Friday, October 23, 2009

Stop Crackdown, or Why a quarter of the foreign population in Korea still lives in the Fifth Republic

The Korea Times reports on an Amnesty International report on migrant workers in Korea:
In the 98-page report, Disposable Labour: Rights of migrants workers in South Korea [here, pdf] , Amnesty International documented how migrant workers often work with heavy machinery and dangerous chemicals without sufficient training or protective equipment and are at greater risk of industrial accidents, including fatalities, and receive less pay compared to South Korean workers.

“Migrant workers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation largely because they cannot change jobs without their employer’s permission,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Programme Director. “Work conditions are sometimes so bad that they run away and consequently, lose their regular status and are then subject to arrest and deportation.”

South Korea was one of the first Asian countries to legally recognise the rights of migrant workers and granted them the same status as Korean workers with equal labour rights, pay and benefits. However, five years on from the implementation of the Employment Permit System (EPS) that was meant to better protect the rights of migrant workers; many continue to face hardships and abuse.

In September 2008, there were an estimated 220,000 irregular migrant workers in the country. The government of South Korea pledged to half this number by 2012, launching a massive and sometimes violent crackdown on migrant workers. Immigration officers and the police are accused of sometimes using excessive force against migrant workers and operating outside the law.
Korea Beat translates an article elaborating on the last sentence:

On the 19th the office of Pro-Park Coalition Representative Noh Cheol-rae released a Ministry of Justice study which found that from 2006 through August of this year three foreign illegal immigrants were killed in raids and 24 were either seriously or lightly injured.

But no Immigration Service employee has been punished over this, the study found. In 2005 one Seoul Office of Immigration employee was indicted but found not guilty, and in August of this year two employees of the Daejeon Office of Immigration were punished without an arraignment process.

One such death, of a 51-year-old ethnic Korean woman from China who came to Seoul in 1999 to earn money to pay off a family debt and provide college tuition for her daughter, was described in this 2008 Joongang Ilbo article:
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 article about the Amnesty International report continues:
“Disposable Labour” documents how the South Korean government has not sufficiently monitored workplaces, with high numbers of accidents, inadequate medical treatment and compensation, and unfair dismissals. Amnesty International interviewed migrant workers who described how their employers forced them to work long hours and night shifts, without overtime pay, and often had their wages withheld by their employers.

“Despite the advances of the EPS system, the cycle of abuse and mistreatment continues as thousands of migrant workers find themselves at the mercy of employers and the authorities who mistreat them knowing their victims have few legal rights and are unable to access justice or seek compensation for the abuse,” said Roseann Rife.

Amnesty International research shows that women are at particular risk of abuse. Several female workers recruited as singers in US military camp towns have been trafficked into sexual exploitation, including the sex industry, by their employers and managers. Amnesty International spoke to trafficked women who said they had no choice but to remain in their jobs because they were in debt to their employer and did not know where to turn to for help. If the women ran away, they risked losing their legal status and being subject to deportation.

“These women are double victims, first they are trafficked and then they become “illegal” migrants under South Korean law when they attempt to escape from their exploitative situation,” said Roseann Rife.
The ostensible original purpose of the Industrial Trainee System (ITS, 1992-2006) was to allow jaebols like Samsung and LG to provide training to employees of their overseas branches, but instead it quickly became a way for small and medium sized businesses to import cheap labor. It's important to note that most migrant workers who worked under the ITS and who now work under the Employment Permit System (EPS, since 2004) have to pay brokers large amounts of money to come work in Korea, and take out loans to do so (a common figure I've seen is around $10,000 US). Needless to say, it takes time to pay that (and the accruing interest) back, and that is what led many (if not most) ITS workers to jump ship from their incredibly low-paying jobs (at which they were only allowed to stay for two years) and make more money illegally. This problem still exists with the EPS, which allows for stays of up to three years, but does not allow people to change jobs, making jumping ship a necessity in a bad situation (if they want to be able to pay back the loans). Essentially, it was the system that the Korean government (along with the Korea Federation of Small Businesses (KFSB)) created that led to so many 'illegal' workers, and the powers that be were generally happy to ignore them for years (other than the occasional 'crackdown', done for show), because who doesn't want an internal colony of powerless, cheap, disposable labor, especially in the midst of radicalized Korean labor unions?

