Monday, December 14, 2009

Migrant workers submit petition to the NHRCK over HIV testing

This article is two weeks old - it seems the English media didn't report on it, and I could only find this Yonhap article (and reprints of it) in Korean (hat tip to Benjamin Wagner):
Activists protest S.Korea's HIV testing for foreign workers
By AFP - Tue Dec 1, 9:06 AM PST

SEOUL (AFP) - Activists Tuesday filed a petition with South Korea's human rights watchdog, seeking an end to mandatory HIV tests for some foreign workers.

A group representing HIV carriers, a migrants' trade union and three other rights groups said in their petition that the policy breaches the rights of migrant workers, according to the National Human Rights Commission which received the document.

Foreign applicants must prove they do not have HIV to qualify for work in the entertainment sector or low-skilled industries in South Korea. But local workers are not required to do so, Amnesty International says.

South Korea also requires HIV testing of would-be language teachers from overseas.

The Ministry of Labour obliges all low-skilled work applicants to submit physical examination results including HIV testing in their countries of origin. Upon arrival in South Korea, they are tested a second time for HIV and if positive are subject to deportation, Amnesty said in a report published in October.

Such practices are "in breach of the rights to human worth and dignity and rights to work" the five groups said in the petition filed to coincide with World AIDS Day. They said discrimination against foreigners on grounds of nationality, social status or illness was in breach of the constitution.

"According to South Korea's AIDS prevention law, a person's consent is required before testing for HIV. But foreign workers are made to receive health checks without being informed that they include a HIV test," Youn Gabriel, the head of Nanuri+, an HIV carriers' group, said.

"Even foreigners who have received work permits are deported from the country if they test positive for HIV," Youn was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency. More than 600 foreigners have been forced to leave since the late 1980s, he said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has urged South Korea to remove emigration and immigration controls on foreigners with HIV, noting it is one of 12 countries in the world with such restrictions.
Notice the mention made of a 'migrants' trade union'. The name of this union is the Migrants' Trade Union (MTU), and their site is here. The Seoul High Court recognized their right to form a union in January 2007, but this decision was appealed by the government, and the case is pending. So this Korea Herald article from last week isn't quite correct:
A group of foreign nationals working in Korea has formed a labor union, the law firm representing them said Tuesday, in a first for the country, according to Yonhap news.

Five foreign lecturers working at an educational institute in Incheon, west of Seoul, received approval from local authorities on Nov. 24 to launch the union, according to the firm. Its members later increased to nine.
Actually, there was another attempt by foreign English teachers to unionize back in 2001 or 2002 which resulted in the presence of gangsters and riot police outside the hagwon, if I remember correctly. That story just popped into my head now - I'll see if I can track down more information.

As for the MTU, they posted this on their site:
Today, we got 'Concluding observations of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' on S.Korea. [A]mong the recommendations,

20. The Committee is concerned that migrant workers are subject to exploitation, discrimination and unpaid wages.

The Committee recommends that the Employment Permit System that has already recognized migrant workers as workers entitled to Labour Law protection be further reviewed. The Committee recommends that particular attention be paid to the fact that the three month period stipulated for a change in job is highly insufficient. This is especially true in the current economic situation, in which migrant workers often have little choice but to accept jobs with unfavorable work conditions just to remain regular. The Committee further recommends that the State party uphold the High Court’s decision to grant legal status to the Migrants’ Trade Union. [Emphasis added]
The last sentence was certainly seen as good news by the MTU. It goes on to list other recommendations by the Committee, including the following:
23. The Committee is concerned that, notwithstanding the fact that the State party legislation penalizes trafficking not only for prostitution or sexual exploitation but for any profit purpose, a high number of women and children continue to be trafficked from, through and within the country for purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labour, especially women workers originally arriving on an E6 visa (entertainment). The Committee is particularly concerned about the low number of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers. (Art. 10)

