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PSPD    People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

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  • 2000.10.31
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Past and Present of Foreign Workers in Korea 1987-2000

 

Dr. Seol Dong-Hoon

Research Fellow, Institute for Social Development and Policy Research, Seoul National University

 

 

Korea, once a major labor-exporting country, opened its labor market to foreign migrant workers after the mid-1980s. Beginning around 1987 Korea has become a magnet for migrant workers from late-developing or undeveloped countries, whereas nearly two million Korean workers went overseas in the three decades of 1960-1980s. The Dong-A Ilbo, one of the major daily newspapers in Korea, reported in 1987 that there were hundreds of Filipina domestic helpers in Kangnam, the southern part of Seoul. Although this was the first time that the presence of migrant workers was publicly reported in Korea, the number of foreign workers in Korea has increased drastically since then. As Table 1 shows, the number of migrant workers in Korea has increased quite noticeably: 6,409 in 1987, 14,610 in 1989, 21,235 in 1990, and 45,449 in 1991.

At that time, all of them were undocumented migrant workers not having proper visa status. A series of human rights violations emerged as one of the major social problems in the country. Since the public was not prepared to deal with such a sudden increase in the number of migrant workers, governmental measures had not been able to keep pace with reality. The number of undocumented migrant workers repatriated to their home country increased through arbitrary enforcement, and a lot of employers were also subjected to penalties following investigations by authorities. Yet at the same time it was clear that the expanding business firms needed some kind of governmental aid in order to keep up with the economic boom in the 1980s. As a consequence, employers in small and medium businesses (SMBs) suffering from a severe manpower shortage had pressured the government to legalize the employment of foreigners. Business organizations like the Korea Federation of Small Business (KFSB) frequently asked the government to import foreign labor in the late-1980s. But the workers of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) and the Korean Trade Unions Congress (KTUC)

INDUSTRIAL AND TECHNICAL TRAINING PROGRAM FOR FOREIGNERS, 1991-1997

Korea insists on defining itself as a nonimmigrant country. No immigration law exists. The basic pattern of Korean political discourse strongly based on jus sanguinis. The contradiction between the demands of economic rationality and ideology remained the characteristic feature of Korean non-immigration policies.

In 1991, political regulations and administrative institutions were introduced to recruit labor from foreign countries. The Korean government found a solution in the Japanese model of the Industrial and Technical Training Program for Foreigners (ITTP). The specific criteria to become a foreign industrial and technical trainee in Korea included the following companies and conditions: those companies, in accordance with the Foreign Exchange Act, investing in foreign countries jointly with a foreign company; those companies providing technical support to foreign countries based on the Foreign Technological Development Act; those companies exporting industrial supplies to foreign countries based on the Import-Export Act; and those companies get a recognition from the Ministries which decides the legitimacy of hiring foreign trainees. Launched on October 26, 1991, the program was based on the Guideline of Issuing Foreign Industrial and Technical Trainee Visa and promulgated by the Ministry of Justice. According to the program, the imported foreign workers would enter Korea as trainees not workers. Although their visa status is trainee, they actually work in the factory without training and are regarded as disguised workers. These migrants are denied the workers three basic rights of unionizing, collective bargaining and collective action. This strategy was so effective that no trade union objected to the launching of the program.

Korean firms with a foreign affiliate have been allowed to bring trainees into Korea since 1991. The number of foreign trainees can neither exceed 50 nor surpass 10 percent of the native workforce in the same company. The training period is set for six months with a possible extension of an additional six months with explicit consent from the Ministry of Justice. In 1992-1993, though the number of foreign trainee entrants annually was about 8,000 to 9,000, their presence in Korea did not draw much attention from the public.

About the same time, the number of undocumented migrant workers dramatically increased, when many of them entered the country through tourist or short-term visiting visas, and occupied positions in a variety of SMBs in Seoul and its satellite cities. On July 31, 1992, the number of undocumented migrant workers was 65,528, about 88.7% of the total migrant workers.

