Thursday, April 19, 2012

Thai female laborers and white English instructors

The 2005 English Spectrum Incident

Part 1: English Spectrum and 'Ask The Playboy'
Part 2: The Kimchiland where it’s easy to sleep with women and make money
Part 3: English Spectrum shuts down as Anti-English Spectrum is created
Part 4: How to hunt foreign women
Part 5: Did the foreigners who denigrated Korean women throw a secret party?
Part 6: The 'Ask The Playboy' sexy costume party
Part 7: Stir over ‘lewd party’ involving foreigners and Korean women
Part 8: The 2003 post that tarred foreign English teachers as child molesters
Part 9: Netizens shocked by foreign instructor site introducing how to harass Korean children
Part 10: Movement to expel foreign teachers who denigrated Korean women
Part 11: "Middle school girls will do anything"
Part 12: Netizens propose 'Yankee counter strike force'
Part 13: Segye Ilbo interview with the women from the party, part 1

Part 14: Segye Ilbo interview with the women from the party, part 2
Part 15: Web messages draw Koreans’ wrath
Part 16: Thai female laborers and white English instructors

On January 16, 2005, the Kyunghyang Sinmun published the first editorial about the English Spectrum incident, which deals with many of the issues I mentioned in this post about the film Bandhobi, which positively portrays a migrant worker while offering a brief negative portrayal of a foreign teacher. I'd started a post about this editorial awhile ago, so it's lengthier than a lot of the other posts in this series, and also jumps ahead one month to cover a certain TV program.
Thai female laborers and white English instructors

The case of Thai female laborers paralyzed from the waist down due to occupational illness and the stir over the sexual demeaning of Korean women by white English instructors shows well the 'double standard' Koreans apply to foreigners. White people are very warmly welcomed, while foreigners from Asia couldn't receive more cold-hearted treatment. This racially discriminatory attitude is reflected in government policy as well. This is a slice of "Ugly Korea."

Eight female Thai laborers at a factory manufacturing components for LCD monitors were poisoned by toxic cleaners. They were working in a sealed room without safety equipment like gloves or masks. Though they handled hazardous materials, they did not receive a physical checkup and, even after becoming sick, did not receive treatment for some time. This was because they were illegal aliens. The Government also initially only ordered the company to make minor improvements to the working environment, and only after the media covered the story did they reluctantly enter into an investigation.

Many workers from Asian countries are forced into safety blind spots as "modern slaves." At 3D companies they work their fingers to the bone, have wages withheld, and there are also no basic health care benefits. The reality in Korea, which has been a member of the OECD for 9 years, is that businesses which carry out special health diagnosis for the foreign laborers they employ make up only 27% of the total, and during crackdowns net guns are used to catch illegal aliens like animals. Even though Koreans profit from the products produced by these laborers, which are sold to their countries abroad, laborers still face the contemptuous and exploitative attitude of Koreans, something they would never possibly be able to understand.

In contrast, Koreans' unconditionally submissive attitude towards white people such as American English instructors who sexually demeaned Korean women is strongly present. One American instructor confessed even that "If you teach English, you are served like a king." While these are the individual acts of some instructors who have taken advantage of our society's English fever, through the contempt for and disparaging of Korean women, improper sexual ethics and a mentality of envying white people have come to light. Among white instructors are not a few illegal aliens and those unqualified to teach, but they avoid government crackdowns. What kind of country is Korea, unable to free itself from the "two faces" it has toward foreigners?
The case of the Thai workers - eight Thai women between the ages of 19 and 37 - is looked at in detail here, and according to this follow-up, the case
induced the Labor Ministry to inspect 300 factories that handled hexane, as well as another 1,200 factories that dealt with toxic materials and employed foreign workers.

The plant manager and president of the company were both arrested and later given suspended sentences with probation, along with fines for not giving workers proper protection and failure to install ventilation systems within the factory.
While that all sounds like a slap on the wrist to the offenders, the women at least were given free medical treatment (those who had returned home were brought back to Korea) and, as the latter article makes clear, by January 2006 all eight women were able to walk again. I don't know if they were able to stay in Korea, however.