The Committee recommends that the State party intensify its efforts to combat trafficking in human beings, especially women and children, for any purpose, inter alia, by:

(a) strengthening monitoring of issuance of E6 visas
Well, they needn't worry about monitoring E6 visas. As noted here, when Immigration announced it was considering removing HIV tests from the E9 and E2 visa application process, it was announced that
"There will be no changes for E-6 visa applicants. We do not deal with non-professional workers as the Labor Ministry is responsible for AIDS tests on E-9 visa applicants," Ahn Kyu-seok, the KIS spokesman told the Korea Times.
It's hard to see such a quick dismissal of changes for E-6 visa applicants regarding HIV testing as anything but an acknowledgment that the E-6 visa is being used for sex work.

It's good to see migrant workers challenging HIV testing as being discriminatory. What would be even more interesting would be seeing E-6 visa holders doing the same thing, as it might shine a light on the open secret of that visa's use in importing foreign sex workers.


kushibo said...

That the E6 visa is used to import sex workers is an open secret, but it's not something Immo is happy about. The requirement that the visa holder be physically present to get their alien registration card and come in for visa renewal was intended to make it harder for such women to be hidden by their employers, especially those who were duped into that kind of work.

The HIV testing for E6 visa holders, as I understand it, was a pragmatic nod to this inexorable fact and another road block to abuse.

Those who think the "human rights abuse" associated with HIV testing trumps the public health concerns may find it odd that mandatory HIV testing could actually be a form of protection, but such people operate as if getting HIV tested is somehow more detrimental than getting HIV itself.

Sandy said...

"The Ministry of Labour obliges all low-skilled work applicants to submit physical examination results including HIV testing in their countries of origin."

That's really interesting, as it is not a requirement for the E2 visa. It backs up Wagner's argument that E2 AIDS tests are designed to stigmatize (English teaching) foreigners in the country, not to block their entry.

Adam Walsh said...

I picked up on it last week and am looking at doing an article on it. Waiting on email responses.

Anonymous said...


You're comparing apples and oranges.

There isn't a logical reason to test teachers for HIV/AIDS and when they don't test all teachers it's plain and simple discrimination.

I think the testing of E-6ers is logical.

kushibo said...

Anonymous wrote:
You're comparing apples and oranges.

Well, I wasn't really comparing the two, and you're right they are apples and oranges.

There isn't a logical reason to test teachers for HIV/AIDS and when they don't test all teachers it's plain and simple discrimination.

The average person in the US is 19.3 times more likely to be HIV-positive than the average person in South Korea. (In turn, South Africa has an HIV infection rate 6 times higher than the US.)

When about 1 in 160 adults in the US is HIV positive (versus 1 in 6000 in South Korea), maybe there's a logical reason somewhere there to test people coming in to the country, especially when they will become financial obligations of the national health insurance system.

I think the testing of E-6ers is logical.

If it's good to test E6ers, even those not in the sex trade, then where do you draw the line? There are more and more South Africans teaching in South Korea, and SA has a 10.01% adult infection rate. Should all incoming South Africans be required to be tested, or will we safely assume it's not as likely the incoming teachers who will are the infected ones (and one could make a sociological argument for that)?

If South Africans with 1/10 infection rates should be tested, how about Americans with 1/160 infection rates?

And your comment seems to assume that ROK teachers are not tested during routine life in Korea, like during military induction, blood donation, and during annual physicals or when entering companies (I've been told by health professionals that they are tested for HIV and other public health concerns during the latter, but I haven't presented something solid here yet, sorry).

Frankly, I think everyone should be tested. It's an expensive and deadly disease where the biggest weapon against it is knowing who is infected so they can get treatment and adjust their behavior.

Saying that "not all" Korean teachers are tested so foreign teachers shouldn't be required to be tested does nothing to address public health concerns. And it looks like an excuse for not testing incoming residents rather than a way of finding an effective way to identify and prevent the spread of a deadly disease.

