The Harsh Reality of Migrant Labor in South Korea

With the rise of the "tiger economies" of the east, mass immigration and the employment of cheap foreign labor is no longer a purely western phenomenon. With the development of large scale industry and powerful economies, immigrants are seeking employment in the nations of Japan, China, and South Korea. However, as is the case with their counterparts heading west, many of these workers find their new lives to be far from easy.

The Eleventh Largest Economy

South Korea has gained credit for its remarkable ascent from regional backwardness to regional power. Its status as the eleventh largest economy in the world – which has western economists grinning from ear to ear – is widely seen as proof of liberal economic practice. In tandem with such thinking, the western media often portrays the country as a beacon of wealth and democracy in stark contrast to its authoritarian northern neighbor.  However, scratch beneath the surface, and it soon becomes apparent that such an image bears little relevance to the reality facing many Korean workers.

Mass immigration into the Korean peninsula is widely accepted to have picked up after the south’s renewed period of capital expansion in 1988. After hosting the Olympics that same year, which granted the nation the much desired attention from the global business community, legislation was introduced to complement the comparatively small native workforce with a prolonged influx of immigrant labor. This found expression in the form of the Overseas Investment Trainee System, which allowed foreign investors to import workers from their overseas holdings to work in Korea itself.

However, this left native small businesses in the lurch. Finding themselves denied access to this new, low cost workforce, they found it even more difficult to remain competitive with their larger rivals. Therefore in 1994 the Korean Federation of Small Businesses (KFSB) pushed forward the Industrial Trainee System. Initially it appeared that the new scheme would be responsible for the employment of trainees in the factories. However, there was a catch.

As trainees instead of full workers, the employees were exempt from many labour laws that might otherwise have protected them. Wages were shockingly low at around 200,000 – 300,000 won per month – which comes out at approximately two to three hundred US dollars. Often working in excess of twelve hours daily, the trainees justifiably began to feel resentment towards their new employers.

Such conditions continued and even increased in their severity. Many migrants continue to endure unjust labor laws that leave them tied by law to a single workplace and unable to seek employment elsewhere. Those that do leave their designated areas forfeit what little legal rights they were entitled too. In the process they become even more vulnerable to the approaches of unscrupulous employers.

The Employee Permit System

But it was inevitable that there would be resistance on the part of those exploited. Beginning in the mid 1990s in the form of strikes, sit ins, and demonstrations, many trade unions and civil rights organizations across the south finally took notice and became involved in a growing activist movement. Eventually, the Joint Committee for Migrant Workers in Korea (JCMK) was created to act as a pressure group and activist organization to fight for migrant’s rights in workplaces nation wide.

The JCMK played a leading role in the early development of the Employment Permit System (EPS) in 2003. Initially, it was hoped the EPS would solve many of the problems affecting the growing migrant workforce, such as the frequent abuses in the workplace – ranging from verbal insults to actual physical assaults. It was also hoped that it would lower the number of migrant workers considerably by giving them stable employment and ending their endemic vulnerability.

However, the Federation of Small Businesses, whose members were still making sizeable profits from the current labor laws, opposed the EPS vehemently and successfully thwarted its application for several years. Only when it came to genuine struggle – such as at Myungdong Cathedral where a number of Nepalese workers staged a sit in to demand the end of physical and verbal abuse at the hands of management – was the government put under sufficient pressure to overrule the protests of the KFSB.

But the Federation was still far from powerless. Utilizing their considerable economic and political influence, they succeeded in having workers organizations banned from the legal negotiations surrounding the passing of the EPS. Ultimately, this led to the new system favoring employers more than employees, and actual tore the heart out of what it was originally intended to do – provide secure and sustainable employment and safety from systematic abuse and exploitation

Ongoing Dilemmas

The problem of "undocumented" and therefore illegal workers essentially remains. In 2004 they were estimated to make up over forty percent of foreign workers in South Korea. Over the course of 2007, it is expected that as work permits and visas begin to expire, this figure will increase to sixty percent.

