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PSPD    People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

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  • 2001.10.31
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Modern Slaves, Migrant Workers in South Korea

Report on Migrant Workers in South Korea
Lee, Yoon-ju
(Department of Equal Labor Union Migrant Workers, Seoul-Inchon District)

1. The History of Migrant Workers in Korea

(1) Foreign Labour Influx since the Late 1980"s

Korea has imported a foreign workforce since the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988. Traditionally a labor exporting country, the nation"s industrial structure had to be adjusted due to its economic prosperity in the mid 1980s, and foreign workers were inevitably imported.

When Korea started its planned economic development in the early 1960s, it could only be a competitive power in the international market owing to a labour-intensive industrial structure. Korean workers who received very low wages and suffered severe labour conditions produced Korean products sold at low prices so that Korea could extend its portion of the international trade market.

However, Korea, having no competitive power except low wage levels in the international market, couldn"t avoid economic restructuring in 1987. Since 1985, the Korean economy had enjoyed the so-called three low advantages: low oil prices, low interest rates, and a low value of the South Korean won. This improved environment developed and extended the scale of Korea"s economy, which was dependent upon overseas markets and competitive with Japan.

In spite of that economic development, conditions for Korean workers had not improved. In the mid-1980s, Korea had the highest incidence of industrial accidents and longest average working hours per capita in the world. To escape these terrible working conditions, Korean workers moved for a great change. In July, August, and September 1987, strikes occurred at 3,300 factories nationwide. As a result of that great struggle, newly organized trade unions doubled, and workers wages also increased by 16.4 %, on average, every year from 1987 to 1990. This put an end to slave labour conditions and also low-priced products.

Hence, Korean capitalists had to reform Korea"s labour-intensive industrial structure. They exported manufacturing plants based on cheap labour force to undeveloped Asian countries. However, many small factories that couldn"t move their operations overseas soon came to face a severe shortage of labour power.

The fruits of the prosperity of the Korean economy didn"t reach all the people. Even though the government indicated a high level of development, only a handful of capitalists were able to reap the benefits. Furthermore, this small number of capitalists sought new ways of spending their increased flow of money, which was, primarily, the purchase of real estate. Hence, the price of land and houses skyrocketed and tenants were forced out of their accommodation, as they couldn"t keep up with the rapid increase in rental fees.

This inequitable situation saw the Korean government face strong opposition from those who were excluded from the distribution of wealth during this period of economic development. To ease the grievance of the people, President Roh Tae-woo directed the establishment of hundreds of residential areas around Seoul, and 2 million new houses constructed nationwide. Due to this housing project, so many workers left their factory jobs for work in the construction industry, that factories were faced with a labour shortage.

Just as the domestic labour force drained from the factories, a new troop supplying a scaled labour power appeared; they were foreign migrant workers who first came to Korea in 1988.

Korea, located at the fringe of Far Eastern Asia, had not been an important country in the role of international labour migration until 1988. But Korea came to be known internationally, after the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988. The world saw an industrialized and modernized Korea on TV, and they, especially Asian youngsters, rushed to Korea for labour opportunities. They arrived just as Korea was suffering its first severe labour shortage. Migrant workers supplied a new labour power at the time when there was a huge demand.

(2) Migrant Workers Struggle against Slave Labour

At first migrant workers worked without registration at small factories around Seoul or as domestic helpers at rich homes in the late 1980s. Since the early 1990s, documented workers have been imported as the Korean government adopted the trainee system. Under a direction of the Ministry of Justice, the Korean government granted that companies could import foreign workers who were hired for overseas joint venture companies. Since the number of undocumented migrant workers had not tended to decrease, the government decided to extend the scale of importing foreign workers in 1994. After the new policy, the Korea Federation of Small Business (KFSB) imported industrial trainees from 27 agencies in 11 Asian countries.

The issue of migrant workers emerged as a big event in 1994, when fourteen migrant workers, who suffered from industrial accidents, had a rally at the office of the Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ), one of the representative NGOs in Korea. They demanded a core resolution of the problem of industrial accidents, and as a result, the government decided to apply industrial accident compensation insurance to undocumented migrant workers.

