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15 Years on, Migrants Still Second-Class Citizens
Foreign workers help fuel Korea's economy, but support for the estimated 400,000 remains low
Hyo-Jae An (hyo1788)     Print Article 
Published 2005-08-26 14:05 (KST)   
Rev. Kim Hae Sung with Sutra, a hospitalized migrant worker
©2005 Ahn H.J.
Korean-Chinese migrant worker Kim In Sung committed suicide four years ago by setting himself on fire. His suicide note, written in wall paint, read, "Mr. Kim's soul will go to hell. His bad deeds will follow him forever. Korea makes me sad."

When police investigated the death and questioned his boss, Mr. Kim, he claimed he did not know what the Chinese migrant was talking about. The case remains a mystery and Kim innocent.

Rewind 15 years back in time, when Koreans first tasted the luxury of having foreign laborers do hard, manual jobs, also known as 3D -- dirty, dangerous and difficult. But each of those 15 years have ended with little improvement in basic rights for these workers. Too often, migrants die unfortunate deaths.

One illegal 26-year-old Chinese migrant, Bae Choong Yong, died because of a simple illness -- he had caught a cold. He didn't have the courage to go to a hospital for fear of the medical bill or being sent back to his country. After living in Korea for just three months, he died.

The Government and Migrant Workers

The two systems the government is using to filter the immigrants entering Korea have been attacked as being ineffective and even counterproductive.

The systems are the work permit system, which was put into practice in August last year, and the industrial trainee system. Labor laws that cover Korean workers also cover those with a work permit, giving them industrial accident insurance, and guarantee of minimum wages.

The industrial trainee system, implemented in 1993, allows foreign workers to enter the country and receive training for a year. Thereafter, they can be employed for a maximum of two years, however unlike those with work visas, workers under the industrial trainee system are not protected by the labor laws, meaning they are often abused and their human rights are breached due to their status as a "trainees."

In the work permit system, employers must show that they had tried for at least a month to employ a Korean worker for the job, in order to successfully obtain work permits.

But small companies complain that due to such a short supply of manpower it is very difficult to search for a month to employ Korean workers. Employers therefore turn to illegal immigrants to fill the gap instead of following the system, which means employers can give much lower wages than the legal minimum wage.

On the other hand, there has been positive feedback on the new system. Most of those with work permits are all university graduates with related degrees in their fields of work and they are also required to have a basic understanding of Korean by passing the Korean Language Proficiency Test.

Employers say these workers have very good understanding of their jobs and are very smart and experienced, whereas with illegal migrants, the employers would have to explain from scratch the basics of the job and what is required. / Ahn H.J.
The government has made little effort to highlight the human rights problems the migrants still face. Ask an average Korean citizen their feelings about how migrants are treated today, it is likely that more than half would shrug and walk away without an opinion.

"Even from a very young age, Koreans are brought up to believe that our own skin color is the only 'normal' and acceptable one," said Rev. Kim Hae Sung, founder of the Migrant Workers' House in Seoul. "There even used to be a crayon called 'skin color'-- the color being pinkish beige, representing the skin color of Westerners."

"When children from such a young age are taught that pinkish beige is 'skin color,' how can we expect any change in our society? Light and dark brown are also skin colors. Why aren't children taught that?"

"A Ugandan migrant shared with me a humiliating story," Kim said. "Once he was on the metro and a little kid next to him asked his mother, 'Why does that man have such dark skin?' And the mother answered, 'It's because he doesn't wash.'" Stories such as these show just how much people still cannot see beyond racial lines, Kim said.

It has been 15 years since migrant workers have been coming to Korea, and many say they have encountered racism over the years. Migrants from either Russia or Iran who come to the center say they hardly experienced any racism, but workers from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, where skin color is noticeably darker than that of Koreans, have complained of frequent racist attacks or actions from their employers or the general public. Kim gave an example:

"There was a worker from Sri Lanka who came to us for help last year and he told me that whenever he sat on the bus, although the seat next to him was empty no Korean would ever take it."

Watching foreign migrants in Korea feels like stepping back 40 years in time, when thousands of Koreans would head towards Germany or America to work in low-paid, manual jobs, often illegally.

Out of the 50 existing centers in Korea, only one is fully set up by the Ministry of Labor and a few are supported financially by the government, which means help for these workers is severely lacking. In March, the government granted 18,000 places for foreign workers, about half the number granted last year.

Migrant workers seek advice from caseworkers about how to deal with fraud, violence and unpaid wages.
©2005 Ahn H.J.
There have been many complaints that migrant workers are stealing all the available jobs from Koreans.

"Ninety percent of that is a myth," said Kim Ji Ye, the medical director at the Seoul Migrant Center.

"Yes, they are cheaper to employ compared to Korean workers, but Korean people do not like to be employed in hard manual sectors, for example, in the textile industry. The hours are long and pay is minimum. Most Koreans give up after a few weeks, whereas a migrant worker, if paid regularly and treated well, would keep the job for at least a year," Kim said.

"We should be grateful for the workers as they fill up the jobs no one else wants to do. If only Koreans would realize how physically demanding the jobs are they wouldn't be able to point their finger at the migrants so freely," she said.