By the way, so as to not derail a thread at Brian's on AES being the subject of CBC radio, I started a discussion on what an acceptable HIV testing policy should look like, which has turned into a lively and informative discussion.

kushibo said...

I forgot to link the source for the numbers I got. It's from Wikipedia, but it uses numbers I've seen elsewhere, so I think it's reliable enough for the point I was making.

Of course, Korea's 8300 cases is probably higher, but is it a little or a lot? Then again, are the US's 984K cases actually a little higher or even a lot higher?

I was at an AIDS lecture sponsored by the University of Maryland back in 2003 or 2004 and I was skeptical of the low figure given for HIV infection, and I pointedly asked the ROK researcher (whose name and 명함 escapes me) how accurate he thought those were, given the fact that people would avoid testing (conflict-avoidant fatalism on disease in Korea is something I'm interested in as a research topic down the road).

He then told me about the various institutional testing regimens that exist, particularly at the military level, which all ROK males are subject to, even if they don't end up serving. The data that they get from that massive across-the-board testing and other sources, he said, bears out a very low figure in South Korea.

Now people can hide their HIV infection from the world (and from themselves), but it's a lot harder to hide an AIDS death. South Korea officially has had 500, whereas the US has had 22,000: 44 times more in a population 6 times larger.

That could indicate that ROK has a higher rate of infection than realized, and the gap between infection rates is not 19:1 but maybe closer to 8:1.

But those same numbers may more likely reflect more money available in the US back in the 1990s and earlier this decade for the expensive regimen of drugs and treatment needed to keep people alive. South Korea has been trying to close that gap with what I have read is not just guaranteed treatment, but mandatory treatment for HIV-positive people. IIRC, if you are HIV-positive, you can go to jail for avoiding treatment. I think that's in one of the studies Ben Wagner cited. I'll try to find it later.

Anonymous said...

This article was in the JoongAng Daily on Dec. 2, 2009:

South’s stand on foreigners with HIV protested

"A coalition of human rights and foreign workers’ organizations filed a petition Tuesday with the national human rights watchdog, protesting over what they claim are South Korea’s discriminatory measures against HIV positive foreigners, the National Human Rights Commission said.


The Association for Teachers of English in Korea, a group of English language instructors, submitted a similar petition to the NHRC in February, claiming that carrying out HIV and drug tests on some, but not all foreign teachers, is unconstitutional and characteristic of discrimination against foreign nationals.

Yun Seol-a, a public relations officer at the NHRC, said the commission is 'investigating to see if there are sufficient legal grounds to carry out such tests.'"

Anonymous said...


Of course your stats/Koreas are lower than what is real and you only compare the U.S. while there are NSET's of 6 other countries that S.M.O.E. tests. The migrant workers are at least one step ahead of NSET's, they realize what is discriminatory while S.M.O.E. teachers sit on their butts turning the other cheek.

kushibo said...

Anonymous wrote:
Of course your stats/Koreas are lower than what is real

Rather than have a discussion with yet another of the anonymoi, can you put up an authoritative set of numbers instead of just saying mine are wrong or too low? How low? Is it as high as the US?

and you only compare the U.S. while there are NSET's of 6 other countries that S.M.O.E. tests.

Would South Africa be one of those countries? Because I also mentioned South Africa.

The migrant workers are at least one step ahead of NSET's, they realize what is discriminatory while S.M.O.E. teachers sit on their butts turning the other cheek.

Trumping public health concerns by catering to people's "human right" not to be embarrassed by testing for deadly communicable diseases is a good way to spread disease further. But I suppose getting the disease is less embarrassing than getting tested.

Anonymous said...

The hogwon where the expat teachers tried to start a union was the Daechi-Dong, Seoul City Oaedae Language Institute. The guy who tried to get the union oing is Steven Ellis from Summerside, Prince Edward Island in Canada. He's a lawyer in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and I've known him for 22 years. He was fired for his efforts but later married a K-Chick. He even worked here as recently as April of 2005.