But it’s not all bad news. There have been attempts to organize migrants within trade union networks, primarily in the forum of the Migrant Trade Union. However, there are a number of extra difficulties involved in building such organization, stemming from the fact that the migrant population is in a constant state of flux and under constant harassment from the police.

For such people daily life is fraught with insecurity and stress. Treading a precarious existence in the workplace – as they can be dismissed without compensation – they exist in a climate of fear. Many are so intimidated that they even stay away from street demonstrations in support of workers rights. On top of all that, they are also in constant danger of being rounded up and held in special "protection" facilities.

These facilities are in effect little more than prisons. Inside, those detained have little illusion as to their status as illegal workers. Immigration law theoretically allows for migrants to be kept in such facilities indefinitely, and those being held are only allowed thirty minutes exercise time just twice per month. Any movement that takes place outside of their own cells is accompanied with a sturdy set of handcuffs. To further add insult to injury, the guards running such places are often abusive, verbally insulting the inmates and even physically assaulting them.

Detention Area Fire Memorial

Detention Area Fire Memorial

Such places are often so badly maintained that when a fire broke out at the Yeosu Foreigners ‘Protection’ Center last February, the building’s aging fire alarms failed to go off. Despite an attempt by the staff to tackle the blaze, it soon spread out of control and swept through the building. As the fire reached the holding areas, the staff refused to let the occupants out, which resulted in ten deaths from smoke inhalation and the hospitalization of many more. When receiving treatment, the guards clearly thought that the detainees were so eager to escape captivity that they handcuffed several of them to the hospital beds. Out of all the prisoners involved in the fire, only seven returned to the Yeosu facility, the rest were transported to other holding areas or forcefully deported from the country.

This is only the most recent example of injustice perpetrated by a government that views the growing migrant worker population as something easily exploitable. The modern phenomena of mass immigration to the industrial heartlands of the world is marred in practice by the ruthless outlook of competing governments, who are perfectly happy to employ such labor as long as the price is right.

Mass deportations of those who have committed the crime of not being native citizens are commonplace, even accepted. The problem of immigration is not an issue of who belongs where, who is legal and who isn’t, or has the greater right to employment, but is instead a matter of whether such people are profitable to employ. It’s this motive that dominates the entire issue worldwide. Therefore any progressive response to it, such as the unionization of such workers and defense of their rights, has to be international, too.

In practical terms, this means engaging with the progressive labor movement that has already taken steps towards international solidarity. It means working to organize migrant workers in the west as well as east, such as the newly founded European Migrant Workers Union. It means supporting the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions – an organization that has endured nothing but scorn from the government – to further deepen and extend the struggle for migrant rights as a whole. But most important of all, it means issuing a wake up call to the workers movement globally; forcing home the issue that migrant labor is not a threat nor an annoyance, but a reality of life in 21st century capitalism. Those struggling for recognition in Korea right now are aware of this – it’s about time the rest of the world followed in their footsteps.

A note from Wol-san Liem
International Solidarity Coordinator, Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants Trade Union

"Migrant workers are important members of Korean society; not only do they
fill difficult, dangerous and low-paying jobs which Korean workers will not take, they are also making Korea a richly diverse and cosmopolitan country. Despite this fact, they are oppressed by a racist system which begins with government policy (the industrial trainee and employer permit systems, the crackdowns and detention in facilities worse than prisons) and is reinforced by the unjust treatment of employers and much of society at large, which labels them "foreigner" and has not learned to accept them as equal human beings.

Despite the overwhelming odds they face, migrant workers have mobilized their collective strength and organized themselves. They have formed community organizations, a labor union and their own television broadcasting station. Through this self-determined activity they have won support from organized labor and legal recognition of their rights as workers.  This collective struggle carried out by and for migrants themselves holds great potential to create a more just society, not only for migrants, but for other marginalized people as well."

Korean Confederation of Trade Unions –

European Migrant Workers Union –