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PSPD  l  People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

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  • 2001.07.31
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Significance of the Traning Programme of Activists for Migrant Workers in Korea

Park Kyung-tae


1. Introduction

Since the late 1980s Korea came to be a country importing foreign workers, which used to be a country exporting its work forces before. In many countries, policies on migrant workers are exclusive as is explicit in the case of European countries. The same is true in Korea, particularly because its people have not lived with other nationals. Thus Korean people's attitude towards migrant workers is not friendly in general. Problems migrant workers are facing are various: emotional loneliness, economic difficulties, hard conditions of work and living, Korean people's antagonism against foreigners, insecure status of residence and so on. However, the policies of Korean government on them are far from resolving the problems they are facing. The government's policies are quantitative and legal: the number of migrant workers, their residence and working status, legal procedure to purge them. Their human rights are not taken into account when the policies are made. Thus, any consideration into migrant workers as foreigners is not taken both in central and local governmental administration. Even worse, fundamental human rights for them are not secured, either. As a result, services for them, which should have given to them by government, are given by civil organisations, instead.

After certain period of time when migrant workers arrive, some social troubles are caused due to their working conditions and the country's receptability of them. Both civil groups supporting migrant workers and their own organisations are likely to be created when the troubles are caused with uneasiness and conflicts. Major jobs of civil groups are to counsel them when their salaries are not paid or they are injured during work, to teach Korean language, Korean culture or basic computer skills. They also give medical and legal helps. They fill administrative forms or legal forms for migrant worker or introduce other social organisations to them. Of course, they provide migrant workers with shelters.

Civil groups supporting migrant workers are very well aware of their difficulties and conditions because working staffs of the groups frequently meet migrants workers in person. They are most interested in migrant workers' issues with a lot of information on them and for them among civil organisations. They have played a key role to make migrant workers' issues publicly known, and also resolved many problems migrant workers are facing while the government or the general public turn away from them. So working staffs at civil groups are the most important force to resolve troubles or problems concerning migrant workers in Korea.

However, civil groups supporting migrant workers in Korea are in hard condition, too. They suffer financially, thus, the staffs are poorly paid and the number is not enough to deal with a lot of issues raised. Their working hours are inevitably long, too. These hard conditions make staffs unable to continue their job to support migrant workers long enough. Civil groups not only have difficulties concerning working staffs but also accumulation of information and knowledge on migrant workers mainly because of the former problems. Particularly, civil groups hardly organise training of their working staffs, which can accelerate their activities.

Taking all these conditions into consideration, the Resource Center for Asian Ngos(RCAN) at Sungkonghoe University provided a training programme for the working staffs jointly with the Joint Committee for Migrant Workers in Korea(JCMK) for 11 weeks from 11 April to 27 June, 2001. In this paper, supporting activities for migrant workers are critically reviewed and then significance of the training programme in migrant workers movements is explained. Self-sacrificing and dedicated activities of staffs at the groups should be highly acknowledged. Their activities made the social understanding of migrant workers changed and resulted in many improvements on migrant workers' issues in Korea. However, in this paper, I would like only to point out some activities which are not sufficiently organised in order to resolve migrant workers' issues.

2. A Review of Past Activities

1) A few efforts to resolve fundamental problems


Majority of groups take actions only after certain incidents took place; salaries were not paid, injured during work, physically assaulted or criminal cases were happened. Of course, it is also very important to resolve these problems for migrant workers. However, migrant workers are not protected legally and administratively even though these problems are resolved, because they are illegal residents or industrial trainees. In other words, their right as workers are not observed at all. Under this circumstance, services provided by civil groups are the only protecting machinery for migrant workers in Korea. But it should also be recognised that the activities post factum are to avoid fundamental issues concerning migrant workers to some extent. Therefore, another incident takes place after one is resolved by the devoted activities of staffs, in other words these kinds of incidents would happen again and again. And the number of incidents to be resolved increases when more migrant workers are introduced to Korean industry. This will make the staffs indulged only in these incidents sacrificing themselves.

