The Migrant Workers’ Struggle in South Korea and International Solidarity
By Wol-san Liem *
International Solidarity Coordinator, Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union
February 9, 2008
As the issue of immigration has come to center stage in policy debate in the United States over the last several years, grassroots organizations, NGOs and labor unions have put forth strong calls for increased rights form immigrants, pathways to citizenship and an end to raids and deportations. While organizing, public education and lobbying efforts have been lively, however, as with many movements in the U.S., discussion of the issue’s international dimension has been relatively lacking. In fact, the issues of immigration policy reform and undocumented immigrants/migrants are central to countries across Europe and Asia. At the same time struggles against raids and deportations and for immigrant/migrant workers’ labor and human rights are growing in many of these countries. Of these, the struggle in South Korea is significant for the central role played by undocumented migrant workers organizing as part of the labor movement.
The purpose of this article is to introduce the U.S. immigrant rights movement to the migrant workers movement in South Korea. It focuses on the development and current work of the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union, a union build by and for migrant workers regardless of visa status, whose entire leadership is made up of undocumented migrant workers. It also covers the heavy government repression against MTU and ends with a call for solidarity actions in timing with the commemoration of a tragic detention center fire in February of last year and, more widely, greater international solidarity in the immigrant/migrant workers movement worldwide.
There are currently roughly 400,000 migrant workers living in South Korea who work in a number of industries, in particular manufacturing and construction, and in services such as restaurants and entertainment. While their numbers may seem small compare to those in the United States, it must be remembered that the history of the current labor migration to South Korea is only twenty-years old, and the country has traditionally implemented strict policies concerning inward migration and long term settlement. In addition, the numbers are steadily rising and migrant workers have become centrally important to the South Korean economy, particularly in specific industries. Migrant workers come from nearly 100 countries including China (Chinese and Chinese of Korean origin), Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nepal, and West African countries. While conditions, of course, vary depending on industry, country of origin, gender and visa status, migrant works in general face low wages, poor working conditions, ill-treatment at the hands of employers and racism and discrimination from society at large.
Migrant workers first began coming to South Korea in the 1980s, when small and middle-sized manufacturing, construction and other companies began to experience severe labor shortages. Migrant workers, most of whom entered South Korea on tourist or other short-term visas, began to fill this need for additional manpower. Because of the economic necessity, the South Korean government condoned and even encouraged the influx of migrant workers through relaxation of immigration procedures after the 1988 Olympics even before drawing up a formal policy to regulate migrant labor. Eventually, the government developed and implemented the Industrial Trainee System, which brought migrants to South Korea as ‘trainees’ as a way to skirt labor laws concerning wages and work conditions, in order to provide cheap and regulated migrant labor to companies experiencing shortages. This system was severely critiqued by civil society for causing vast abuses of human and labor rights and leading to an increase of undocumented migrants. Negative public opinion forced a change in the system. As such, the government implemented the Employment Permit System (EPS) in 2003, claiming it would protect migrant workers’ rights. This is, however, far from the truth.
3. Employer Permit System
The EPS is currently the main system governing migrant labor in South Korea. While unlike the Trainee System, it does legally acknowledges migrant workers as 'workers', it is in fact designed to preserve the benefits business owners received from the previous system by creating a labor force that is cheap and exploitable.
Under the EPS, migrant workers are prohibited from changing their workplaces at will. If a migrant worker wants to change to another job, he/she must obtain consent from his/her employer and apply to the Ministry of Labor. This process is very difficult for many workers, especially because employers are sometimes unwilling to release their employees. What is more, migrant workers are only allowed to change workplaces three times, except in exceptional circumstances. As such, many migrant workers are stuck at companies where they face unsafe working conditions, low or unpaid wages and inhumane treatment. Female migrant workers are often effectively trapped with employers who sexually harass or abuse them. In addition, because migrant workers are required to renew their contracts each year of the three-year period of the three-year residence period allowed them, they become completely subordinated to the will of their employers, making the exercise of labor rights completely impossible. Finally the sort term 3-year residence period is often not long enough to make enough money to pay off debts incurred during migration and save money to support families back home. The EPS system has, as such, also received strong criticism from human rights, social movement and labor organizations in South Korea and the attention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.
4. Undocumented Migrant Workers and the Current Crackdown
There are over 200,000 undocumented migrant workers in South Korea, more than half of the total population of migrant workers. Many migrant workers have become undocumented by overstaying their visas. This is often inevitable because low-wages make it impossible for migrant workers to save enough money to pay off debts or support their families. Migrant workers may also become undocumented because they are forced to flee difficult conditions at their legally registered workplaces. It is clear that in addition to being an effect of war and neoliberal globalization, which have created situations of unemployment and poverty in migrant-sending countries and vast inequality between nations, the high percent of undocumented migrant workers in South Korea is a direct result of the government misguided policy governing the migrant labor force.
While acknowledging undocumented migrants as a serious social problem, the government has made no effort to find a root-level solution. Instead it has, since 2003, carried out a brutal policy of crackdown and deportation against undocumented migrant workers. This, however, has done nothing to reduce their numbers, which continued to increase after the EPS was implemented. Most recently, a mass joint crackdown (carried out by the Ministry of Labor, the Immigration Authorities and the police) was carried out from August to December in 2007 during which thousands were arrested. What is more, the crackdown, which, like raids in the U.S., is carried out using brutal and results in the imprisonment of migrants in detention center that are no better than prisons, has been the result of 100s of deaths and injuries. The most tragic of this was a fire that broke out at Yeosu Foreigners’ Detention Center on February 11, 2007 killing 10 migrant workers and wounding dozens of others. This event received international attention and also became a catalyst for more unified work between migrant organizations.