The opinion expressed in the Kyunghyang Sinmun's editorial was obviously shared by others. Weeks after the above editorial was written, similar sentiments appeared again elsewhere (as Ben Wagner reminded me): on the flyer members of Anti English Spectrum handed out to people on the street, which read at one point,
While laborers from South East Asia are looked upon coldly, we are excessively generous to blue-eyed foreigners.
Or as it was put in the Joongang Ilbo regarding foreign teachers,
That this kind of treatment toward them is appropriate is questionable. It’s possible this treatment of foreigners is unreasonably kind.
Mind you, that was in 1984. I also like this quote from the above editorial:
While these are the individual acts of some instructors who have taken advantage of our society's English fever, through the contempt for and disparaging of Korean women, improper sexual ethics and a mentality of envying white people have come to light.
Good to know that "improper sexual ethics" includes being photographed with white men. Compare that quotation to this Donga Ilbo editorial from 1984:
It’s difficult to tell whether the foreign language boom is a bad thing in itself, or whether [the choice of] a marriage [partner], as a personal matter, can be judged as right or wrong, or whether being [overly] kind to foreigners is something to be criticized. Before any of this can be considered, however, one must stand up and have some self respect.
Like night and day, aren't they? (I also like the description of "instructors who have taken advantage of our society's English fever" - as if these people suddenly appeared in hagwons and classrooms one day, invited by no one).

As for the comparison the 2005 editorial makes regarding foreign English teachers and foreign laborers, a similar comparison was made by Bonojit Hussain in September 2009, as the title of this Chosun Ilbo article noted: "Prof. Hussain Brings First Racial Discrimination Case in the Nation, 'If I were white . . .'" That sentence was completed in a Korea Times article on the same topic:
"It was not my first time to be subject to racial abuse. I have had many similar experiences. But this time was serious,'' he said. "It wouldn't have happened to me if I were a white man.''
That statement might have garnered more sympathy had he not been with a Korean woman who suffered a physical assault at the time he was verbally assaulted, something that most assuredly happens to Korean women seen with white men as well (whether physically or through the internet; in fact a similar incident was reported involving a white man with a Korean wife just days after Hussain's case came to light). An outpouring of such stories came out in the letter section of the Korea Times after the 1995 incident in which a fight broke out between Koreans and G.I.s on the subway after a Korean man assaulted the Korean wife of one of the soldiers. Not having scanned those articles yet, here's a similar KT article published on September 9, 1988, the eve of the Olympics:

It should have been clear from this post that, in the midst of netizen anger at the foreign teachers seen in photos with Korean women at the 'sexy costume party,' the netizens were referring to foreign teachers as 'Yankees' (or even outright as 'U.S. soldiers') and the women as 'yanggongju,' a reference to the Korean women who worked as prostitutes in the U.S. base camptowns. The Kyunghyang Sinmun editorial ignored everything about how the netizens were treating the women seen with the foreign teachers, focusing only on their "contempt for and disparaging of Korean women." Not that this should be so surprising, considering how the paper reported on the aforementioned 1995 subway incident with headlines like "Sexual harassment by drunken U.S. soldiers on subway; group assault of passenger who protested," and "U.S. army molesters are barbarians," an early example of an article based entirely on netizen (referred to as 토론자 in the article) opinion.

"USFK crime"

Such anger at GIs or foreign teachers for their treatment of Korean women and 'contempt' for Korea was worth mentioning; similar contempt for Korean women seen with the foreign teachers by netizens was not.

As well, it's ironic that the Kyunghyang Sinmun editorial makes a comparison between the treatment of white teachers and Thais, considering that such a comparison touches upon something else apparently not worth mentioning. The headline "foreigner arrested for drugs" is likely to conjure up the image of the foreign English teacher rather than the nationality which has had the most drug arrests over the past several years (though not last year): 52 of 298 drug arrests of foreigners in 2007, 711 of 928 drug arrests in 2008 [1], 469 of 778 arrests in 2009 [2], and 419 of 858 arrests in 2010 [3] were of Thais - not that you would guess that from reading the news media.

In comparison, according to these statistics, which go from 2007 to August 2010, 91 English teachers were arrested for drugs (there were no reported arrests of foreign teachers after July of that year). Compare this to arrests of Thais for drugs during that time which total 1,760. English teachers are thus arrested at a rate 19 times (or so) less than Thai workers, but a quick search on Naver turns up 498 news results from 2007 to 2010 for 원어민 마약, and 557 results for 외국인강사 마약, but only 225 results for 태국인 마약. While it's not surprising that teachers would get more attention for such crimes than labourers or factory workers, more than twice as much attention for 1/19 of the crimes is quite a discrepancy.