Various facts might well be included in fundamental issues concerning migrant workers. For instance, economic poverty and political dictatorship in their home countries, or capitalist economy which creates migrant workers are pointed out. However, the issues are too remote in resolving migrant workers issues in Korea. So problems directly related to migrant workers issues in Korea should be recognised and efforts should be made to resolve the problems. One notable examples in Korea is Industrial Trainee System whcih denies all the rights as workers for migrant workers, and why they have to choose illegal residence status should be clearly recognised in order to solve it.

2) A failure to create self-reliance

Many activities supporting migrant workers are organised by religious groups or social movement organisations. They have to work a lot, and their working days are intensively on weekends or holidays. It should also be pointed out that they are less paid than migrant workers. Their self-sacrificing efforts resulted in improvement of migrant workers problems on the one hand. However, their devoted efforts make migrant workers rely on them instead of making them self-supporting, on the other hand. From time to time migrant workers see the activists automatic hands for them. It cannot be denied that it is quite difficult for migrant workers to organise themselves independently in Korea. However, it should be pointed out that there have been a few efforts to resolve migrant workers issues by themselves even after experiencing 10 years of migrant workers history in the country. Korean activists rather than migrant workers themselves are devotedly working in order to make their conditions improved. This cannot solve the fundamental issues concerning migrant workers.

3)The issues are dealt with partially

Migrant work is completion of a series of process: preparing to migrate to foreign countries for work; working after migration; returning to home country. However, the supporting organisations for migrant workers are concerned exclusively in some parts of the whole process, that is, issues raised in the country where they are working. Of course, it is quite difficult for Korean organisations to be concerned in before and after their migration. However difficult it may be, it should be taken into account in order to approach migrant work appropriately. If not, migrant work issues cannot be dealt with efficiently.

It is true that problems migrant workers are suffering now is germinated in their home countries before migration. Many of them are unlikely to be resolved when they return. A procedure cost so called a broker cost in home countries is too high to be paid back, which force them to work in a foreign country for long (under illegal status). Even after they return, they cannot pay the debt because they could not save enough money after paying a training fee and sending money to their families. Therefore, they have to look for another opportunity to work in a foreign country. In this respect, the activities of the Korean organisations cannot resolve problems concerning migrant workers in general, if it is not approached comprehensively. Thus the migrant workers' issues should be understood as a series of process; problems in their home countries before migration; incidents in working countries; problems after returning. Otherwise, all the devoted efforts by the activists are an impromptu solution.

4) Isolated activities: Lack of cooperation

In order to solve the problems briefly explained above, a lot of cooperation among the supporting organisations are required. Activities of one organisation or an activist cannot but be restricted. Any activist cannot get information or achieve methodology to approach migrant workers' issues in Korea except they extend their experience with migrant workers in person at the moment. Under the difficult circumstances, activities for migrant workers would be a lot more efficient and fruitful if activists' or organisations' experiences and information are shared with each other and they cooperate helping with each other. Each organisation supporting migrant workers works independently and separately. There is an associated organisation such as the JCMK, but the number of organisations join is not large enough compared to the number of all the organisations working for migrant workers in Korea.

5) A barrier between nationalities

Some organisations works exclusively for migrant workers of a certain nationality, even though this cannot be applied to all the groups. This tendency is not intended but naturally shaped. If a group of migrant workers of a certain country visit one organisation frequently, other nationalities are unlikely to visit it. If one organisation is exclusively interested in migrant workers of one country, activists at the organisation can achieve a certain degree of expertise on that country, which enable them to give an intensive service. Thus, this tendency is not always negative. However, a fatal result could be produced if migrant workers compete with each other based on nationalities, or even worse their relations become antagonistic. In reality, it is often witnessed that migrant workers compete according to nationalities in labour market. Languages, customs and cultures are differ from nationality to nationality, so it is not easy for them to be close because of the differences. Thus, an enormous efforts should be made to lift the barrier between nationalities.

3. Significance of the Training for Activists

Korean activists working for migrant workers do not have enough background knowledge about them, even though they meet them frequently in order to resolve their problems. From time to time migrant workers ask for a particular kind of support to their traditional cultural activities and political campaigns. However, the activists could not give them sufficient support mainly because they are not well aware of their traditions, histories and political situations. The activists' interests extend to universal concerns such as peace and human rights regardless of nationalities from migrant workers issues in Korea. But they have some difficulties to actualise their interests into activities because they cannot make an opportunity to study situations of other countries. And their lack of background knowledge on countries of migrant workers, for whom they are working, is also a barrier to cooperation of activists and organisations.