The truth is the South Korean economy, like the U.S. economy, needs the labor of undocumented migrant workers, and the government is well aware of this. The recent intense crackdown should, then, not be seen as an effort to solve the undocumented migrant problem in entirety, but instead to reduce the number of undocumented migrants (at 230,000 before August 2007), to the level of estimated need. The crackdown is also clearly a fear tactic used to keep documented migrant workers from leaving their assigned workplaces.
5. Migrant Worker Organizing and the Migrants’ Trade Union
Migrant workers have not been passive in the face of the oppression they face in South Korea, and it is in their resistance that MTU’s history is found. Since soon after they began arriving, migrant workers have come together in communities and formed community organizations in order to aid each other in confronting the difficulties they face. After several years of organizing in this fashion and working in alliance with Korean organizations, migrant workers came together with Korean activists to discuss the formation of a union, the result of which was the founding of the Migrants’ Branch of the Equality Trade Union (ETUMB) in 2002. The activities of ETUMB culminated in a sit-in protest at the Myeongdong Cathedral, a historic site of the South Korean democracy and labor movement, calling for an end to the crackdown and deportations and critiquing the EPS. The sit-in began in November of 2003 and continued for 380 days. In the course of this struggle, migrant worker activist came to believe in the importance of forming an independent union by and for migrant workers themselves. As such, these activists came together with migrant community organizations to form the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union on 24 April 2005. MTU is the first independent labor union in which all officers, beginning with the president, are migrant workers.
6. Labor Repression
Since its establishment MTU has faced continuous repression from the South Korea government. MTU’s notification of union establishment was rejected by the Ministry of Labor on the basis that its leadership was made up of undocumented migrant workers without the same legally protected labor rights as Korean workers. The Ministry of Labor’s rejection initially upheld in a district court, but then overturned by the Seoul Supreme Court on 1 February 2007, which ruled that the right of migrant workers to freedom of association is protected under the South Korean Constitution, regardless of their visa status. Refusing to give up, the Ministry of Justice has appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, where a final ruling is still pending.
In addition to this legal process, the South Korean government has also carried out a targeted crackdown against MTU’s leadership in an attempt to stop the union’s activities. MTU’s first president was arrested in a targeted crackdown, soon after the union’s founding and held in a detention center for nearly a year before he was finally released for medical reasons. During the joint crackdown at the end of last year, dozens of MTU leaders were also arrested and deported.
The government’s attack culminated with the arrest of MTU’s President, Vice President and General Secretary on 27 November 2007 all at roughly the same time in the morning at three different places in Seoul. In each case, several immigration officers lay in waiting in front of the man’s house or workplace in what was clearly a pre-planned effort. The three men were detained in Cheongju Detention Center, two and a half hours outside of Seoul. Despite massive protest from MTU, supporters and the international labor and human rights communities, the men were taken secretly from their cells in the middle of the night, taken out a hole in the fence at the back of the detention center to avoid supporters who were guarding the front gate and then deported early in the morning of December 13th.
7. Fighting Back
After the arrest of the three leaders MTU and supporters from the labor movement and civil society began an ardent campaign to win their release, end the repression against migrant organizing and stop the crackdown and deportation of undocumented migrant workers. This campaign has continued despite the three men’s deportation on December 13. It is February now, two months after the MTU leadership was first arrested and nearing the one year anniversary of the tragic fire at Yeosu Detention Center. As we go into a period of memorial for those who passed away, MTU also seeks to raise awareness of the repression against migrant workers and migrant workers’ organizing in South Korea. We are preparing a series of press conference, panels and rallies beginning on February 11 culminating in a nation-wide protest on February 24th. We are asking organizations in working for immigrants/migrants’ rights in other countries to give this period international significance by organizing solidarity actions in front of South Korean embassies and other significant sites.
While it is clear that the situation of migrant workers in South Korea is particular to the country’s history, legal system and society, it should also be clear that there are many parallels between the struggles of migrants here and those of migrant/immigrants in the United States and indeed all around the world. The phenomenon of migration cannot be separated from the process of globalization in which we are all engulfed. Like in most other countries, the response to this reality in South Korea is one of policing borders, illegalizing people and exploiting them as a cheap labor force. The tragic fire in Yeosu and the repression against migrant workers’ organizing, then, should not be seen as merely South Korean problems. Rather, they are representative of the human rights and labor rights abuses against migrant workers everywhere. The struggle to win protection of these rights is a global struggle, to which international solidarity- collective sharing of information, strategizing and action- must become a greater part.
* Wol-san Liem participated in the International Day of Action for Migrant Workers Rights called by the BMDC on Friday, January 28 (see "Protest Against ICE Raids, An Act of Love in the Freezing Cold of Boston"). She also attended our regular meeting and shared with the Working Group her experiences organizing migrant workers in South Korea. Our understanding that transnational unity in the struggle for migrant workers rights is necessary and possible is shared by Wol-san and we hope to formalize ties as we move forward towards the concept that no workers should illegal anywhere in the world.