On January 9, 1999, at Myongdong Cathedral in Seoul, thirteen Nepalese industrial trainees with chains around their bodies had a sit-in rally, demanding improvement of the industrial trainee system with the slogans of 'We are not slaves!' and 'Don"t beat us!'좸ubsequently, the government announced that the most important eight clauses of the Labor Standard Law, including the stipulation of minimum wage, were to be applied to industrial trainees.

That rally deeply affected Korean society. Migrant support organizations constructed the Joint Committee for Migrant Workers in Korea (JCMK) in July 1995, and have worked on various actions for them ever since. The JCMK and other labour and civic organizations petitioned the National Assembly for the abolition of the industrial trainee system and enactment of the Law for Protecting Migrant Workers (MWPL). The MWPL bill which contained work permission being granted to migrant workers and the right to protected labour, was almost enacted, but didn"t pass the National Assembly due to strong resistance by employers, groups including the KFSB.

The government changed some parts of the Immigration Control Law in April 1998, and the Trainee-Employment System (TES) was also implemented. The TES has the following contents: The KFSB manages the process of importing and distributing migrant workers, namely industrial trainees to the working sites, who can work a year longer if they pass a qualification exam after finishing two years of their contract as trainees. However, they don"t have the same rights as Korean workers. The first qualification exam of this TES was conducted in April 2000.

In 2000, directed by President Kim Dae-jung to set up a system to improve the human rights of foreign workers, the government"s ruling Millennium Democratic Party presented an Employment Permit Law bill to the National Assembly. Under the proposed new system, the Ministry of Labor handles the function of importing and distributing foreign workers, where they shall be granted Korean work permission for a maximum of three years, have the same full labour rights as Korean workers and the Industrial Trainee System, often called the modern slavery system, will be abolished. The KFSB will also relinquish its roll in the Industrial Trainee System.

2. Migrant Workers in Korea

Under the Industrial Trainee System, the different categories of migrant workers are documented and undocumented workers. Migrant workers in Korea are really divided into three categories.

According to the Immigration Control Law, a foreigner is, officially, not able to work at a factory as a simple labourer. Those who can work in Korea eligibly are professionals, engineers, journalists, entertainers, and foreign language instructors. To work as a common worker in the manufacturing industry, one has to come to Korea as an industrial trainee. The industrial trainee system is divided into two categories; one has trainees imported by the KFSB, the other has trainees imported by overseas joint venture schemes of Korean mother companies. So, there are documented workers, industrial trainees, and undocumented workers.

1) KFSB industrial trainee industrial trainees are imported by the KFSB. The KFSB imports industrial trainees under contracts with 49 recruitment agencies in 14 countries.

2) “Trainees Under Joint Venture” (TUJV) are hired and imported by Korean joint venture companies abroad.

3) Undocumented workers. They originally entered Korea with tourist visas or for other purposes, or escaped from their original companies where they worked as trainees.

In Korea, the ratio of documented workers (categories 1 and 2 in the above paragraph) to undocumented workers has been traditionally three to seven.

★ Run-down of migrant worker numbers in Korea as of July of 2000

Total foreign workers Professionals Research trainees * Undocumented workers Trainees
TUJVs KFSB trainees
258,866(100%) 14,669(5.6) 772(2.9) 165,898(64.1) 19,882(7.7) 57,645(22.3)
Source; Ministry of Labour, August 2000
* Research trainees are those employed in laboratories, scientific institutions, etc.

