The Equality Trade Union â€“ Migrantsâ€™ Branch (ETU-MB), a trade union of largely undocumented migrant workers in South Korea, ended its 380 day long sit-in in front of downtown Seoulâ€™s Myeongdong Cathedral on Sunday. Their sit-in had started on November 15, 2003 to protest the governmentâ€™s crackdown on undocumented migrant workers. After a year of constant struggle, and with winter settling in, the number of workers at the sit-in site in downtown Seoul had slowly declined, down to roughly thirty-five from the original one hundred. Before Sunday, a number of workers had decided to go underground in order to work and send money back home to their families, and in the face of escalating harassment from the government, the ETU-MBâ€™s leadership decided to call off the sit-in for the time being in order to reconsider their strategy for struggle in the coming year.
The ETU-MB is a vocal, migrant-led union that has organized large protests of undocumented migrant workers in downtown Seoul and throughout the country since 2001 in order to assert that migrant workers must be seen and heard. In particular, the ETU-MB and migrantsâ€™ groups such as the Joint Committee for Migrants in Korea (JCMK) have been successful in forcing the government to reform its labor migration policies, especially the Industrial Trainee System which they blamed for the conditions of exploitation faced by many migrant workers.
After years of both domestic and international pressure, the South Korean government decided to scrap its Industrial Trainee System in July of 2001. However, the Employment Permit System (EPS) that has replaced it has failed to offer work permits to thousands of workers currently living in the country, thus creating a two-tiered system for migrant workers by assigning rights and benefits to one set of migrant workers who had been in the country less than four years, and keeping older undocumented workers permanently alienated.
Critics believe that the problems faced by undocumented workers will only be solved when the government offers a fair work permit to these thousands of workers who were not included in the EPS. The South Korean government has showed, however, that it is more concerned with discouraging the permanent settlement of undocumented migrant workers in South Korea than it is with solving any of their work- related problems.
From Trainees to Permitted Workers
Under the old Trainee system, migrant workers were considered â€˜traineesâ€™ rather than workers, even though they were toiling twelve hours a day on average in 3-D jobs â€“ work that is dirty, difficult, and dangerous â€“ in the countryâ€™s small to mid-size industries. In 2001 negotiations began for an Employment Permit System (EPS). The government gradually gave into a number of the demands from migrant groups, including the protection of migrants under the countryâ€™s Labor Standards Act, as well as the extension of the minimum wage, health insurance and employment insurance to migrant workers.
In its final form, however, the EPS did not take into account recommendations by migrantâ€™s groups to extend the program from three to five years, in order to give workers more time to save money and to pay back some of the high debts they incur to come to Korea, where the recruitment process involves a lucrative set of fees from their employers, brokers, and other actors involved in what seems to be a quasi-legal system at best. Critics also complained that the EPS entrenches an unfair labor policy as workers are forbidden from freely changing workplaces and are dependant on yearly sponsorship from their employers. Thus, they complain, few migrant workers will exercise their rights for fear they will be deported.
After lawmakers passed the bill creating an Employment Permit System for foreign workers in August of 2003, the government began plans for a new immigration, starting in November 2003 and continuing to date. One year later, however, there are still 180,000 undocumented workers out of a total number of 420,000 migrant workers, numbers comparable to before the crackdown began.
The governmentâ€™s crackdown, however, has been largely unsuccessful because its goals have been largely punitive, aiming more to punish those migrant workers with the strongest ties to Korea than to regularize the majority of workers in Korea. Even the OECD has pointed out that migrant workers have become a stable feature of the South Korean economy, with many migrants establishing close ties to the communities in which they live and work. Rather than taking steps to prevent these communities from feeling permanently alienated, however, the government seems set on doing just the opposite.
During the crackdown, the government assigned work permits to migrant workers whom had been in the country under four years and attempted to deport those workers whom had been in the country for longer. Thus, workers with the strongest ties to South Korea, whom spoke the language and had started families in some cases, were put in the most precarious situation. Subsequently, many of these workers took to hiding in their factories or in the hills during times of crackdown, often taking dramatic actions, including suicide, to avoid the immigration manhunt.
Rather than significantly reducing the number of undocumented migrant workers, the result of the crackdown has been to create a two-tier system of work for migrants. Migrants with work permits benefit from better workplace conditions and stable pay than under the old trainee system, but their rights are still heavily circumscribed under the new system, and without enough time to save and send money back home, many critics argue that the number of workers overstaying their permits will increase substantially as their three years draw to a close.
For undocumented migrant workers, the result has been an increase in the number of what are termed stranded workers, hiding out and working on an intermittent basis without enough money to travel home. These workers constitute a new class of day-laborers for whom working conditions are ruthlessly more exploitive than before the crackdown. For example, members of the Myeongdong sit-in whom have gone in search for work reported being offered as low as 50,000 won (US $45) for three (12-hour) days work. Factory owners know that these workers are desperate, at the mercy of their bosses, immigration officials and the police.