So what we see in how such arrests are reported (or not reported) reveals yet another way in which the image of these two groups of foreigners depicted in the news media little reflects, and in fact reverses, the situation on the ground. This is something I've discussed before about the film Bandhobi, which gives a positive portrayal of a Bangladeshi laborer and a negative portrayal of a foreign English teacher.

In fact, the sentiments of the Kyunghyang Sinmun editorial (ironically the newspaper read in the film by Minseo) are spoken in one scene by Karim, after meeting the English teacher:
But how ridiculous are you people? You brown-nose white people, and look down on us with contempt. You’re hypocrites.
This is a truth many experience, not the world of the noble, suffering migrant worker helped by kind Koreans and the maligned and feared foreign English teacher portrayed in the media (though that's not to say such situations do not exist). In a nod to this truth, Karim is deported, a fate many foreign laborers live in fear of (and which foreign teachers do not). I ran into Mahbub, the actor who played Karim, awhile ago and we talked about the people we knew when we were involved in the migrant workers' movement years ago. "They're all gone - all deported." The point that foreign teachers do not fear the police or deportation was made in the infamous February 2005 episode of the tabloid SBS news program 그것이 알고 싶다 [I Want To Know That] titled "Is Korea their Paradise? Report on the Real Conditions of Blond-haired, Blue-eyed Teachers" (which I've looked at here).

Note that on the show the title was compressed, reducing it to purely racial terms:

"Blond hair, blue eyes - is Korea their paradise?"

The episode, which was a fine example of yellow journalism, at one point looked at the plight of migrant workers in Korea and interviewed a married couple - an English teacher and a migrant worker.

Despite disguising their faces and voices, I immediately recognized them to be my friends Nancy and Kabir, who were involved in the migrant workers' movement at the time. I never had asked them about how that interview came about, so I recently emailed Nancy. Here's her reply:
Kabir and I were sort of "tricked" into doing that show. According to Kabir, he was approached by SBS who said they were doing a show about migrant workers in Korea and Kabir, being at that time being a bit of a media hound trying to get more exposure on the issue of migrant worker rights, readily said yes, without asking me. When he did ask me (after he had said yes to SBS), I looked into the program and based on what people told me about it, I said no. By that time we had found out that they would be interviewing English teachers, which made me even more nervous as the English Spectrum fallout was then in full swing.

Kabir still thought that it was going to be about migrant workers, and didn't understand that the show was likely going to be a big fat sensationalistic crappy yellow dump on English teachers, which was my fear. Soon after, I arrived home from work one night to find an SBS crew in my apartment. Reluctantly, I agreed to do the show and offered the crew some tea.

I didn't like the reporter. Some of the questions she asked: "How do you feel when you are with a brown man and people stare at you on the subway?" "How does your family feel about you being married to a poor brown man?"

I remember talking a lot about how the illegality of doing privates outside of one's contract encourages the "unqualified" teacher market and that Korea being so rabidly "English crazy" made it next to impossible to ensure that foreign teachers met minimal standards. Not sure if that made the final cut. All I really knew at the time was that I didn't trust the producer/journalist one little bit as they seemed opportunistic, insincere, and slimy.*
The part about Korea being rabidly "English crazy" did not make the final cut, though part of the conversation about their different coloured skin did, as the interview begins with Nancy saying, "I think our skin actually looks really nice together." They're introduced as an English instructor and illegal factory worker, and mentions are made of the "very different set of standards for English teachers" Koreans have compared to migrant workers.

Crackdowns on the two groups are described, with Nancy's story of immigration officers bursting into her classroom and scaring the students (solved by her boss "cutting a deal with immigration") or of friends getting in trouble with immigration and leaving the country and returning with no problem compared with Kabir's description of the fear and worry undocumented migrant workers face:
Every day I feel scared and I don’t know if today when the factory finishes or at dinner time I might not come home. If I’m really scared I don’t ride the bus, I take a taxi. When I’ll be caught we don’t know.
Being a leader of the migrant workers' union, Kabir was deported later in 2005. They are now living in Canada, where Nancy teaches language and employability skills to new Canadian immigrants. Kabir, who became a Canadian citizen two years ago, is working as a professional machinist. And there, as Nancy put it, "nobody thinks brown and white together is anything out of the ordinary." Their interview ended with this comment by Nancy:
In Korea there’s kind of a hierarchy of value, that the white, English speaking foreigner has the highest value, and then the white, non-English speaking foreigner has a lesser value, and so on and so on, until you get to the developing countries with people with brown skin and they’re at the bottom of the list.
The results of a survey speak to the differences in treatment:
[A] civic group has conducted the survey to measure the actual conditions of human rights abuses in Korea toward foreign migrant workers, marking the seventh year of implementing the foreigner employment permit system.

