In my first-ever published long-form piece, "Drag The Illegal Foreign Workers Out Into The Sun," which was published at Znet in December 2003, I examined changes in government policy regarding migrant workers in Korea, as well as the the history of the migrant workers' union and the events leading up to a large-scale crackdown on migrants working illegally in Korea.
Under the Industrial Trainee System (ITS), which had operated since 1991 (though industrial training programs for people from developing countries had existed since at least 1975), conglomerates like Samsung and LG were meant to provide training to employees of their overseas branches, but it instead quickly became a way for small and medium sized businesses to import cheap labor, especially after the Korea Federation of Small Businesses (KFSB) was given the authority to operate the program in 1993. The program was attractive for these companies because they could pay the trainees very little, the Labor Standards Act wasn’t enforced for trainees, and was there no need to provide severance pay or medical insurance. Another aspect of the system was that a) it only lasted two years, and b) applicants had to pay KFSB recruiters in Southeast or South Asian countries “more than $US 8000” to apply, which required the applicants to take out loans which, considering their low pay and short time in Korea, all but necessitated that they leave these low paying ‘trainee’ positions (which often simply threw them into work with little training) for widely-available higher-paying jobs – which then made their immigration status in Korea illegal. This left them with little legal recourse should they be cheated out of their wages. Large numbers of "illegal" migrant workers were not the result of a bug in the system, but a feature of it.
By 2003, 80% of Korea’s 350,000 migrant workers were undocumented, as compared to less than 10% in Taiwan and less than 5% in Singapore. To solve this and other problems associated with the ITS, the government passed a law in July 2003 creating the new Employment Permit System (EPS), which allowed workers to work for three years, but did not allow workers to change jobs; as well, their visa had to be renewed by their employers every year. As I wrote,
Migrant workers (including undocumented workers) in Korea for less than three years could apply to take part in the EPS; those who had stayed in the country between three and four years could apply but would have to endure the expense of leaving the country to be issued a new visa; and those who had stayed over four years would be forced to leave. A period during which the latter group (perhaps 120,000 people) could voluntarily exit the country ended November 16. After this period ended, the government promised to begin deporting every undocumented worker.
To aid in the crackdown, the government announced that employers of illegal workers would face fines of 20 million won (US$17,000) or two years in jail, leaving most no choice but to dismiss their workers. […] A total of 400 officers of the Justice Ministry and police officers in 50 different roundup teams nationwide began their crackdown November 17, but were hampered by the fact that the detainment centers nationwide have a capacity of only 1300.
Unlike the seventeen periodic crackdowns that had occurred during the previous thirteen years, this was to be ongoing until all illegal workers had been ‘dragged out into the sun’ and deported, to quote the ROK’s “progressive” Justice Minister, Gang Geum-sil. In response, a number of migrant workers committed suicide rather than be forced to return home. Members of the Equality Trade Union Migrant’s Branch (ETU-MB) held a sit-in at Myeong-dong Cathedral for over a year protesting the EPS and the crackdown.
The EPS is still in place today, and while it has allowed workers to stay longer and loosened some restrictions over the years, there are still structural problems with it, as well as some horror stories.
On November 28, 2003, eleven days after the crackdown began, the Munhwa Ilbo published the following article.
Crackdown on illegal immigrants is 'racial discrimination'
(Zero crackdown on illegal language instructors from places like the US or UK)
While cracking down on foreign workers staying in Korea illegally, the government only focused on those from China and Southeast Asia, causing controversy over its “racially discriminative crackdown” as it did not act against “illegal immigrants from developed countries” such as the US, the UK, or Canada. In particular, the number of illegal foreign language instructors has been increasing every year due to English fever, but there has been no systematic management of, or crackdown on, them, so it has been argued that they are living in an “extraterritorial area.”
On November 27, the Ministry of Justice and hagwon industry representatives stated that a total of 880 foreigners working here illegally had been caught by the government's joint crackdown team since November 17. A total of 443 people, or half of them, were deported. By country, Koreans from China accounted for most, with 269, followed by Bangladesh with 23, Thailand with 20, and 131 others. However, not a single one of them was an English instructor working in Korea illegally, of whom there is estimated to be 20,000 throughout the country.
It is estimated that 30,000 foreigners are employed at 5,091 foreign language academies nationwide, but only 10,235 foreigners entered Korea in 2002 with an E-2 visa that allows them to work as a conversation instructor. This means there are 20,000 instructors who did not have the college degree or hagwon employment permit needed to obtain an E-2 visa, meaning they are all illegal aliens.
Some large private academies in Seoul are also reportedly hiring part-time instructors with unclear qualifications in order to cut costs. Moreover, as the demand for foreign instructors has increased due to the recent spread of English fever to elementary school students and kindergartens, employment agencies that supply unqualified foreign instructors to hagwons have even appeared on the Internet, and about 20 such companies nationwide are booming.
