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[INTERVIEW] Scholar-activist immerses herself in dire working conditions facing Cambodian farmworkers

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Woo Choon-hee, migrant rights scholar and activist, poses during an interview with The Korea Times at the newspaper's office in Seoul, June 20. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Woo Choon-hee, migrant rights scholar and activist, poses during an interview with The Korea Times at the newspaper's office in Seoul, June 20. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Ph.D. student Woo Choon-hee brings migrant workers' long working hours, inhumane living conditions to light in her recent book

By Lee Hyo-jin

A day in the life of a female Cambodian migrant worker on a perilla leaf farm in Gyeongsang Province begins at 6:30 a.m. She squats and picks the leaves, ties 10 of them into a bundle and then tosses it into a box. The process is repeated until 5:30 p.m. To meet the daily target of harvesting 15,000 leaves, equivalent to 15 cartons, she often skips bathroom breaks or even lunch breaks. If she misses the daily harvest target, her employer may threaten to cut her monthly salary, which is barely set at Korea's minimum wage.

At the end of each day, the freshly-picked perilla leaves are sent to a cold storage warehouse and then to local grocery stores across the country, to be eventually served on Koreans' dinner tables.

In her recent book titled, "Struggles with Perilla Leaves: 1,500 Days with Cambodian Migrant Workers," scholar-activist Woo Choon-hee looks into the daily lives of foreign-born workers on perilla farms, a crop she views symbolizes the growing presence of foreign workers in Korea's agricultural workforce.

"Perilla is a fast-growing crop which is available for harvest year-round. It's quite profitable for farm owners employing foreign workers, as it can keep the employees' hands busy all year-round," Woo said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.

Cambodian laborers work on a perilla leaf farm in Gyeongsang Province in this photo taken in June 2020. Courtesy of Woo Choon-hee
Cambodian laborers work on a perilla leaf farm in Gyeongsang Province in this photo taken in June 2020. Courtesy of Woo Choon-hee

She added, "Foreign workers, too, prefer to work on farms where there's no winter break. They want to make as much money as possible during their stay in Korea, which is limited to less than five years by law."

The book, published in May, features the difficulties often faced by migrant workers ― harsh working environments, delayed payments, unfair treatment, dire living conditions and sexual abuse by employers ― based on in-depth interviews conducted among 40 foreign workers and over 20 Korean farm owners.

In Korea, with the agricultural workforce rapidly aging and young Koreans avoiding farm work, migrants have filled these shortfalls over the past decade.

Since 2004, through the employment permit system (EPS) operated by the Ministry of Labor and Employment, about 50,000 workers from 16 countries enter the country to work in the manufacturing, agricultural and fishing sectors. Among them, about 8,000 are Cambodian nationals.

"I found my interest in farm labor grew while doing my Ph.D. in sociology in the U.S. So I spoke to some farmers in Korea to learn more about the farm work here, but they told me that Koreans are no longer working on farms," she said. "They have been replaced by foreign workers."

After learning the Khmer language to better communicate with Cambodian workers, Woo left for Cambodia in August 2019 to meet Cambodians who were preparing to come to Korea through the EPS. But she had to return to Korea due to the COVID-19 outbreak in February 2020.

In the summer of that year, with the help of a local farmer, she was able to stay on a perilla leaf farm in Gyeongsang Province for two months and observe the daily lives of Cambodian workers there: how they work, where they dwell, what they eat and how much they earn.

Woo Choon-hee speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the newspaper's office in Seoul, June 20. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Woo Choon-hee speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the newspaper's office in Seoul, June 20. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

"During the first few days on the farm, I was surprised by the amount of work they had to do every day. It takes about 10 hours to harvest 15,000 leaves even for skilled workers. The task seemed virtually impossible for the foreign workers, but they were forced to do so," she said.

Woo also found it difficult to adapt to where the migrant workers were housed.

"Three Cambodian workers lived together in a house provided by the farm owner, located right next to an abandoned house. Seeing the unsanitary toilet and kitchen, it was hard to believe that the workers were paying the employer a monthly rent of 1 million won ($770) to live in these conditions."

She added, "Then I found out that many farm owners think that it is okay for the migrant workers to live in these dire conditions because they are from poor countries. But nobody deserves to be treated that way."

However, it is hard for the foreign workers to speak up about their poor working conditions, since they are brought here on visas that are tied to a specific employer. The workers fear that they may be sent back home for complaining about their working or living conditions.

Woo said that more attention should be paid to the lives of migrant workers, who have been largely invisible in our society. "They contribute a lot to our food system and rural economies. But the government policies and our society treat them like people who can be replaced so easily, not as members of our society."

"I hope that Koreans can show their love for food not only to Mukbang videos or Instagram worthy restaurants and cafes, but also to the foreign farmworkers who are actually picking the food that ends up on our tables," she said.


Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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