When we look at most of the developed countries around the world, such as Britain, Japan, United States, they all rely on cheap labor. Take the U.S., the world's only superpower, which has long relied on immigrants to keep the economy going strong.

A nation that faces a problem similar to Korea's is Britain, where thousands of immigrants are flocking for a better chance in life. Although the British public complains about the number of immigrants, these laborers have actually improved the economy by 5 percent, as shown by the 2003 consensus.

"Because of the jobs they do, the migrants are injured frequently and are open to danger," said nurse Kim. "There are an estimated 400,000 immigrant workers, but more than half of them are here illegally, which means they cannot go to big hospitals as they are not covered by medical insurance and even if they are, the medical fees are so expensive that they can't afford it."

With only 50 migrant centers, the help available for Korea's foreign workers is severely lacking. Migrant Workers' House founder Kim also established the first-ever hospital that caters only to foreign workers.

"When I told people about my plans of starting a hospital just for the migrants, everyone said it wouldn't work because of the competitiveness in the medical profession," he said.

Rev. Kim prays with woman in the hospital ward.
©2005 Ahn H.J.
But after a year the hospital could not be any more successful. Although small in capacity, it has all the equipment as any other hospital and is busy all year round, with more than 5,000 patients being treated this year alone. The hospital offers every kind of treatment, from dentistry to gynecology, emergency operations and herbal medicine treatments.

Witnessing the patients at the hospital was certainly eye opening. Sutra, 38, from Bangladesh, told me his story. He had lived in Korea for three years and broke his hand badly April 19. He was working at a wielding factory at the time.

The accident happened only two months into the new job. "I worked from 8:30 to 9 except on Saturdays when I worked until 1. When I broke my hand I went to a big hospital in Suwon, but the medication and operation were both unsuccessful and made it worse."

Sutra was here without a working visa, and therefore insurance did not cover him. "A few weeks afterwards my nose started to bleed heavily and frequently, my health in general deteriorated and I had to endure another operation, second one after two months."

His boss, however, was less than sympathetic, and handed Sutra the burden of medical fees, which totaled 20 million won ($19,621). The injured migrant could only pay 300,000 won, a fraction of the sum. His condition was still serious but he had no money and no job, so he turned to the hospital affiliated with the Migrant Workers' House.

"I have been here a month and received excellent treatment. Hopefully I will be able to leave here and look for work in another month."

Although Sutra never experienced violence or racism from his employer, he still has the medical fees to take care of. "My employer did pay for the first operation but the rest is up to me to sort out. I have no money or a job. What am I going to do?" He shook his head and looked down, as if he were searching the ground for the answer.

The hospital accepts all patients. "We hardly ever reject any migrants. Although the hospital is not huge, we would put beds in the corridors if we had to," said a nurse.

Since the opening there have been 1,200 funerals. Many of the deaths could have been prevented if the workers had found out about the free medical care that was available just that much sooner.

Migrant centers around Korea all offer a variety but similar types of support, such as helping those who have had their human rights violated with legal matters, Korean and IT classes, free medical care and temporary shelter, and food and basic medical attention for minor injuries.

Rev. Kim Hae Sung, founder of the first ever migrant hospital in South Korea
©2005 Ahn H.J.
"One of the most important services we provide for the migrants is teaching Korean," said a volunteer at the Seoul Migrant Center.

"When the workers arrive in Korea, they are made to sign legal contracts and other various documents for their work, but because the whole thing is in Korean, it is very easy for them to be cheated in this way by their employer. Even when translations are given they are often very loose and inaccurate." The center provides free Korean lessons for the workers once a week.

The centers also provide counseling for when rights have been abused, or when workers have experienced violence, fraud or domestic problems.

"Fraud or unpaid wages are the most common problems among the workers when they seek counseling," said Kim. The counseling helps the migrants on legal matters, sometimes even going as far as representing their case in court, however only 20 percent of the cases that are reported are sorted out.

The campaign activities Kim has carried out to raise awareness of the lack of human rights migrants have in Korea are extensive. "I've done public protests, fasting, cutting off all my hair, basically anything that will draw the attention of the media."

When asked which protest was the hardest, he said, "Fasting for 21 days was definitely the most difficult, but at the same time it gave me first-hand insight into what it felt like for migrant workers to be hungry for a long time. This made me more determined to not give up." However, Kim said that there are still so many Koreans who are clueless about how migrants are treated.

The center also highlighted the global problem of the rise in low birth rates, which has hit Korea especially hard. The Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that the country has the lowest birth rate in the world, with only 1.15 percent. An increase in the number of elderly has serious consequences, one of them being a smaller workforce.

Korea may therefore need more foreign workers to fill the ever-growing gap between the elderly and the young. The Korea Times reported that inter-racial marriages have been becoming more common, with 25,592 (8.2 percent) last year.

Violation of migrant workers' human rights is increasingly receiving attention, which in turn brings more support from Korean citizens, such as an increase in the voluntary workforce at centers and greater financial assistance.

"Everybody has a right to be treated fairly and with respect. This is a God-given right that should not be taken away or breached. This is what I have dedicated my life towards achieving and I believe some day we will have a society where everyone's rights are valued."
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Hyo-Jae An

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