World New York has morphed into the ABC Electric Journal, so I’m going to mirror for the sake of posterity this article I wrote for Grant a few months ago, which was the last thing ever posted there. Oh dear. Hope that wasn’t my fault.
In a monoculture, it’s difficult to blend in when you look different. In Korea, if you look different and have the additional bad luck of not looking like a businessman or an English teacher, the chances are good that you’ll be either ostracized or ignored. Koreans are proud of their ethnically homogeneous society, and the outsider is generally tolerated as a necessary evil, or viewed with mixed amusement and pity that they were not born Korean. Suspicion of the foreigner, and sometimes outright racism, for cultural and historical reasons, are deeply ingrained, and even respectable publications are sometimes to blame for perpetuating negative stereotypes, doing things like referring to a Muslim missionary as a ‘bright-eyed chimp of a man.’ In this strictly Confucian society, there is no real tradition of respect for the factory worker, the ‘heroic proletariat’. And in the post-9/11 world, sadly, there is a deep suspicion of Muslim people. The convergence of these facts makes for a grim existence for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Korea, many of whom are Islamic.
For the illegal foreign workers of Korea in particular, the situation is often one of desperation and a deep, angry sense of alienation. They come to Korea in hopes that they can make more money, any money, to send back home to their families, and sometimes, if they’re lucky, they can. But the life is a hard one, with 12-18 hour days on a 7 day basis, hazardous and toxic workplaces, substandard housing, dishonest employers, and nonexistent safety regulation, in many cases.
According to the Korean Ministry of Justice, there were 217,690 migrant workers in Korea as of January 2000. Of these, 138,049 were ‘undocumented workers’ who were brought in as technical trainees, but later overstayed their contract periods.
The Industrial Technical Trainee Program was introduced in 1991, with the ostensible goal of providing visas to foreigners employed by the overseas subsidiaries of Korean companies. Migrant workers began to arrive soon thereafter. The program was created to allow the chaebols, the enormous conglomerates that loom over the Korean economy and colour every deal, like Samsung, Daewoo and LG, to bring in employees from overseas branches to receive training. Very quickly, though, the program became a way for small- and medium-sized businesses to import cheap labour. The program also helped circumvent backlash against perceived opening of the domestic labor market to foreigners, always a touchy subject in Korea. At the time, Pusan, the second biggest city in Korea, was fading in its importance as the ‘sneaker capital of the world’, at least in terms of fabrication, with thousands of jobs being moved to Nike and Reebok production facilities in places where the average wage was even lower, like China or the Philippines. Most Koreans would not take low-paying factory jobs, given a choice, and some source of labour was required.
Small and medium-sized business lobbied the government to allow them access to cheap foreign labour, mostly from China and Southeast Asian countries. In 1993, the Korea Federation of Small Businesses (KFSB) was given the authority to operate a revised ”trainee” program to bring in unskilled migrant workers in order to ease the shortage of manpower in the 3-D industries (dirty, difficult, dangerous).
There are, by the best estimates of the government, more than 220,000 people of the Muslim faith residing in South Korea. An estimated 200,000 of those are foreign, and a significant proportion of those people are working illegally. They come from all over Southeast and Central Asia. They belong to invisible communities which are largely ignored and shunned by mainstream society, making pittances to send home to their families and living in constant fear of deportation. Every morning I walk through a factory district to the University where I teach, and see groups of these folks on their way to work. Their story is one of the myriad untold stories about this country.
Most Koreans are unwilling to take what are called the ‘3-D jobs.’ As a result, factory work often falls to the poorest Koreans, or to legal or illegal migrant workers. Factory owners are happy to employ non-Koreans, both because it’s standard practice to pay those migrants considerably less, and because they have little to no legal rights under Korean law. Human rights activists deplore the ”glaring cases of human rights abuses” against these foreign workers and lobby the government to stop turning a blind eye to their treatment, and although things are changing, it’s a very slow process.
According to the Korea Herald, there have been 809 cases of human rights abuses directed against migrant workers in Korea prosecuted in the past 20 months, including more than 450 cases of the deliberate withholding of wages, instances of withholding compensation for industrial accidents, and incidents of violent attack and sexual abuse. Of these cases, the prosecution has arrested 134 employers, while 675 more have been indicted without detention. (source: Korea Herald, November 12 2001). These few prosecutions come from a pool of 85,000 foreign worker complaints at 1,222 factories in Korea reporting unpaid wages for periods ranging between one month and three years, according to a report by the Joint Committee of Migrant Workers in Korea, as reported by the Asia Times .
The Asia Times goes on to describe a typical story of an illegal worker who has three months of wages unpaid, but says that he would not dare demand payment, for fear that his employer will simply report him to the nearest immigration office, and he will be summarily deported. His monthly wage is 340,000 won (US$269), but he actually receives only 152,000 won (US$120), because the balance is held by his boss as ‘guarantee money’, should he disappear or be swept up in an immigration raid. The chance that he or any of the other workers in a similar situation will ever see their ‘guarantee money’ is effectively nil. The silence of workers put into this position is not surprising. Should they come to the attention of immigration authorities, they will be immediately deported, without seeing their money. In fact, periodic immigration sweeps of factory areas for illegal immigrants regularly result in deportations.
The outcry that came as a result of the backlash against people of Middle-Eastern descent in America and elsewhere after the events of September 11 2001 was, of course, justified. But while the lives of immigrants to America (or Canada, or Australia, or other ‘western’ countries) can certainly be difficult, and sometimes fraught with discrimination, it may be worth considering the desperate lives that are led by those, who for whatever reason, cannot make their way to more multicultural, tolerant nations, and must take what they can get.


Anything to add? comments.

Category:
Korea-related, Uncrappy

Join the conversation! 11 Comments

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    the most terrible thing is that most of koreans owner do not pay to the workers,and if somebody ask them about thier sallaries,they like to abuse the forign workers.i have just one request to korean goverment that the people like this should be stopped
    thanks

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  9. dear sir
    i am indian and i am living in k since 2 years i do not have any bad experiance about korea i think these people are more respectfull ,hardworker and harmless .hare we can feel more safe life than other country.my friends like indian ware very much so i want to do business but i dont know about the site and business datails means will they offer me business visa or not ?actually in korea i am seeing only pakisthani vender so i dont know weather they have any contract with india
    if you can give me information about that that will help me to exchange our culture and there by our close relations now i have dependent visa
    waiting for your valuable help
    lovingly
    indo rupali

  10. dear sir
    i am indian and i am living in k since 2 years i do not have any bad experiance about korea i think these people are more respectfull ,hardworker and harmless .hare we can feel more safe life than other country.my friends like indian ware very much so i want to do business but i dont know about the site and business datails means will they offer me business visa or not ?actually in korea i am seeing only pakisthani vender so i dont know weather they have any contract with india
    if you can give me information about that that will help me to exchange our culture and there by our close relations now i have dependent visa
    waiting for your valuable help
    lovingly
    indo rupali

  11. dear sir
    i am indian and i am living in k since 2 years i do not have any bad experiance about korea i think these people are more respectfull ,hardworker and harmless .hare we can feel more safe life than other country.my friends like indian ware very much so i want to do business but i dont know about the site and business datails means will they offer me business visa or not ?actually in korea i am seeing only pakisthani vender so i dont know weather they have any contract with india
    if you can give me information about that that will help me to exchange our culture and there by our close relations now i have dependent visa
    waiting for your valuable help
    lovingly
    indo rupali

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