The government set a period from June 10th to the end of July in 1992 in which employers were obliged to report undocumented migrant workers. In August 1992, companies without a foreign affiliate were also able to import foreign trainees on the amount of 10,000 The number of the repatriated undocumented migrant workers was 10,000. if they had been approved by the Minister of Commerce and Industry. Since 1992, SMBs without an overseas presence have been permitted to bring in foreign trainees. They typically did so through private recruiting agencies. Up to 10,000 trainees were authorized to work for one year in SMBs in selected manufacturing sectors. In June 1993, the government extended the length of traineeship from less than one year to maximum two years.

There were an insufficient number of trainees to supply manpower to SMBs in Korea, and the attempt to crack down on undocumented migrant workers met strong resistance by the employers. By extending the repatriation date to the end of the same year, companies that reported to the authorities were in fact tacitly given permit to employ undocumented migrant workers. Of course, this was not an attempt to legalize the employment of undocumented migrant workers. In reality, this measure was a desperate attempt at alleviating labor shortage pressures in SMBs by implementing temporary legalization. In this way, the government repeatedly extended the repatriation period, culminating in the fourth extension to the end of June in 1994.

In November 1993, the government decided to enlarge the scale of importing foreign trainees, under the supervision of the Korea International Training Cooperation Corps (KITCO). After 1994 there are two kinds of trainees in Korea. Workers from one group entered Korea as trainees through their country under the control of KITCO under KFSB. Workers from the other group came to Korea for the purpose of training as employees of overseas Korean companies. under the auspices of the KFSB, a copied version of the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO). The government gave KITCO the right to exclusively conduct the process of importing and distributing trainees. While JITCO was composed of three different parts representing labor, business and government, KITCO was a subsidiary organization of an employers association and thus functioned to meet the interests of the employers. Because KITCO was working on behalf of the employers, it was inevitable that the ITTP would not be successful.

The government allowed the importation of 20,000 trainees on November 24, 1993, and 10,000 additional trainees on September 2, 1994 for the garment and footwear sectors. In the footwear sector, large enterprises also became eligible to import foreign labor, and in 1995 the government decided that another 20,000 trainees for manufacturing would be brought into the country. In January 1996, President Kim Young-Sam also promised to allow 1,000 trainees for the fishing industry that was also experiencing labor shortages. The Korea Fishery Federation runs the trainee program for this sector. Moreover, in 1996, another 30,000 trainees were authorized for the manufacturing sector. The training period was also extended to maximum three years. In 1997, the Koran Construction Federation was allowed to import trainees.

KITCO under the auspices of the KFSB recruited from lots of agencies in 14 Asian countries. KITCO have the rights to selecting agencies, so many brokers relating the agencies in sending countries tried to access and give some bribes to staffs in KITCO. They were accused of bribery. In July 1997, KFSB decided to deliver their (KITCOs) rights to the governments of sending countries, for the purpose of preventing bribery. Eventually, KITCO came to be a hotbed for many brokers.

The agencies received a lot of brokerage fees from trainees. They often charged trainees US$2,000-3,000 and even US$8,000 for a placement in Korea. It was considered that trainees paid unduly much money because the agencies spent a lot of money for being selected as the recruitment agencies from KITCO. Even though the agencies subtracted their payment from the trainees monthly wages, In legal terms, the money they earned is not wages but allowances because they are not workers but just trainees. with brokerage fees so high it was extremely difficult to pay them back, and a significant number of trainees escaped from their designated companies to become undocumented migrant workers whose wages more closely resembled labor market price. However, because of their illegal visa status, undocumented migrant workers had more severe human rights violations than trainees. As a result of Korea? absurd foreign labor policy, amidst the worsening conditions of human rights violations, two rallies by migrant workers led to a high level of public criticism.