When the EPS was implemented, it became pretty clear what the government wanted - anyone who had been in the country for more than four years had to get the hell out. While factory owners were annoyed, as they found that ''Migrant workers who have stayed for four years or longer tend to be diligent, responsible and reliable when working at our factories and take jobs that few South Koreans are willing to do", those same workers also were more likely to do things such as try to organize themselves and communicate with Korean activists willing to help them. Indeed, they had generally been the ones fighting for the ITS to be improved, and were purposely left out when the EPS came in, giving them no option to become legal workers. One of the activists involved in this struggle was Kabir Uddin, who discussed the situation many workers found themselves in and how he helped found a migrant workers trade union in this 2003 interview. Though Kabir was deported in 2005, the struggle he was a part of found success - for now:
The Seoul High Court issued a judgement on 1 February 2007 calling for the cancellation of the rejection by the authorities of the Migrant Workers' Trade Union's Notice of Union Founding. This ruling, in effect, recognizes and thereby legalizes the MTU as a union representing the rights of all migrant workers, regardless of their status. The Ministry of Labour has appealed against this decision to the Supreme Court.
This case is still pending.

One of the more interesting manifestations of the migrant protest movement took the stage at the June 2005 Migrants Arirang Festival at Seoul Plaza. From a Joongang Ilbo article:
A performance by a group of rock musicians at the “Migrants Arirang” festival before thousands of migrant workers and Seoul citizens tomorrow will be a unique celebration of Korea’s changing work force and the country’s demographics.

Stop Crackdown has not only become more popular among migrant workers who identify with the band’s cause for human rights for migrant workers, but has also gained bigger acceptance among Korean fans, who wrote words of encouragement on its Web site ( The rock band is scheduled to perform at the festival, but there is one thing that puts their appearance in doubt. All five members are staying illegally and are subject to deportation.

The band was formed in December 2003 when they were protesting against the police crackdown on illegal migrant workers in the Anglican Church near Deoksu Palace.

"We protest in hopes that the government will come up with different policies toward migrant workers," said Minod Moktan from Nepal. Vocalist Minod has been living and working for different factories in Korea for more than 10 years and can speak fluent Korean. Other members are Soe Moe Thu, Soe Thi Ha and Ko Nay from Myanmar and Harry Ken Achmad from Indonesia. Some of the members have played music in independent bands, and won awards in local contests before the band was formed. Bassist Soe Moe Thu was in a the group Eureka and even produced an album. Minod won a KBS singing contest for foreigners in 1999.

Just eight days after they formed, they recorded nine songs for an album. A studio gave them free recording time. “Our friends have taken their own lives after the deportation began,” Minod said. “These things become history, and many migrant workers return to their country with grievances.”[...]

The public response has been positive, he said. “Some said it changed their perception on migrant workers or even said, ‘Migrant workers are human beings like us,’” Soe Moe Thu said.

According to Minod, police are checking door-to-door in neighborhoods with a high concentration of migrant workers as part of a crackdown. “The ministry invited us, and we are very anxious and don’t know whether to perform or not,” Minod said jokingly. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has reportedly asked Immigration Bureau to lay off the crackdown tomorrow for fear of scaring away migrant workers. “We don't want much,” Soe Moe Thu said. “We just hope that migrant workers and Koreans become closer to each other.”
It wasn't until I saw this article again that I was reminded of their first performance at a 'cultural festival on the grounds of the Anglican Church near City Hall in December 2003. I was there, and remember it, and a quick search on my computer turned this up:

Here's a short clip of Stop Crackdown doing a cool-sounding sound check at Seoul Plaza for the 'Migrants Arirang'.

Stop Crackdown was not allowed to play their song of the same name, but their name was on a large screen, getting their message across anyway. It's helpful when your band's name is a political statement. This is both a great song and video - and as an exercise in empathy, a wonderful piece of propaganda.

Now, back to the crackdowns that don't stop, in this case one involving the singer for Stop Crackdown:

In the wake of a hurricane crackdowns on undocumented migrant workers and the detention of 33-year-old Nepali musician and cultural activist Minu (real name Minod Moktan) by the Korea Immigration Service, protests over target crackdowns are growing. [...]

Prior to this recent target crackdown, the Korea Immigration Service had arrested and deported undocumented migrant workers who had served as leaders of the Migrants Trade Union, a union founded for and by migrants, in 2007 and 2008. According to representatives of migrant worker groups, Minu, who had been engaged in human rights activism, became a target after a recent election of documented migrant workers to positions of leadership.

Previous crackdowns on MTU leaders include this one and this one.

