recognize foreigners, including migrant workers, as temporary visitors rather than residents.
|Lee and visitors at Gyeongnam Migrants' Center, who joined a walkout campaign by migrant workers from South Gyeongsang Province, hold a placard that says 'Ban Racism.' The activist has been supporting migrant workers who have suffered unjust treatment from their Korean employers. Courtesy of Gyeongnam Migrants' Center|
"The figure of 2.3 million signifies that most of the foreigners in Korea are no longer tourists," Lee said. "It means we have a growing number of foreigners who spent at least 90 days here and have started putting down roots in our land. This is why the ministry must start acknowledging the migrant workers as immigrants, not people from the third world who they will never see again."
He said the ministry's outdated perspective persisted because immigration offices had two mixed nominal missions ― controlling foreign visitors and making policies for foreign residents. In the face of growing ethnic diversity, separating the latter and introducing a dedicated authority as a control tower was necessary. Such bi-functional immigration policies only worked decades ago when there were far fewer foreign residents and the main task was to be a gatekeeper monitoring foreign visitors.
"An unprecedented number of people are immigrating and crossing borders not only in Korea but all over the world," Lee said, referring to more than 500 Yemeni refugee applicants on Jeju Island in May and migrants from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. "The number of migrants settling in Korea will only continue to grow."
The United Nations believed Korea was a viable destination for immigrants and advised the Korean government to introduce policies in favor of the newcomers. But racism has continued among Koreans with unchanging views about migrants from countries they deem to be inferior. This wrongful perception has for decades prevented many Koreans from embracing the displaced people.
|Migrant workers in Korea and supporters demand the right to have workers' visas and fair treatment from the government during a street protest in Jongno-gu, Seoul in December 2003. Korea Times file|
The country has an unfortunate record when it comes to migrant workers. In the last decade, more than 5,800 migrant workers died in Korea ― 1,080 of them in industrial accidents. Unpaid wages to migrant workers mounted to more than 11.5 billion won during the period. The workers were unpaid mostly because 67 percent worked for small manufacturing firms, mostly subcontractors, and agricultural farms with 10 or fewer employees. These smaller operations often went broke, leaving the workers unpaid.
"We have been inviting migrant workers for 30 years," Lee said. "And we still put them in non-specialized sectors requiring simple labor. We should deploy more skilled migrant workers and use these skills."
Another outcome is that more and more migrant workers are facing severe working environments, including overtime labor and forced work not stated in employment contracts. According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea's revised definition of human trafficking in 2016 ― prompted by the UN's anti-organizational crime report "Trafficking in Persons" ― such deceptive working conditions can be classified as human trafficking, more commonly associated with forced prostitution.
The workers also suffer from one of the most outrageous working conditions in Korea ― without an employer's agreement, they cannot change their workplace.
Many employers refuse to let their migrant workers freely go and often demand kickbacks. Workers are then left with two options ― sticking to jobs at which they are unhappy or leaving Korea. Despair borne of such a predicament drove two Nepalese to kill themselves in 2016. Between 2007 and 2017, 36 Nepalese workers committed suicide in Korea.
"With some of the worst environmental conditions for migrant workers, including shockingly sub-standard accommodation, and lack of basic hygiene facilities, no Korean would ever want to work in such an environment," Lee said.
"If immigration policy makers handling migrants ever got off their chairs and came out to check these horrible conditions, so many problems would have been resolved already."