First, undocumented migrant workers suffering from industrial accidents staged a sit-in at the auditorium of the Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice in January of 1994 for a period of one month, demanding medical treatment and compensation. As their rallies drew the attention of the public, the government decided to acknowledge the basic rights of undocumented migrant workers and to allow them to be covered by the industrial accident compensation insurance. The government not only decided to compensate for those who left the country with industrial accidents, but also ordered the Ministry of Labor to take charge in monitoring violations of labor laws, including unpaid wages.

Second, trainees from Nepal staged a sit-in at Myongdong Catholic Cathedral from January 9 to 17, 1995, protesting unjust treatment from their employers and intermediary exploitation at the hands of their brokerage agencies. Over 38 human rights organizations in Korea joined the rallies, and formed the Association for the Human Rights Protection of Foreign Industrial and Technical Trainees. It was reorganized and extended as Joint Committee of Migrant Workers in Korea (JCMK) on July 1, 1995.

As a response to the rallies, the Ministry of Labor announced ? Measure Pertaining to the Protection and Control of Foreign Industrial and Technical Trainees on February 14, 1995. It stated that foreign trainees should be paid at least the minimum wage set by the government, should receive wages directly from the employers, and should not have to surrender their passports to employers or to any other party. This reduced the chances of exploitation by agencies that handle remittances. The migrants and their supporting NGOs including the JCMK were stepping up their campaign for the Protection Act of Foreign Workers since 1996.

Two major parties including the ruling New Korea Party (NKP) and the opposition National Congress for New Politics (NCNP) submitted bill of Employment of Foreign Workers Act to the National Assembly respectively in 1997. The key concept of the bills is launching the Employment Permit Program for Foreigners (EPP). With a high level of public support, many felt reform was possible.

Unfortunately, the reform was not successful. In the summer of 1997 employers of KFSB had a couple of rallies in front of the government complex buildings at Kwachon. They argued that there was no need for the Employment of Foreign Workers Act, as even Japan did not have a similar law.

WORKING AFTER TRAINING PROGRAM FOR FOREIGNERS, AFTER 1998

After a long discussion, the Working After Training Program for Foreigners (WATP), an extension of the ITTP, was introduced in April 1998 under the supervision of the KITCO under the auspices of KFSB. The government revised a part of the Departures and Arrivals Control Act (DACA). DACA is a functional equivalent of Immigration Act of USA to implement WATP. Within the framework of WATP, trainees, who pass certain skill tests after two-year-training, can work for one year as workers thereby changing their visa status to the working after training (E-8) category. The person who wants to receive the alternation allowance of stay qualification due to the stipulation about Industrial and Technical Trainee Control, should (a) pass the technique qualification examination due to the National Technique Qualification Act or the Technique Qualification Examination corresponding with this, (b) have trained for two years as an industrial and technical trainee at the designated company, and (c) have the qualification for training employment according to the chief of the related administrative institutions. The person who receives the alternation allowance of stay qualification of training employment, should work for the company where he/she originally worked as a trainee. He/she can move to another company, if the chief of the company agrees it or KITCO decides the turnover is necessary. Workers after training become entitled to the same rights as their Korean colleagues vis-a-vis the Labor Standards Act, the Minimum Wages Act, and other labor-related acts. In addition to possessing good working skills, they are to play an important role in supervising and assisting the regular trainees.

However, WATP has been blamed for the fact that it keeps the basis of the ITTP. There is growing doubt about the KITCO? ability to administer more than 70,000 trainees. There are recurring problems, such as the corruption on sending trainees agencies, the high-handed supervisory agencies, and the forced savings system (JCMK 2000).

The number of migrant workers had dramatically increased in 1994-1997 (77,546 in 1994, 142,405 in 1995, 210,494 in 1996, and 245,399 in 1997) before the situation abruptly changed. The collapse of Korea? economy at the end of 1997, the worst in its post-war history, prompted a US$57 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue package. The crisis deepened in 1998 and labor unrest escalated. Amid the economic crisis and massive layoffs in 1998, a number of migrant workers departed Korea. It is becoming increasingly difficult for migrant workers to find jobs and the rapid devaluation of the Korean currency reduced the wages of migrant workers in terms of the US dollar. Many migrant workers, therefore, had no choice but to move to other countries or to return home.