Tears of Han: Migrant workers and the politics of resentment in South Korea
In Korea, to word han is used to describe feelings of unresolved anger, frustration, and resentment at historical injustice. In Korean social history, han denotes feelings of oppression by a suppressed people (minjung) toiling under occupation or economic hardship with a lack of personal freedom. Social protest is often described as outpourings, or tears of han (hanpuli), and draws attention to the social conditions that create this resentment. Like the trajectory of Korean social protest, the emotional life of han is hard to follow. It resides just below the surface in moments of apparent calm, then following some rupture it bursts forth in moments of profound social transformation. The Great Worker Struggle following the June Uprising in 1987 is just one example, where the three months following the announcements of free elections by the military dictatorship saw the number of labor disputes jump to a total greater than the combined labor disputes since 1961. As wages increased throughout the early nineties in Korean factories, the government began importing foreign workers to increase the pool of low waged labor for South Korean factories. Activists soon realized that the han of migrant workers in South Korea was from similar conditions that they had fought so hard to decrease, which may explain why so many Korean activists have offered their help.
Over the past year, there has been tremendous solidarity felt between Korean social movements and migrant workers. For instance, even though over the year the ETU-MB faced severe repression for their vocal stance against the EPS and the governmentâ€™s perpetual crackdown against undocumented workers, they were supported by their many solidarity partners, and participated in a wide variety of protests and solidarity campaigns. This protection enabled them to have access to public space to get their message heard, to speak about their resentment at being excluded, and to associate with workers whom have similar grievances. Migrant workers became a fixture at the weekly protests, including those of the organized trade unions, as well as informal organizations of casual and contingent workers, and protest by urban dwellers displaced by Seoulâ€™s latest urban redevelopment schemes. The ETU-MB also worked underground to mobilize migrants in the communities where they live and work. For example, in the spring, when migrant workers at a refrigerator factory went on wildcat strike to protest workplace conditions, the ETU-MB stepped in to help workers negotiate their demands.
The ETU-MB has also seen an incredible amount of violence this past year; thus, there are plenty of reasons why their collective morale is down. Mohammed Bidduth, one of the ETU-MBâ€™s key organizers, was deported to Bangladesh in January 2004 and subsequently charged under an obscure National Security Law for associating with labor unions in South Korea (his case, however, was later through out of court). Samar Thapa, Chair of the Myeongdong Sit-in Struggle Collective (MSSC), was snatched by undercover immigration officers as he handed out pamphlets in February 2004. Subsequently, Samar and other ETU-MB members and detainees in two detention centers began hunger strikes to protest the governmentâ€™s repressive crackdown. In response, the South Korean government stepped up the deportations of these detained migrant workers, some who were still in poor health as a result of the hunger strike.
Repressive and illegal violence seemed to surround most of the ETU-MBâ€™s activities, many demonstrations ended in skirmishes with riot police and immigration officials, whose strategies literally, at times, included hit and run tactics, running buses in protests to break them up, with the help of stun guns and police charges as well. Through most of the year, therefore, ETU-MB activists regarded church sanctuary as their only safe space.
For many, the Myeongdong sit-in site has come to symbolize a space of hope. In practice, it embodied dreams of rights and equality as migrant workers shared the close quarters of the cathedral steps with their supporters and activists from other labor unions who have been forced to seek out the sanctuary of these church steps because of their opposition activities. After all, the Myeongdong Cathedral is the symbolic center of the Korean left, the only site of sanctuary during the military dictatorship, and the place from where the minjung movement mobilized the vocal display of han leading up to the events of June 1987 that toppled the dictatorship.
Sundayâ€™s closing rally saw more emotional tears of han shed as migrants recollected many of the moments of their last year of struggle. As the rally drew to a close, and a long line of speakers wrapped up their speeches to the more than five hundred migrant workers and supporters assembled at the sit-in site, the ETU-MB vowed to continue its struggle against the governmentâ€™s policies towards migrant workers. With winter coming, however, it seems likely that the leadership will take some time to reconsider their strategy for the coming year, keeping their han underground for the next little while as they coordinate the next round of struggle with their allies in Koreaâ€™s social movements. It is possible that the ETU-MB will form a wider organization with other trade unions, and concentrate more on mobilizing migrant workers in their workplaces in the industrial satellites of Seoul and other cities.
Whatever strategy the ETU-MB eventually decides upon, however, in the meantime, it seems that the governmentâ€™s two-tier approach to migrant workers is bound to quicken the pace at which feelings of resentment build up, especially among the 180,000 migrant workers who will find their situation growing more desperate as the nights grow colder. Hopefully, the next time their han breaks to the surface, the ETU-MB will have reconstituted sufficiently and will continue to provide their fellow migrants with a voice from which to air their resentment at the continued injustice of South Koreaâ€™s migrant labor policies.
Jamie Doucette lives and works in Vancouver, Canada. The Equality Trade Union Migrantâ€™s Branch is on the web at http://migrant.nodong.net
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