The South Korean government has decided to solve the problem of politicized migrants with a mixture of indirect negotiation and brutal force.
Over the last ten weeks of their sit-in outside the Myong-Dong Cathedral in downtown Seoul, South Korea, the Equality Trade Unionâ€“Migrantsâ€™ Branch (ETU-MB) has been attacked by immigration thugs and riot police using hit and run tactics that employ stun guns, tear gas, and brute physical force in order to snatch up as many migrant organizers as possible.
With a lesser degree of visibility, these are pretty much the same tactics that have been employed by the immigration snatch squads since October 24th of last year. As a result, to date, 30,000 workers have left the country, over 900 have been deported, 2,400 are currently being detained, 100,000 are being hunted, seven have committed desperate suicides in order to evade capture and deportation, and two have died from heart attacks while hiding out from the immigration manhunt.
The ETU-MB has declared January 28th 2004 an International Day of Action in Support of Migrant Workers in Korea. They are urging citizens to send an online letter to South Korean president Roh My-Hyun through the website www.labourstart.org.
The South Korean government has been revising its Employer Permit System (EPS), minimizing the use of the Industrial Trainee System (the system whose exploitative excesses caused many legal workers to flee their workplaces to begin with) and expanding the EPS to three years. This has meant that almost half of the migrant workers currently in Korea have become illegal. Although, in a recent turn of events, the South Korean government is now offering EPS permits to those workers if they return to their home countries and wait six months. The government has used this as a bargaining chip to quell sit-ins in other parts of the country and to isolate the ETU-MB from its allies in the church and charity based NGOs.
In theory, the aims of the ETU-MB are not so radical: they are basically advocating for a five-year work visa with many of the same measures of the EPS, including amnesty for workers who have been in the country for more than three years, who speak the language, who have jobs and families. In reality the radical threat that the ETU-MB poses is that through organizing for migrant workersâ€™ rights, they have built up an organization that has created a political space occupied by and for migrant workers.
The South Korean state regards this political space as illegitimate but it is one that the labour movement, the student movement, and social movements internationally have supported with amazing solidarity, because the ETU-MB embodies many of the organizational and philosophical principles of social justice movements worldwide. Refusing the borders between documented and undocumented workers, they organize everyone who comes to them, taking direct action on a case by case basis on behalf of individual migrants; organizing against exploitive immigration policies in the workplace and at a national and international scale; and fighting against the displacement of people from inequality and warfare.
As such, the ETU-MB is a quasi-legal entity. On the books it is a registered trade-union with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU); however, its heart and soul are the undocumented workers that make up almost 100 percent of the organization and whom the government is ruthlessly hunting down.
The government does not see them as legitimate stakeholders to be consulted in the policy process, precisely because the ETU-MB activists have been the most vocal critics. When the current EPS expires later this year and thousands more migrants are made illegal because they have not been granted enough time to cover the burdensome expenses of international labour migration — which include hefty recruitment fees, underpaid dirty, dangerous, and difficult work, and sometimes illegal exorbitant deductions from employers â€“ the government does not want the ETU-MB around to organize discontented illegal workers, publicizing the fatal flaws in the EPS, and protesting against the ensuing crackdowns which will continue to produce illegality by disavowing the conditions under which migrants live and work.
George Bushâ€™s proposed â€œamnestyâ€ for undocumented migrants in the United States follows a very similar logic, constructing migrants solely as a subject of temporary labour or â€˜illegalityâ€™, to be exploited and disposed of without having to be regarded as people with legitimate rights and claims on a political space of their own. The hybrid, political space created by the ETU-MB simply does not exist in the same way in the US; as such it provides an inspiring model to imagine how alliance can be made that allow migrants to empower themselves with the help of both trade unions and radical grassroots social movements. However, if it is to survive as a model, the ETU-MB needs support. The ETU-MB has been confined to their sit-in site for the last two weeks since the government has become more daring, using snatch squads with stun-guns in order to knock out one or two organizers at a time and drag them away in mini vans and buses (see videos at http://migrant.nodong.net/sitin/index_e.html). Though the Myong-Dong Cathedral is a site of historic sanctuary for political dissidents, the ETU-MB fears that the government may attack their sit-in and deport en-masse the remainder of its organizers, solving the problem of a political space for migrants by destroying it altogether.
The Equality Trade Union â€“ Migrantsâ€™ Branch keeps the public informed of their actions through their website http://migrant.nodong.net/ver2/index_e.html, and through http://www.base21.org/.
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