The government announced its intention to strengthen the monitoring of undocumented migrant workers and to freeze the total quota of trainees. In 1998, the quota was not filled for the first time as result of lack of demand. In 1998 alone the government set a penalty exemption period four times in which undocumented migrant workers would be allowed to go back home without paying penalties. To encourage more companies to dump undocumented migrants, the government also offered an incentive scheme by providing subsidy to companies who hire native workers instead of undocumented migrant workers. From 27 December 1997 to the end of August 1998, a total of 61,689 undocumented migrants left Korea; 92,686 undocumented migrant workers remained as of 31 August 1998. In any case, the number of total migrant workers had sharply decreased to 157,689 as of 31 December 1998.

Meanwhile, migrant workers were falling victim to nonpayment or delayed payment of wages. Sometimes the factory owner had indeed gone bankrupt and could not pay, but in many cases, employers were withholding wages in the anticipation that the migrants would flee Korea. Since 15 October 1998, all the migrant workers have been covered by the Labor Standards Act. This is a product of the continuous advocacy by migrants and supporting NGOs. However, while these labor laws and the industrial accident compensation insurance had been made applicable even to undocumented migrant workers, they were still not applicable to trainees simply because trainees were not legally considered as workers. Undocumented migrants are also still excluded from medical insurance benefits. Worker-cum-trainees are protected by the selected 8 articles of the Labor Standards Act, the Industrial Safety Act and the Minimum Wage Act. They are also covered by the medical and the industrial accident compensation insurance. Because their length of stay is a maximum three years and there is little risk of job loss, unemployment benefits and public pensions are not applied to trainees. They do not want to pay into such an insurance scheme where there is little probability of receiving defined benefits. Undocumented migrant workers are protected by all the articles of the Labor Standards Act. They also covered by the industrial accident compensation insurance, which includes bottom-line protection of human rights, though employers do not pay insurance fees for them. However, they are excluded from other social protection benefits because they do not contribute to the system and because they do not have proper visa status.

In the beginning of 1999 the worst seemed to be over and the economy began to recover. As soon as the news of the recovery of the Korean economy spread, the entrance of migrant workers was increasing again. The number of migrant workers has rapidly increased to 217,384 at the end of 1999, and to current estimates of anywhere over twenty-four thousand. According to the statistics released by the Ministry of Justice, there were 243,363 migrant workers, representing over thirty countries as of May 31, 2000. It accounted for around 1.2 percent of the number of countrys total workforce of 20.6 million.

BACKGROUND OF MIGRANT WORKER INFLUX

The structural background of the migrant workers influx to Korea lies in the changing characteristics of the world system and the upward mobility of Korea in the system.

In the late 1980s, international labor migration had been activated worldwide, and this is generally attributed to three factors. First, the microelectronics and telecommunication technology facilitated international capital mobility, therefore the globalization of economic activities was enlarged. Second, after a dividing ridge of 1989; the socialist bloc disappeared on the stage of history and joined the capitalist world economy. And last, the Gulf War changed the directions of international labor migration in Asia, and new labor-receiving countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan(Province of China), Brunei, and Malaysia began to appear. Though these countries did not import migrant workers officially, they became destinations of masses of wandering workers.

Moreover, Korean government revised DACA to allow easy access to tourist visas in preparation for the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics. At the same time, Korea has grown into Asia? next giant (Amsden 1989) or one of the four little dragons (Vogel 1991) with abundant business opportunities and a flourishing economy. The Korean economy was ranked 12th in 1995 (World Bank 1995). It is certainly one of the most bustling economies with a gross national product (GNP) already exceeding 9 percent, and its per capita income passed the ten-thousand-dollar mark. In short, there are many job opportunities in Korea when its economic activities are thriving.

