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Two Stories of Exploitation and Integration
Double lecture on Korean and Vietnamese work migration in Germany
Jan Creutzenberg (RhusHeesen)     Print Article 
Published 2007-05-22 09:32 (KST)   
Nowadays, Asian people belong to the ethnic diversity of Berlin, and not only as tourists. There are sushi restaurants, noodle shacks and Asian shops on virtually every corner. But it has not always been like that. True, in 1966 Korean nurses who arriving in Germany were hailed by TV-reporters as "angels of morning calm." But in reality workers from East Asia suffered severe restrictions in their personal lives -- in both East and West of Germany.

A double lecture that took place yesterday night in Berlin, contrasted the cases of work migration from South Korea to the Federal Republic (West Germany) and from North Vietnam to the socialist Democratic Republic (East Germany). On this concluding evening of a film festival about working conditions in a globalized world, You-jae Lee, historian, and Do Thi Huang Lan, sociologist, told two stories. They both seem to share the gap between official motives -- "technical aid for development" by providing professional training to workers -- and actual reasons: The need for cheap labor.

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In the 1960s West Germany started to recruit young Koreans to work in Germany -- exclusively male miners and female nurses. According to Lee, this can be explained by a specific need in those areas that could not be satisfied by migrant workers from European countries, but also by the wish to support a country that shared a comparable fate of ideological division -- and was lead by a strict anti-communist government.

In fact, most Koreans who worked in the mines or hospitals were part of their home country's middle-class, as opposed to most other immigrant workers in Germany (e.g. from Turkey, Greece or Italy). As they were never meant to stay longer than a few years -- the term Gastarbeiter ("guest-workers") being a euphemism -- resident permits were limited, as well as the right for a living place in company dormitories. As the migration program ended, Koreans demonstrated for their right to work, stressing the fact that they had helped develop the German economic and health systems. Indeed the "Group of Korean Women in Germany," who hosted this informative evening, was organized in the wake of those protests.

Although the Vietnamese work immigrants were hired as "brothers and sisters" from the Communist International by the socialist government in the 1980s, their living conditions were even worse. Secluded from German workers, required to pay a patrimonial fee from their income, granted only a minimal language education, they were even forbidden to bear children; pregnant women who did not accept an abortion had to leave the country. Occasional trips to tourist sites were small exceptions well worth remembering, as Lan found out by questioning these workers.

After the end of the Cold War, all working contracts with Vietnamese people were canceled. Those who did not return to Vietnam had to cope with employment problems and even the danger of being expelled. After laws got more relaxed in the late 1990s, many of them started their own businesses. As a result, today there are many Vietnamese shops and restaurants, especially in the Eastern part of Berlin.

At present second- and third-generation German-Koreans have the highest rate of higher qualification among all other ethnic minorities. Many attend university and marriages into the so called Mehrheitsgesellschaft ("majority of society") are frequent. Lee explains this as resulting from the strong sense of community that helped Korean migrant workers succeed in their protests and is kept alive in many cooperating German-Korean organizations today.

The Vietnamese community, however, is divided in two: The mentioned ex-"contract workers" from the socialist North on one hand; on the other refugees from the defeated South, who arrived as asylum seekers in West Germany in the 1970s. Both have their own organizations, meetings and festivities.

After a long and diverse debate that followed the two speeches, the difficulties to compare those two German histories of exploitation and integration had become clear to the large and interested audience.
For further information on the Korean Women-Group in Germany (both in German and Korean) visit www.koreanische-frauengruppe.de.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Jan Creutzenberg

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