Some labor analysts and human rights observers are commenting on the need for reevaluating positions on issues facing undocumented migrant workers as they have effectively become integrated members of Korean society. In Minu’s case, he immigrated to South Korea in 1992 and went to work at restaurants and sewing factories in the Uijeongbu area. During this time, he campaigned actively on social issues, produced a documentary on migrant worker human rights and served as head of the executive committee for the Migrant Worker Film Festival. He has also been the recipient of a number of awards, including the Grand Prize at the Foreign Artists Competition, and was awarded a plaque of appreciation from the Minister of Culture in 1999.

More on his arrest can be found here, which makes the case that it was no random arrest, but that he was targeted for his activism:

In 2003, during a historic sit-down protest against the crackdown on undocumented migrant workers, Minod founded the first multicultural migrants’ band in South Korea—“Stop Crackdown Band.” In 2005 Minod also helped to found MWTV, a television station that provides a ‘voice’ to migrants through which to speak about their lives and experiences. He has served as MWTV’ Co-Representative and Director of its Film Production Team. He has also produced two documentaries that look at the lives of migrant workers in South Korea. All of Minod’s cultural activities have been carried out with the goal of raising awareness about the discrimination and human rights abuses faced by migrants in South Korea and creating cross-cultural dialogue as a means to address these problems.
A Facebook group has been set up with information and links to a petition. A related video is here.

The Hankyoreh story continues:

Target crackdowns that have occurred in the wake of President Lee Myung-bak’s remark last March that “illegal residents should not be allowed to just strut around” have been widely condemned by human rights and labor organizations around the world. Representatives at the press conference say, “This pattern of target crackdown has become so obvious that it has induced intervention on the parts of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association.” The number of deported migrant workers has gone up from around 20 thousand a year during the Roh Moo-hyun administration to 32 thousand last year under the Lee administration. As of late July 2009, some 17 thousand have lost their jobs and were deported.

As much as we'd all like to criticize Lee Myung-bak, the Roh Moo-hyun administration also deported a lot of migrant workers. When the EPS was first instituted at the end of 2003 everyone who had stayed in Korea for over 4 years had to leave, and by the end of the year 40,000 had either left voluntarily during an amnesty, or had been deported. At least nine people committed suicide. In 2004 - still under Roh Moo-hyun, remember - an article titled "Government Tightens the Screw on Alien Workers" was published.

From next January to August, 118,519 people's visas will become invalid.[...] If only half of them return to their home countries - as was the case this year - the number of alien laborers staying here illegally will exceed 270,000. If this estimation turns out to be true, Korea will become a lawless world for migrant workers, and governmental policies will cease to be binding.
First of all, the figures for undocumented workers at the end of 2006 - two years later - was almost 212,000 [see here], so the doom and gloom scenario above did not occur. Second, even if the number had reached 270,000, there were more than that by 2003, and Korea did not "become a lawless world for migrant workers" at that time, which suggested that either those pushing such a scenario were either unaware of the past, or were engaging in scare tactics. More elaborate scare tactics were seen in October 2004, when the Marmot's Hole reported that
in materials submitted to Rep. Kim Jae-gyeong of the National Assembly's Legislation and Judiciary Committee, the Justice Ministry revealed that anti-Korean activities on the part of illegal foreign residents in Korea were on the rise, and there were concerns that some of these malcontents might try to link their activities up with al-Qaeda. According to one high-ranking government official, “Among the Muslim illegal residents here in Korea, there are individuals worthy of keeping an eye on.” [...]

The Chosun said the authorities first became aware of these anti-Korean activities during a demonstration by illegal residents held at Myeongdong Cathedral early this year. During the demonstration, protestors shouted slogans like “We totally refuse to leave Korea on our own,” “Overthrow the government,” and “We oppose the Iraq deployment.” According to the government, this was the first time the protests took on a political nature; previous protests by illegal aliens had been small affairs focused on crackdowns on illegal aliens. The government judged that behind the now political protests were certain “radical forces,” and began preparing countermeasures.

I knew some of the people in the photo below, and attended some of the Myeong-dong rallies (the 'sit-in' that began there in November 2003 lasted for over a year). The involvement in anti-war rallies and the like generally stemmed from the quid pro quo system (especially among the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) which can be summed up by 'if you attend my protest I'll attend yours.' I know very well that the idea that these people would have ties to foreign terrorist groups was patently ridiculous. I can also assure you, considering the way in which they were monitored by immigration police (likely including phone taps) that the authorities knew this as well, making this accusation a blatant scare tactic.

