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The Korean Dream
Deferred hopes for over 600,000 migrant workers
Michael Solis (msolis)     Print Article 
Published 2008-06-19 14:34 (KST)   
Temple services during a holiday at the Sikh community's gurdwara.
©2008 Joh Banwait
Like millions of other laborers working outside of their countries of origin, the roughly 642,000 migrant workers in Korea arrive with high hopes for change in a foreign land. But for many, the pursuit of the "Korean dream" ends up turning into more of migratory nightmare.

I recently visited several migrant worker communities in Gwangju and Seoul. The migrants' stories, wounding both to the ears and spirit, provided a glimpse into the day to day suffering of people struggling underneath the shadows of Korean society.

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The Dream

Walking through the streets of Gwangju, one will inevitably come across small stores that sell parts: car parts, washing machine parts, tractor parts, part of parts, etc. A manufacturing hub, the city is full of factories that require the "unskilled" work that only migrant workers and uneducated Koreans are willing to perform.

Migrant workers in Korea come from nearly 100 countries, but those I met were from Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Regardless of their countries of origin, however, their reasons for coming to Korea were all the same: economic opportunity to support their loved ones back home.

"In Korea, I can make enough money to support my family," reported one man from the Philippines. "After a year of work, I could make enough money to buy a house back home. After three years, I could buy more property."

Several migrant workers in Gwangju are legally documented through the Employment Permit System (EPS), which provides them with a three-year period of residence and official working status. Critics of the controversial system, such as the Migrants' Trade Union (MTU), view the EPS as an unfair institution that has kept migrant workers' wages low in spite of rising prices and has failed to provide migrant workers with enough time to support their families while paying off EPS-related debts. The acquired debts of approximately $4000 essentially bind migrants to working for free for months at a time before they can even think of sustaining themselves and their families in the long term.

Migrants become undocumented, or "illegal," once they overstay their three-year limit on the EPS. Many decide to stay longer because, after becoming undocumented, they still feel unable to return home to support themselves and their families. Continuing their onerous lifestyles in Korea is preferable to going home empty or insufficiently handed.

Additionally, the EPS stipulates that migrant workers be rehired by their employers at the end of each year. This puts pressure on the workers to constantly please their employers who may not rehire those people who complain or choose not to work overtime.

The EPS has bound one Filipino migrant I met to working 90 hours of overtime per month in addition to his eight hours per day, six days per week work schedule. In spite of practically living in the factory, he receives only 1,500,000 won (US$1,500) per month. Yet somehow he manages to retain an air of calm.

"You just get used to it," he said nonchalantly.

Working Conditions and Crackdowns

Having toured a handful of small, crowded, and cluttered Korean factories, I observed that those few factories I did see provided far from optimal working conditions. Primarily, the health risks that come with such atmospheres present valid causes for concern.

According to a Filipino worker at a factory that produces washing machine motors, toxic fumes diffuse through the building during work hours in layers of thick, poisonous smog, which he fears may lead to respiratory illness. Physically, operating the machines is also quite precarious. In order to make the motors, for example, the workers have to melt aluminum to 680째C and pass it through a machine for dye-casting.

To help me understand how hot 680째C was, the Filipino man lifted up his sleeves. He revealed profound scars on his arms, which resulted from inadvertent splashes of the molten liquid that came into contact with his skin.

Deaths in the workplace, although rare, have occurred as the result of poor training or refusal of employers to acknowledge the medical concerns of their employees.

"One of my co-workers had a terrible heart problem for a long time and needed to be hospitalized," commented a migrant worker from Indonesia. "The manager told the sick worker that he still had a debt to repay and that if he did not work then he would be fired. One month ago he died in the factory from a heart attack."

In Seoul, the stories were similar-sounding.

According to Mr. Singh, a Punjabi Indian migrant worker who belongs to a Sikh community living in the city's outskirts, "The boss never teaches us the safe way to use the machines. People are losing body parts like fingers that get cut off. The belts are too fast and the body parts go into machines where they are melted. To make it worse, the boss won't pay for the health expenses of the injured workers and will pay less money to disabled workers when they come back to the factory. They treat us just like machines ? it is total dehumanization!"

Mr. Singh also elaborated on his perpetual lack of financial security. Mr. Singh, who is supposed to earn 1,300,000 won ($1,300) per month, usually ends up receiving 1,100,000 won ($1,100) instead. On any given month, the factory manager may fail to provide paychecks to as many as seven workers, taking advantage of the undocumented workers' subsequent powerlessness in being able to hold managers legally accountable for not providing full wages.

A mutual yet adversarial relationship exists between the factory workers and undocumented migrants. A clear need for cheap labor exists in the factories and undocumented migrant workers are willing to provide that labor in order to sustain themselves and their families. At the same time, factory owners often cheat the migrant workers of payments because they can do so without facing legal repercussions. The situation is one where the migrants are effectively controlled by their employers, which thus compromises migrants' inherent rights as free, individual humans.