These agencies are prospering because their websites are full of inquiries, from companies seeking to hire foreigners whose native language is English to foreign job seekers. There are even websites that provide detailed information on how to enter the country on a tourist visa first and then change over to a conversation instruction working visa. Crackdowns on these illegal conversation instructors are carried out not by the government's joint crackdown team, but by each city and provincial office of education. An official from the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education said, “There are only two people overseeing the 1,000 hagwons in Seoul, which is not enough staff to check that each one is following the law.” “Moreover, there is virtually no way to prevent foreign language tutoring arranged between individuals.”
Regarding this, Jeong Jin-u, a representative of the Foreign Workers Council, said, “Undocumented foreigners are being arrested by doing random checks on the streets, and these crackdowns are based on skin color.” “Even though [these foreign teachers] are the same illegal immigrants, there is prejudice against people from poor countries and people of color,” he criticized.
Reporter Jeon Yeong-sun
This article makes a good point about the discriminatory manner in which crackdowns were carried out, a fact that would later contribute to the idea that foreign English instructors were treated "too kindly" (an idea that was not new, mind you). It should be noted, however, that the numbers the article suggests are not necessarily sound. Where the estimate of 30,000 foreigners beingemployed in foreign language academies came from isn't clear, and is likely too high. As well, subtracting the 10,235 foreigners who "entered Korea in 2002 with an E-2 visa" is not helpful because, even if the "30,000" figure were correct, it does not take into consideration the number of F-4 visa holders (gyopo from Western countries) teaching English at that time.
Immigration officers began following foreigners on the subway and grabbing them when they went to their jobs at companies or private homes. Building security guards would contact immigration if they saw the same foreigner repeatedly entering a home or building. Immigration would actually enter private homes and arrest the foreigner there. People were dragged out of private students’ apartments, pushed and slapped around by immigration officials in some cases, and deported within the week.Strangest of all, immigration officers would pose as potential private students and approach foreigners for English lessons (this is called entrapment in the US). Just admitting that you are doing illegal work to an undercover immigration officer is ground for deportation in Korea.If you are doing illegal work, Korean immigration has a hotline that anyone can call and turn you in. Once you are fingered by someone, immigration will start monitoring you in order to catch you teaching privates or other outside work. This includes having undercover immigration officials offering you work or grabbing you on the subway, searching you, and then deporting you just for carrying ESL textbooks and not having a work visa.
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." [...]
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?
This criticism truly went mainstream when, in February 2005, the SBS news program "I Want to Know That" broadcast an episode critical of foreign English teachers and, at one point, compared their treatment to that of foreign migrant workers, noting that many migrant workers were manhandled roughly when arrested, and that of 22,826 'illegal' foreigners arrested in 2004, only 123, or 0.5%, were foreign instructors.
It was from that point that there began a shift in the media from focusing equally on unscrupulous hagwon owners and unqualified foreigners riding the English wave to an almost singular focus on unqualified foreigners who were likely also womanizers or drug users or pedophiles taking advantage of Korea's desire for English.
To be sure, in the aftermath of the English Spectrum incident there were more arrests of foreigners teaching illegally in Korea, but, with 240 arrested in one year, these were still rather small numbers in comparison to the number of migrant workers arrested.
Among the foreign teachers caught was an American held at Yeosu's immigration detention center who, in his "Prison Diary of an English Teacher" published by Ohmynews in May of 2005 (Part 1; Part 2), described conditions at the center in less than positive terms. Two years later, a fire at that detention center killed ten detainees, a fact that isn't surprising considering his description of the facility and the working conditions of the guards. The teacher (who was actually a friend of a friend) also made an observation in Part 1 pertinent to the article above:
When I was first brought to the immigration authorities in Busan, I was threatened verbally as well as physically because I refused to show them my passport. It was taken from me by force after at least seven immigration and police officials held me down (one, almost suffocated me by covering my mouth.) Before they knew I was an American they thought I was from some African country. After they learned I was American, their attitudes changed drastically...
For all the negative media attention directed at foreign teachers, however, arrests and deportation of teachers teaching illegally was never comparably as high as arrests of migrant workers, nor were wide-ranging period crackdowns standard in the ESL industry. As well, it's worth noting that practically everyone I knew in the Migrant Workers Union during their sit-in at Myeong-dong Cathedral in 2003 and 2004 was arrested and deported, sometimes after clearly having been surveilled by the government for some time.
As I noted in this post, the news media in Korea between 2005 and 2015 (or so) was quite negative about foreign English instructors, reporting on any infraction large or small, while sometimes overlooking the similar behavior of migrant workers due to journalists' understanding that Korean society treated migrant workers migrant workers so unfairly. As I put it, "The resulting depiction of these groups in the media stands in contrast to, and is a reversal of, lived experience for many." Or that was the case a decade ago. These days the media barely pays attention to foreign teachers, so the balance in media coverage has likely changed quite a bit.
Here are some more of my posts about migrant workers in Korea:
MTU Leaders Arrested (2007)