For one month now, members of the Equality Trade Union Migrant’s Branch (ETU-MB) have been carrying out a sit-in at Myeongdong Cathedral in downtown Seoul to protest the Korean government’s aim of deporting 100,000 undocumented migrant workers. Sleeping in makeshift tents as temperatures frequently drop below freezing, workers from South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, and Indonesia have been holding daily rallies with the support of Korean unions, students’ groups, and migrants’ associations.
The sit-in is a response to events stemming from the Korean government’s passage in July of a law creating the Employment Permit System (EPS). This new system was intended to replace the much hated Industrial Trainee System (ITS). The ITS was introduced in 1991 with the ostensible goal of allowing chaebols (conglomerates) like Samsung and LG to provide training to employees of their overseas branches. Instead, it 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. As Kabir Uddin, a Bangladeshi migrant worker at the forefront of the E.T.U. describes it,
The KFSB has agents in undeveloped or developing countries who recruit the numbers of workers they need. Like me, many people apply for a dream job in Korea. Those who are lucky pay more than $US 8000 to come here, and under the Industrial Trainee System, they are never officially recognized as a worker – just a ‘trainee’- but we work a minimum of 12 hours a day for very low wages in what are called 3D jobs (jobs that are dirty, dangerous and difficult). The Labor Standard’s Act isn’t enforced for trainees; neither are there basic labor rights, or severance pay. For that reason, after migrant workers learn a few skills and some of the language, they run away and become illegal, facing the risk of crackdown and deportation at any time.
In order to take part in the ITS, most workers must take out loans to pay the KFSB agents (most of which go into the agents’ pockets). As the ITS only allows them to work in Korea for 2 years, the need to pay off these loans is another reason they are forced to leave their trainee jobs and become undocumented workers. Though conditions in non-trainee jobs are largely the same, illegal employment offers better wages, partly because trainee employers often withhold significant portions of workers’ salaries for ‘Forced Savings’ programs, insurance, and other program fees.
Up until a recent registration program began, 80% of Korea’s 350,000 migrant workers were undocumented, as compared to less than 10% in Taiwan and less than 5% in Singapore. This vast gulf alone suggests that Korea’s policy towards the migrant workers is incredibly flawed. Illegal workers have no medical insurance and no legal recourse when cheated out of their wages. Should they seek legal action, they risk fines and deportation for being illegal workers.
On top of this, as a visible minority, migrant workers often face discrimination by Koreans. A National Human Rights Commission of Korea study found that 50.7 percent of migrant workers had experienced mockery and verbal attacks in the workplace, and 18.9 percent were belittled and insulted with abusive language by a Korean in restaurants or stores for no reason. Due to migrant workers’ fear of the police, these incidents, and more seriously, physical and sexual assaults, often go unpunished.
Over the past thirteen years, the primary response of the Korean government to the growing number of undocumented migrant workers in Korea has been to feign ignorance. This is largely because of the usefulness of having an internal colony of easily exploited labour in the midst of radicalized labor unions and a population unwilling to work in 3D jobs. Its secondary response, though most frightening to migrant workers, has been to initiate periodic crackdowns in which undocumented migrant workers are rounded up and deported. Seventeen crackdowns have occurred in the last thirteen years.
Over a year ago, the Korean government announced it would introduce a new Employment Permit System. While migrant workers and advocates hoped this new system would be more progressive than the ITS, which they assumed it would replace, it turned out both their hopes and assumptions were wrong. The ITS has not been repealed; instead the EPS will be implemented alongside it. The EPS will allow workers to work for three years, but despite assurances their labour rights will be respected, it does not allow workers to change jobs, and the visa must be renewed by their employers every year, effectively ruling out union organizing.
Feeling they had finally dealt fairly with the migrant worker question, the Korean government then set its conditions for implementation. 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. According to an employer interviewed in the Asia Times, ”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.” As another employer said, ”I don’t know how I will be able to keep my factory running after these men go. I tried hard to hire Koreans to replace them, but could not.” Many employers oppose the EPS as it is being implemented, and feel the crackdown is only going to harm their businesses.
The wider effects of the crackdown can be found in this statement by Mohammed Allom, 29, a Bangladeshi migrant worker who has lived in Korea for 9 years: “I am now providing for seven family members. If I work more, for one to two years, I can open a small clothing store in my hometown.” The deportation of over 100,000 people who support families in their native countries may potentially affect over a million people. As well, as Joerg Baruth writes in Asian Workers News, “Migrant workersâ€¦work hard in Korea to save money. They will invest that money in their native countries. The migrant workers of today are Korea’s business partners of tomorrow.” Korea’s deportation policy will have effects not only within but far beyond it’s own borders.
According to a report in the Donga Ilbo, 13,000 migrant workers voluntarily left the country before the crackdown began, leaving just over 100,000 more to be deported. 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. The government has announced that it will carry out monthly ten-day nationwide sweeps for undocumented foreign workers until June, saying that the first crackdown in November resulted in 1473 arrests. It also wanted to achieve a “coercion effect” in areas where many migrants live, which it has most certainly done. Despite announcing they would not arrest workers in factories, crackdown teams pounced on workers leaving their workplaces, or in restaurants on their lunch breaks. In the most recent crackdown, begun December 8, roundup teams have been going into factories despite assurances they would not.