Entirely jaded by his experience, Mr. Singh doubts whether or not coming to Korea in the first place was the right idea.

"We have no life here, man! There is a saying in Punjabi -- 'Inside the water well there is a turtle that does not even think to go outside.' This applies to certain Koreans like my boss. They are lagging behind because they haven't seen what is outside."

"I am counting down the days until I can leave this country," he continued. "Then I am going to start studying again."

For the undocumented, an added worry is the constant and unpredictable threat of governmental crackdowns against "illegal" workers. Such crackdowns have increased in both frequency and intensity under the Lee Myung-bak administration and have essentially turned into unwarranted man-hunts for suspected undocumented workers, the majority of whom have performed no criminal actions to merit police arrest or inquiry. Judgments based on physical appearance have now become the predominant bases for arrest.

With respect to the Punjabi workers, no agreement exists between Korea and India that would allow Indian "unskilled" laborers to work legally in factories through the EPS. Consequently, undocumented Punjabi Indians live in perpetual fear of forcible deportation. The police have already invaded factories during the daytime to arrest undocumented Punjabi Indians and nabbed others who were on their way home from weekly Sunday services at the local gurdwara, or Sikh temple.

The gurdwara is the cultural hub for the Sikh community in Seoul. Hundreds of Punjabi people attend gurdwara each Sunday, usually their only day off, in order to reunite, pray, and rest. All are welcome to gurdwara; anyone who attends, whether Sikh or not, will be treated to a delectable meal of homemade palak paneer, pakoras, chai, and more Indian breads than one could possibly imagine.

"People come to gurdwara because they are afraid," Mr. Singh said. "The bond of fear is what makes them come, and they can visit any time they want."

Bought Brides

For female immigrants, an issue of chief concern is the phenomenon of international marriage, or "marriages of convenience." The marriages predominantly involve foreign women and Korean males from rural areas who are unable to find Korean wives. Currently, nearly 14 percent of marriages in Korea involve foreign spouses.

According to the Gwangju-based National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), the "bought brides" constitute a wide range of nationalities and educational backgrounds. More recently, there has been an increasing tendency for Korean men to marry women from Cambodia and Thailand.

Sister Stefania, a Catholic nun from Korea who has dedicated her life to working with Filipino migrants in Gwangu, specializes in counseling foreign women. She views marriages of convenience as contracts that can transform women into commodities, pricing them at approximately $20,000 each.

"I'd say around 60 percent of the relationships are okay -- they can manage," reported Sister Stefania. "But about 40 percent are going through very difficult times. Last week, one woman who has lived here for seven years ran away. Before coming to Korea she didn't know anything about her future husband, who turned out to be a severely handicapped man who cannot write and does not know his own country. After the marriage she managed everything -- the family, the children, the farm -- and last week she felt overwhelmed. She ran away but missed her two sons and came back today."

Women who cannot sustain the marriages often return home both saddened and empty-handed. Others have not been provided with such an opportunity despite their strong desires to leave Korea. For instance, in February of this year a Vietnamese woman married to a Korean man allegedly committed suicide after falling from the 14th floor of an apartment building. In April of 2007, another Vietnamese woman was murdered by her Korean husband after trying to escape from their home.

"For immigrant women, life is not easy," said Sister Stefania. "Acceptance is acceptance. Hard work is hard work. But, for them, loneliness is the most difficult problem of all."

Cultural Impacts

Undoubtedly, migrant workers are part of the growing spectrum of international life in Korea. Many are even contributing significantly to the general community by filling previously unoccupied niches of Korean society. For example, an Indonesian missionary in Gwangju leads religious services for migrants and Koreans, counsels migrant workers, and offers shelter and medical treatment programs to Koreans with HIV/AIDS.

Migrant worker parents in Gwangju take part in cultural events at schools to increase students' exposure to and understanding of all types of cultures. Punjabi Indians have won dance contests at international festivals and have opened several highly successful restaurants throughout Seoul. The list of achievements and contributions goes on and on.

As evidenced by the factory conditions, crackdowns, and recent deportations of MTU leaders, much remains to be done -- beginning at the federal level -- to bring about the formulation of a more migrant worker-friendly Korea. Attesting to this, Sister Stefania said that if she could speak directly with Lee Myung-bak, she would express the needs to make illegal workers legal and to provide migrant workers with a system that ensures their safety and benefits them appropriately for the services they provide.

The challenges are immense, but for Korea the chance to interact and experience life with over 1 million people of different nationalities and lifestyles is a momentous opportunity. The potential for mutual cultural exchange, more diverse educational experiences, and increasing respect for people from different walks of life are all incredible goals that will ultimately benefit Korea as it continues to attract foreigners who enter with sanguine expectations.

A version of this article will be appearing in the next publication of Gwangju News.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Solis

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