★ Run-down of KFSB industrial trainees as of March 2000
(Seamen and construction workers are not included.)
TUJVs China 11,121
Indonesia 1,351
Sri Lanka 983
Philippines 848
Vietnam 515
Uzbekistan 702
Others 721
TOTAL 20,901

KFSB Trainees Indonesia 10,780
China 8,960
Vietnam 5,836
Philippines 3,910
Bangladesh 2,559
Uzbekistan 1,246
Thailand 1,075
Sri Lanka 898
Pakistan 882
Nepal 744
Myanmar 554
Kazakhstan 435
Mongolia 250
Iran 19
TOTAL 38,149
TOTAL TRAINEES 59,050
Source; Ministry of Justice, March 2000

The past and current situation of migrant workers in Korea. Mostly, migrant workers come to Korea as industrial trainees. Generally industrial trainees work in the southeast area of Korea, including the big cities of Taegu and Pusan. Since implementing its economic plan in the 1960s, Korea has planned and developed industrial complexes in that area. These newly developed industrial cities in the southeast have many small and middle-sized factories that can absorb industrial trainees. The migrant workers, primarily coming to Korea as industrial trainees, are obtaining more information about the Korean labour market. The undocumented migrant workers in Korea earn double the wage of trainees so many trainees decide to escape from their designated working sites to become undocumented workers. Some of them go to cities such as Taegu and Pusan, but mostly they work in the small factories in Seoul and Kyonggi Province.

It is estimated that 47 million people reside in South Korea in 2000. Among them, 20 million are living in Seoul and its surrounding Province of Kyonggi. Seoul and other cities in Kyonggi Province exist as a single metropolis as they are linked with a highly developed communication and transportation system. In the marginal areas of this metropolitan area many minor industries have developed. These small factories use undocumented migrant workers, as only these workers will endure the severe labour conditions. 70 % of migrant workers in Korea are working in the wider Seoul area, and most of them are undocumented workers.

3. Human Rights of Migrant Workers in Korea

(1) Human Rights Situation by Visa Status

1) Trainees

Lock-in. To avoid having their trainees escape, the training companies lock up the doors of dormitories to prevent trainees from going out freely, or have forepersons watch them when the trainees go out.

Forced savings. To prevent trainees from escaping, the companies forcibly deposit 30 percent of the trainees" salaries, and the bankbooks, kept by the companies, are given to the trainees at the airport when they leave Korea.

Many trainees escape their designated companies as they suffer a lot of debt in the process of entering Korea, and they have to remit money to support their families.

⇒ In clause 22, the UN Convention on Protection of Migrant Workers and Their Families stipulates that all migrant workers have the right to deliver their personal income and belongings abroad.

Confiscation of passports and foreign alliance registration cards. To avoid having their trainees escape, almost all the training companies keep custody of passports that all trainees should possess in all times.

⇒ The 21st clause of the UN Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers and Their Families prohibits confiscating or damaging any kind of certificates provided for stay and employment such as ID cards, labor permit certificates, or passports.

Limited applications of labor laws to trainees. Even though trainees actually supply their labor, they can"t receive a retirement allowance, or an allowance for monthly and weekly leaves, as they are not formal laborers.

2) Undocumented Workers

Abnormal labor style. Undocumented workers in Korea are at companies hiring less than five workers, and their jobs deal with toxic chemicals or heavy labor. Moreover, a new shift working style is on the increase, such that Koreans only work in the daytime and migrant workers at nighttime, as Koreans nowadays don"t like to work on the night shift. All these things are involved with the rights to health and life of undocumented migrant workers.

Problems caused from inferior status. Taking advantage of the status of undocumented workers, the employers usually intentionally do not pay salaries, or turn them over to the immigration offices. Moreover, even if there are labor-related petitions, the authorities don"t deal positively with the problems of raising the status of people staying illegally. Even though they are covered by the industrial accident insurance, the employers sometimes dismiss the workers when they suffer accidents out of fear that the government will impose a penalty. Furthermore, as the companies where undocumented workers are hired are too small to be covered by industrial accident insurance, many of them don"t want be treated or give up on receiving compensation.

Round-up of illegally staying workers and excessive penalties. The illegally staying workers are seized by fear of being arrested in their daily lives. They have to pay a penalty of 100,000 won ($80 US) per month for staying illegally. In many cases, they don"t go back home because of the excessive penalty.

(2) General Situation of Human Rights

1) Rights to Health and Medical Treatment

The legitimate trainees are protected by medical insurance, but most trainees have not seen the medical insurance card. They don"t know that they are covered by the insurance, even though they pay the insurance bill, because many employers confiscate the medical insurance cards with their ID cards.