As for the kind of countermeasures that the government prepared, this Chosun Ilbo article, titled "Residents Engaging in Anti-Korean Activities to Be Deported," gives us a clue:
The Ministry of Justice has judged that anti-Korean activity, focused on illegal foreign residents, is on the rise, and accordingly, will punish those involved under the National Security Law or criminal code and forcefully deport them.
"Foreign workers hold a press conference in front of the Sejong
Center for Performing Arts on Aug. 17, protesting forced
deportation and calling for the legalization of all illegal
foreign workers in Korea."

The Justice Ministry said the countermeasures had been prepared because illegal foreign residents were linking up with radical forces and civic groups to oppose government policies in an organized way and hold illegal demonstrations.

The justice ministry shall regard the following as anti-Korean activities: denying the Korean system (i.e. government) or policies, or stressing the negative aspects of Korea; terrorism conspiracies or threats; leading or inciting demonstrations against national policies; and criticizing government measures while making political claims, and propagating those claims.
Before you go complaining about the 'dictator' Lee Myung-bak, you might want to remember that this was all on 'progressive' Roh Moo-hyun's watch. The activities listed as anti-Korean above would make a great many foreign bloggers, and any foreigner who has complained to the NHRCK about the E-2 HIV tests, for example, fair game for arrest and deportation. I couldn't help but note the threat of using the National Security Law, and how similar those anti-Korean activities above correspond with it, or with some of the Emergency Measures of the mid 1970s, which banned nearly all criticism of the government.

With this in mind, it's worth reading this piece by Jamie Doucette comparing the plight of migrant workers to the Korean concept of minjung, a term used during the democracy movement of the 1970s and 1980s, a pairing first inspired by noting the location of the migrant worker's protest: Myeongdong Cathedral, the traditional refuge for student activists in the 1980s. Even the way the demonstration suppression tactics I've seen were carried out, with the riot police would try to surround the migrant workers (who would be defended by Korean activists) and then send in immigration police to grab them (using tasers if necessary), were a throwback to the days of the fifth republic when grab squads would haul in students isolated by the riot police.

While what I've just described took place under the Roh Administration, it also presided over the largest drop in the population of undocumented workers, as the number dropped by 150,000 between 2003 and 2004. It wasn't crackdowns, however, but legalization that was most responsible (a more in-depth look at this is here). Mind you, it was temporary legalization, and it was acknowledged by the authorities in 2004 that as their "visas [became] invalid [...] only half of them return[ed] to their home countries [...] this year", but, as the government complained about this, they continued to import new workers, all while being aware that their (occasionally flammable) immigration prisons only have space for around 1,300 people. In other words, the government is aware that their policy is only going to increase the number of undocumented workers. The government knows well that workers must pay off the loans accrued when paying off brokers to come to Korea in the first place, and can probably guess that allowing them to stay longer might lower the number who overstay, but don't want people staying that long, as they might form attachments to Korea, and so don't change things, which leads to people (over)staying for long periods of time anyways. It was the original sin of the ITS (and government indifference) that led to so many people becoming illegal residents, but this has never been acknowledged. Whatever one's thoughts are on overstaying by people under the EPS or on tourist visas, consideration should be given to those who fled unjust treatment under the ITS, especially to someone who has spent 17 years - half his life - here.

Needless to say, a government that spouts rhetoric about becoming a multicultural society but through its inaction (and its action of crackdowns) keeps a quarter of its foreign population living in a terror of the police and immigration agents similar to that felt by citizens and student activists back in the days of Yushin and the fifth republic probably should drop that 'multicultural' rhetoric.


David tz said...

There's no point making laws protecting migrant workers if no one follows those laws. This kind of shit is what makes South Korea a joke in the eyes of the international community.

King Baeksu said...

Excellent write-up, thanks much.

K said...

You get better and better. Well done.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel said...

Thank you, this is so important.

Anonymous said...

An important post.

While the E-2 and E-6 visa mandatory HIV tests are well known, Amnesty International reports that E-9s are now also being AIDS tested on arrival.

The AI report points out the clear connection that exists between all migrant workers (and I mean to include English teachers here) which thus far hasn't received the attention and acknowledgment it deserves.

"Among the foreign workforce in South Korea, [E-6 visa holders] along with those under the E-9 and E-2 work schemes, are singled out by the government in its discriminatory policy of mandatory disclosure of HIV status. South Korean workers are not required to test for HIV in order to apply for similar positions[.]" Disposable Labour: Rights of Migrant Workers in South Korea, Amnesty International.

Joe Blow said...

"a government that spouts rhetoric about becoming a multicultural society"

This is just something that Western institutions (like AI) force Asian and other states to say. The Koreans have no need to become "multicultural". Korean migration policy should not follow us (the west) off the Balkan Cliff.