With the help of 33 member organizations around the country, the
Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea distributed surveys translated into 10 languages from May 1 to May 31, 2011.[...]

Out of the 931 surveyed people, 78.2 percent said that they were verbally abused, and 26.8 percent said they suffered physical abuse at work, according to a survey by the JCMK. Nearly 14 percent answered they were sexually harassed. They were allowed to make multiple answers in the survey.[...]

Of the migrant workers, 40.4 percent said they waited for more than a year to come to Korea.

On their daily work hour, 39.5 percent said they work 8-10 hours, 34.9 percent 10-12 hours.[...]

Of the 1.39 million foreign residents, the number of foreigners whose visiting purpose is to work stood at 716,000. It represents 2.9 percent of the total number of employees here. It said illegal sojourners accounted for 166,000 or 23.6 percent of the foreign workers. [...]

“The human rights conditions of foreign migrant workers have not improved at all. We have conducted research on the actual conditions continuously for the past few years but we cannot say that any improvements have been made,” said Lee Young, secretary of the JCMK.

“The reason why discrimination exists in these work places is because the foreign migrant workers work in 3D jobs under poor conditions. Also, the prejudice against foreigners, especially from developing countries, still exists.”
What Karim - and the Kyunghyang Sinmun - says is true, though this truth is seemingly only described on paper - newsprint to be exact - a primary site of resistance against - and attempt to remedy the problem of - "look[ing] down on" foreign laborers and being "excessively generous" to foreign teachers. While the Donga Ilbo, quoted above, called in 1984 for Koreans to "stand up and have some self respect," what this means in regard to these two groups of foreigners is quite different. For those aware of the actual problems that exist in regard to how these groups are perceived in Korean society, gaining self respect in regard to foreign laborers has, due to embarrassment at how they are actually treated, apparently come to mean trying not to take advantage of them when it comes to depicting them in the media (ie. not reporting every single crime they commit), while the opposite is true when it comes to dealing with western foreigners, especially GIs and English teachers. Appreciated for the wealth and power of their home countries and the language they speak, they must be brought down to size by bringing attention to their moral failings, real and imagined (narratives of victimization at the hands of such foreigners tend to be applied to GIs, but not so much to English teachers). The resulting depiction of these groups in the media stands in contrast to, and is a reversal of, lived experience for many.

Obviously, I can't (finally) get around to posting this without noting the controversy over "Jasmine Lee, the Philippine-born naturalized Korean citizen who became a ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker [becoming] the target of racially-based online attacks." Some of the quoted attacks sound rather familiar, actually, such as "We’ll see the truth of multiculturalism that exploits Koreans" or "Korea is a paradise for foreigners. Korea gives foreigners benefits which it doesn’t even give to its nationals. Come to Korea, you can become lawmakers." That sounds almost exactly like netizen comments and parody posters made during the English Spectrum incident along the lines of 'Come to Korea, you'll be treated like a king.' Well worth reading is the Marmot's take on this incident, which looks at the differences in how the left and right wing media are reporting and editorializing on the incident, as well as (in the comments) reports that the attacks may have been exaggerated by the right or even orchestrated by some unknown party. This Korea Times report on a survey of attitudes towards foreigners is worth reading as well.

Too be sure, what we are seeing in all of this are different aspects of the Korean experience of reordering its world in relation to the foreigners who have come to populate the country in growing numbers over the past two decades.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I agree with you.

Although Koreans are Asians just like the Thai workers, they only like white people.

Thus, many workers from South East Asia are experiencing exploitation, assaults, and many others.

Since most of them are illegal immigrants from undeveloped countries, Koreans look down on them with contempt.

On the contrary, blue-eyed foreigners are welcomed and are hired as English instructors in Korea.

Here is a similar example.

A broadcasting system EBS did an experiment on Korean's reaction when an Asian and a Westerner asked how to get to the Coex mall.

When an Asian said "Excuse me" to Koreans, they were deaf to the request for help.

On the other hand, when a Westerner asked how to get to the Coex mall, Koreans tried really hard to help them with bad English even using body languages.

In Korean society, race discrimination is serious. Thus, Koreans need to modify their mindset for accepting multiple cultures.