Undocumented workers are not allowed to apply for medical insurance, so they suffer from a lot of medical bills when they use medical facilities; it worsens their health conditions. The problems of language barrier and lacking time to go hospitals from their work sites are also reasons.

2) Protection of Families of Migrant Workers, and the Right to Educate their Children

As it has been over ten years since migrant workers came to Korea, marriages by illegally staying male migrant workers and Korean women are increasing rapidly. Because the undocumented foreigners can not have their marriage registered in Korea, they have to leave for their home countries for marriage registration. But they don"t go back home because the Korean laws don"t allow those who have stayed in Korea illegally to come to Korea again within five years of their departure. The couples live together without official marriages.

Even if they report their marriages to the local offices, visas allowing them to work in Korea are not issued to the husbands who marry Korean women, but only family visit visas. Therefore, even though their marriages are eligible, the labor of illegally staying husbands of Korean wives is illegal, and they can"t live stay stablely. The only way for Korean husbands to live in Korea with economic activity is naturalization, but the Korean government has never accepted naturalization applications since March 2001.

A more serious problem is the educational problem for illegally staying children. Only 10 children have been allowed to study, not as regular students but as attendees at schools by permission of principals.

3) Right to Live

Living conditions of trainees are better than undocumented workers, They generally stay at dormitories provided by the companies where heating and warm water are supplied. But some trainees and undocumented workers are living under very harsh conditions. Generally they are sharing rooms with 13㎡ sized rooms with 2-5 workers, but sometimes there are more than 10 workers in a room, with male and female workers even sharing a room. They change the rooms swiftly - male workers work in the daytime and female workers in the nighttime.

4) Human Rights of Women Workers

Sexual violations or sexual abuse frequently happen at the work sites. As many pregnant female workers are afraid of dismissal or deportation, and decide to have an abortion, it damages their maternity.

5) Activity as Trade Union Members

Trainees are prohibited from being a member of a trade union. On the contract made by trainees before coming to Korea, it is stipulated that a trainee shouldn"t go on a slow-down or strike, or join a labor dispute, a political party, or a rally, and that if a trainee violates these stipulations, the trainee can be deported within fourteen days.

No undocumented workers have been recognized as members of trade unions so far. If the current Korean trade unions have a positive will to organize them as their members, and if there are countermeasures to protect them, it will not be very difficult to recruit them as union members.

4. Resistance and Demands of Migrant Workers

Throughout the year 2000, migrant workers in Korea were busy in struggles to revise the laws related to migrant workers. Facing huge denouncements and demands by migrant workers and social activists inside and outside of Korea, Korea tried to abolish the notorious industrial trainee system by endowing employment permits to employers, and work permits to migrant workers. However, the government didn"t do it due to the worsened economic situation at the end of last year, strong lobbying by the employers, and the government"s lack of intention to improve the system.

But, the campaigns were meaningful experiences for migrant workers who struggled from the spring in 2000 to this year to abolish the trainee system and for the granting amnesty of to illegally staying workers. When will the Korean government listen to the voices of migrant workers saying that living as a foreigner, a worker in Korea, is a terrible experience?

' Greetings !

As migrant workers, we have endured everything and have worked when we were sick. We are working over 12 hours a day to satisfy assignments given by the companies. But, this dedication made us face these kinds of problems.

(Omission)

We all know that all migrant workers, regardless of nationality, race, or legal or illegal status, are subject to having all of our human rights protected. Hence, we urge that the Korean government prove our rights to:

- work and receive wages
- be free from discrimination against race, nationality, sex, religion
- receive the same wage for the same work
- be free from compulsory labor
- repatriation if a worker wants it
- live under sound conditions of health and welfare
- work at safe and clean places
- organize and join trade unions
- work with right working hours, enjoying relaxation
- welfare of families of migrant workers

On this occasion, we, migrant workers hope to receive fair wages under better working conditions, and, most of all, we wish to be recognized as human beings with dignity.  

A statement by a Filipino worker on December 18, 2000, at the International Migrant Workers" Day Rally. 

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