They should, and will, enforce their laws regarding migration.

And will you E2 cowboys stop crying about an HIV test. If you migrate to a foreign land you play by their rules. If they want an HIV test you give them an HIV test and then STFU. If you find it oh-so-horrible that they ask for one then continue being a night managers in the tech section at Target.

King Baeksu said...

"This is just something that Western institutions (like AI) force Asian and other states to say. The Koreans have no need to become "multicultural"."

Wow, that's an interesting viewpoint. I wasn't aware that it was Western institutions that were responsible for the tens of thousands of foreign brides from SE Asia and China being imported here for rural Korean men, who in turn are raising a whole new generation of multicultural families across the Peninsula.

Thank you so much for your very enlightening and relevant contribution to the post at hand!

Anonymous said...

Joe - you miss the point that efforts against the mandatory HIV testing regime is not simply about "foreigners rights."

It is Korean experts that want to abandon these mandatory tests.

The Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) has just completed a study saying the mandatory test scheme should be dropped. And they didn't come to their conclusion to just to stop "E2 cowboys" from "crying". It's because the system isn't effective.

The conclusion reads: "A question on the efficiency of current mandatory test is raised because the seroprevalence of mandatory test takers was low. However, HIV ISG included voluntary test takers was high in our result. Therefore, we suggest that Korea needs to develop a method encouraging more people to take voluntary tests [and] also to expand the anonymous testing centers and Voluntary Counseling and Testing Program..."

But we could just tell the KCDC scientists to go screw themselves, that if they don't like to play by the rules the government has established then they can just quit the KCDC and go back to dispensing benadryl late night at the E-Mart pharmacy.

We could do that, but of course we'd be idiots to go that route because we'd be favoring government ignorance at the expense of Korean public health and foreigner's human rights, which strange as it may seem to the xenophobic ignoramuses are not mutually exclusive.

The reason Korean lawyers have teamed up with foreigners to fight the tests is because its in everyone's interest.

Foreigners' human rights are important but it's never been a question of foreigners rights at the expense on Koreans health. In fact it's the opposite. By promoting foreigners human rights on this issue you are promoting Korean public health.

Do you remember why the mandatory HIV tests for English teachers were put in place? It was because they were alleged to have such a high voluntary HIV testing rate - exactly what the KCDC is encouraging. But the government put a stop to that. And by amping up the stigma on HIV/AIDS you get a direct chilling effect on voluntary testing which flows over into other areas of society - other foreign populations, and the Korean population. In short, less voluntary testing all around. Less voluntary testing means fewer opportunities to diagnosis individuals with HIV who don't know they have it. 13,000 Koreans are estimated to be HIV+, many are unaware of their status.

In canceling the deportation order of a foreigner with HIV, the Seoul High Court said that

"From the perspective of HIV/AIDS prevention, the most dangerous thing for society is not persons who are infected with HIV and aware of their status, but persons who are infected with the disease and unaware of their status. A person who is aware of infection will be less likely spread the disease. In the final analysis, encouraging the public to voluntarily receive HIV testing by protecting the human rights of people living with HIV/AIDS is the most effective
policy for preventing the spread of the disease. The current policy of deportation, therefore, is not a sound method for protecting the public health."

But you could do like you suggest (and the government has done, since they are appealing this decision) and just tell the judge to shut his face, that logic and the public health isn't going to get in the way of "play[ing] by their rules" as you put it.

Again, you could do all this and make absurd categorical statements like - "They should, and will, enforce their laws regarding migration." - as if there had never been a bad immigration law on the books, but you'd be an idiot promoting ignorance at the expense of the public health.

Anonymous said...

Great post...
I feel all foreigners in Korea can relate to these workers.

It might be interested to note than due to the amount of people from poorer countries entering Korea as students and never turning up to class, because they started to work immidiately in a factory...that students who come here to study with a d-2 visa are now no longer to do any additional part-time work during their 1st semester. They can start a part time job in their second semester.

In other words workers from poor countries found a way to enter Korea as students but then would jump ship and start to work. I only know this because I was denied an additional work visa for a part-time job during my first semester at grad school.

Why is Korea which has such a demand for these foreign workers making it so hard for them to be legally employed? The only we the factories can get these workers is searching for loopholes. But the demand continues.

sarahinsouthkorea said...

Great post!

Matt, I met Soe Moe Thu - the band member of 'Stop Crackdown' a few days ago. He has got a refugee status. He's living a life without the fear of being deported.

Things are getting better - thanks to each and everyone of you- who have done so much to highlight the issues of migrant workers.