A migrant workers' union and civic activists lambasted the Seoul High Court's ruling, Friday, in favor of local companies underpaying foreign workers on commercial sea vessels. Describing the latest ruling as "racist," the union urged the Supreme Court to overrule the decision as Korea grows increasingly dependent on foreign laborers.
The leader of the union as well as human rights lawyers and civic activists held a press conference in front of the Supreme Court in Seoul on the occasion of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, which falls annually on Dec. 2.
The day marks the 1986 adoption of the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others by the General Assembly, and aims to draw attention to slavery that still exists in the world.
Their call came months after the Seoul High Court overturned a ruling by the Seoul Administrative Court that ordered a local company to make a fair compensation to a migrant sailor who suffered severe injuries while at work.
Udaya Rai, the head of the Migrants' Trade Union, called the high court's decision "racist" and demanded that the Supreme Court make a fair ruling and acknowledge the right of foreign workers to receive proper wages for their work.
"Migrant workers play an indispensable role in many Korean industries, including the agricultural and fisheries and manufacturing (sectors) … However, many are not given proper payment and overdue wages of migrant workers amount to 120 billion won ($91.8 million) every year. Several workers return home empty-handed after their hard work," he said.
"Under such circumstances, the high court ruled that paying migrant workers less than the minimum wage does not violate the constitutional principle of equality, citing a 'rational argument' to justify treating foreign commercial sea vessel crews differently," he added.
According to Rai, a Vietnamese migrant broke his right shoulder blade and lost his right thumb while reeling in metal-wired fishing nets on a Korean boat on May 4, 2020. He demanded compensation for the accident from the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives, which manages accident compensation insurance for fisheries industry workers.
However, he only received 1.86 million won ($1,400) per month in compensation, which is less than half of the average 4.5 million won given to Korean fishermen who suffer from accidents while working.
In response, the Vietnamese national filed a lawsuit to cancel and redress the calculation, to which the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in his favor. The Seoul High Court, however, dismissed his request in October this year and decided that underpaying foreign workers is justifiable.
The high court said foreign boat crewmen fall under standard labor contract regulations, which allows employers to consider their charge of board and lodging, and trips back to the worker's home country when calculating their wages.
According to the migrant labor union and numerous activists, a standard labor contract is the last resort for foreign workers to have their labor rights protected and should not be used to justify wage deductions.
Despite signing such contracts, foreign seamen experience violations of human and worker rights and psychological distress, including having their passports confiscated by employers, while laboring under dangerous and harsh conditions. Many migrant workers also live in subpar housing conditions, while being exposed to various industrial accidents, which often lead to little to no compensation, according to the activists.
"The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries belatedly announced last year that it will eliminate discrimination in minimum wage payments by 2026. Under such circumstances, the high court made a ruling that justifies wage discrimination against migrant boat crewmen, which is not in line with the government's policy," said Park Young-ah, an attorney with Gong Gam, a human rights law foundation.
Park said that the Seafarers Act, a special law on boat crew wages and conditions, includes the Labor Act's guidelines against discriminating against foreign workers based on nationality.
Also, the International Labor Organization (ILO) stipulates that employers should pay for "any fees or costs incurred in the recruitment process," including "expenses integral to recruitment and placement within or across national borders."
The deadline for the judgment by the Supreme Court on the case is indefinite.