Any programme to educate on these topics to activists working for migrant workers has not been created, even though it is recognised that such a training is required. The JCMK could not organise such a programme because it is too busy working to relove migrant workers' issues daily raised. Thus the RCAN at Sungkonghoe University planned to create a programme to support the activists in collaboration with the JCMK. As a result, 'A Training Programme for Activists for Migrant Workers' was organised. A training programme was provided under the title of 'Understanding Asian Societies'. Asian Societies are focused because majority of migrant workers in Korea are from Asian countries, although some of them are from Africa and South America. The programme started with the topic of the discrimination of ethnic minorities in Korea, and then it is devoted to understanding of culture and society of each Asian country, and finally concluded with discussions on refugee issues and international solidarity for 11 weeks. (See Leadership Programme for Migrant Workers II in ASQ 4 for the details of the programme) The programme is welcome by all the activists and gives them a valuable opportunity to widen their understanding of Asian societies.

The programme has several significances. First, it is exclusively for activists working for migrant workers in Korea. In this sense, it is a unique and special training programme among any training programmes organised by civil organisations, which are usually for general public and less frequently for their activists. It is quite difficult for civil organisations to organise a training programme for activists because they are too busy and their budget hardly afford to it. If there is a programme for activists, it is planned to produce an immediate result. However, the programme by the RCAN and the JCMK is designed solely for activists working for migrant workers in Korea even though it could not produce any immediate result. Rather, it is based on what the activists require for their activities and future plans.

Second, it should be noted that the programme is planned and provided jointly by an academic institution(scholars) and a civil organisation(activists). The role of civil organisations in migrant workers' issues became more and more important like that of other organisations in various social issues, however, the cooperation of civil organisation and university has rarely been witnessed in Korea. It is mainly because of the division between 'the world of practice' and 'the world of theory'. Many scholars tend to think that they involve in social activism suggesting alternative policies based on their research, or personally join activities of civil organisations. Some civil organisations are supported by expertise of scholars, but there have been few programmes planned and provided by both organisations. Thus, the programme created a new kind of cooperation between academic institution and a socially acting organisation in order to resolve problems of the Korean society.

Third, the programme demonstrated the possibility of 'a long term' training programme for activists. Activists of civil organisations in Korea start working after a brief orientation or training for a few weeks or even without it. And once they start working for civil organisation, it is quite difficult to get an opportunity of re-training reflecting their activities or educated with new information and knowledge. Then many of them are exhausted with their activities, which inevitably decreases the degree of their devotedness and self-sacrifice, and as a result, in some case, they quit. The programme has lasted for 11 weeks, which is quite long compared to other programme for activists for a few days. However, 20 participants almost half of all registered successfully completed the programme. This shows that a training programme for activists could be designed for long term with a lot of topics and issues. It is expected that more activists would participate in the continuing programme planned in the second half of this year.

And lastly, the programme proved that a training programme could play a key role in cooperation among different organisations. The participant organisations in the JCMK do not have enough number of full-time working staffs. So it is difficult for them to meet and discuss with activists of other organisations in the JCMK. However, the programme provided them with a good opportunity to meet activists together for 11 weeks. Actually after each session, they discussed about some urgent issues on migrant workers together. This certainly enhanced the degree of cooperation among activists and organisations.

4. Conclusion

Circumstances of migrant workers in Korea and organisations for them are changing as the history of migrant workers continues. The number of long-term residents is increasing and civil organisations need to give them other supports which are not directly connected to economic issues. As the number of married couples between migrant workers and Koreans is increasing, civil organisations should make efforts to help the new families to settle down in Korean society without discrimination. In addition, they should help their children to enjoy secure and happy lives in Korea. The changing characteristics of migrant workers should be taken into account when organising their activities. For instance, the education level of migrant workers comes to be lowered, and their home countries are changing. In order to cope with changing situations, the activists should think of various possible directions of their activities based on new information and knowledge. For this, a comprehensive training programme for activists is a lot more required. In this respect, the programme by the RCAN and the JCMK provided a good model for a training of activists and demonstrated new possibility of such training.


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