To avoid capture, many undocumented workers have fled their workplaces and gone into the mountains. Others have turned to more drastic measures. Days before the November crackdown was to begin, two migrant workers committed suicide. As reported by Yonhap, the first migrant worker suicide was Nepal Bikku of Bangladesh who hung himself in his former factor in Gimpo, west of Seoul on Nov. 10. Two days later, Sri Lankan Chiran Tharaka threw himself in front of a subway train. With the commencement of deportations, on Nov. 20, Andrey Kharitoneko, 37, threw himself into the icy waters as he headed towards home in Uzbekistan by boat. Five days after, his fellow national, identified as “Beureuhon,” 50, killed himself in the bathroom of the factory he worked at on the same day he was to return home. Seo Sun-Myong, a pastor who works with migrant workers, argued, “This is not suicide. They were killed by a government policy that was trying to force them to go back home.”
Other migrant workers, however, have chosen not to hide. Two days before the crackdown was to begin, the ETU-MB occupied the courtyard of Myeongdong cathedral, which was often used as a safe haven by dissidents under the military governments of the past. Sit-ins co-ordinated by other migrant advocacy groups are taking place at seven other churches in Seoul. This is not the first time the ETU-MB has held a sit-in at Myeongdong cathedral, however.
The ETU-MB, Korea’s first and only migrant workers’ union, was formed in May, 2001. During protests by Korean members of the ETU-MB that year, and even on International Migrants day, migrant workers were noticeably absent, due to their fear of arrest. The following March, the government announced a two month amnesty during which undocumented workers could register with the government and then be allowed to stay for one more year in Korea. Seeing this as a method by which the government could more easily expel migrant workers, and taking advantage of the amnesty, the ETU-MB gathered 1000 migrant workers and marched through downtown Seoul on April 7, 2002. After planning another rally two weeks later, the government threatened to repeal the amnesty for a day and arrest all undocumented workers they found at the rally. In response, two Bangladeshi migrant workers at the forefront of the ETU-MB, Kabir Uddin and Muhammad Bidduth, and the union’s chief, Yi Yoon Joo, began a 77 day sit-in at Myeongdong cathedral. Faced with this challenge by the ETU-MB, but hampered by the possibility of negative publicity during the World Cup, the government waited until September to begin another crackdown. On September 2, 40 police converged on a Bangladeshi migrant workers residence in Maseok and arrested Kabir Uddin and Muhammad Bidduth in a dawn raid, along with dozens of others in sweeps through other migrant communities. After three months of protests by the ETU-MB and their supporters, as well as hunger strikes carried out by Kabir and Bidu in the detention centre, they were released.
Throughout the past year the ETU-MB has held rallies and marches, taken part in anti-war protests, but most importantly spoken out against the EPS. After the EPS was passed in July, the ETU-MB stepped up its presence in migrant communities throughout the northwestern part of the country, where 70% of Korea’s migrant workers live, in an attempt to educate and organize migrant workers. The example they have provided is no doubt having an effect. Since the beginning of the most recent crackdown there have been over 2000 migrant workers engaged in sit-ins throughout Korea.
Since the ETU-MB began its sit-in at Myeongdong Cathedral 35 days ago, the number of migrant workers and Korean supporters residing in a makeshift shelter on the driveway of the church’s compound has grown to 90, the ETU-MB’s chief, Samar Thapa of Nepal, stated in a recent Yonhap article. “We will stay until we achieve our demands: to stop the crackdown and legalize all migrant workers,” he said. “Our demands are for the abolishment of the training system, achievement of legalization through the establishment of a working visa that must be valid for five years, achievement of free labor rights including the freedom to change companies and the release of Jamal, Bidduth and our other comrades.” Bangladeshi ETU-MB members Jamal Ali and Mohammed Bidduth were arrested during the suppression of a labor rally by riot police on October 26.
The ETU-MB has been holding rallies at the compound every evening, where they are often joined by students’ groups, other unions, and local anarchists, as well as taking part in anti-war and labor rallies. The migrant workers have been heartened by the amount of support they have received from these groups, as well as by the community at large. At a recent rally in Ansan, a city southwest of Seoul with a migrant population of 25,000, local merchants spoke of the effects of the crackdown on their businesses, and asserted their support for migrant workers. Support has also come in the form of solidarity demonstrations which have been held in Canada, Australia, and the Philippines. To bolster their spirits and communicate to others their desire to struggle against unjust laws, the ETU-MB often holds ‘cultural struggle festivals’ in conjunction with other migrants groups. The most recent featured Nepali and Indonesian rock bands playing political rock and folk songs to a wildly enthusiastic audience of migrant workers.
Despite their high spirits, ETU-MB members, and all migrant workers taking part in these sit-ins and rallies, face detainment and deportation should they be caught by police.
Demonstrations taking place away from the church compound are almost always surrounded by squads of riot police, whose main function thus far has been to intimidate the protesters. On the rare occasions the government has met with the migrant workers it has simply asserted the government’s intention to continue the crackdown and send back illegal foreign workers. Refusing to be cowed, the ETU-MB will today mark the 13th United Nations International Migrants Day today by holding a rally before the Seoul Immigration Office. There they will demand an end to the crackdown and the release of all detained migrants, followed by a rally in memory of the migrant workers who have committed suicide.
The ETU-MB is keeping the public informed of its activities through its website, http://migrant.nodong.net