In detail, Korea has grown into a developed economy with relatively high wages and good working conditions. The emergence of a strong labor movement since 1987 is responsible to a significant extent for both the rapid rise in wages and the improved working conditions. A gap, however, in wages and working conditions between big companies and SMBs has enlarged. In other words, SMBs fell out of popularity in the minds of the general labor force.

The Korean labor market had been experiencing nearly full employment since the mid 1980s, with unemployment rates around 2.5 percent. Nevertheless, the Korean economy has suffered from a severe shortage of unskilled production workers in the SMBs across industries. These jobs include working in dyeing, plating, heat-treat, casting and tempering, machinery, footwear, glass, leather, electric, and electronics factories as well as construction. The so-called three-D syndrome, or the aversion to difficult, dangerous, or dirty jobs, started to be felt in Korea in the late 1980s. The labor movement has influenced the labor values as well as wages and working conditions. In addition, in the early 1990s, a boom in the housing construction industry drew throngs of Korean workers out of low-paying factory jobs in manufacturing into the relatively higher-paying construction industry, leaving those factories empty or undermanned.

Migrant workers have increasingly trickled into Korea, and they have taken these jobs without hesitation. They worked in sweatshops and other three-D jobs. As a consequence, Korea had become an increasingly attractive destination for foreign workers, as these migrant workers were filling up the big hole in the domestic labor market. As the labor shortage of blue-collar workers became more severe, there was increasing demand for unskilled migrant workers whose reservation wages were reported to be much lower than those of native workers. There were two competing arguments on the issue (Uh 1999). The argument favoring migrant workers is that they do not compete with, but rather complement the native workforce. Furthermore, SMBs cannot afford to move their production sites overseas to find low-paid workers. So the employment of unskilled migrant workers is necessary for both firms and their native workers to stay in business and in employment. The contrary argument is that the above can be true only within a certain limit. More importantly, it points out that the immigration of unskilled workers would delay the industrial restructuring required to keep the Korean economy competitive.

In November 1997, a financial crisis hit the Korean economy. The government announced a strong industrial restructuring plan, including financial market reforms, to promote foreign investments into Korea. Economic growth was therefore expected to slow down to -5% in 1998. The collapse of the Korean economy had a devastating influence on the labor market. Unemployment ballooned from 658,000 on 31 December 1997 to 1,665,000 on 31 December 1998. The unemployment rate had increased to around 7%, which more than doubled the rate of the previous year.

Increased unemployment was the biggest problem faced not only by native workers, but also by migrant workers in Korea. For example, thousands of foreign trainees under the WATP were retrenched in 1998. >From 1994 until August 1998, an estimated 13,061 trainees have been dismissed. Of these, 8,286 (63.4%) were dismissed in 1998 alone. This figure represents only the number of trainees who had completely lost their jobs, excluding those given part time jobs. Undocumented migrant workers were even more vulnerable to unemployment, as most of them were working in the vulnerable SMBs which went bankrupt at an average of about 150 a day in 1998. About 100,000 migrant workers left Korea at the end of 1997 alone due to the economic crisis and the IMF bailout package.

Even in such hard times, the three-D jobs in Korea were not filled with native workers. . Many companies had difficulty in hiring native workers for jobs that were vacated by migrant workers. Korean workers did not tolerate the poor working conditions any more, so the governments incentive scheme of replacing foreign trainees by native workers ultimately failed. These jobs were exclusively for migrant workers. This indicates that migrant workers in Korea are not taking jobs away from native workers. On the contrary, they are helping the Korean economy by accepting jobs Korean workers would not consider.

With the recovery of the Korean economy in 1999, the demand for migrant workers has also increased. The government did not expand the quota of trainees, so the number of undocumented migrant workers has also dramatically increased.

BASIC CHARACTERISTICS OF MIGRANT WORKERS IN KOREA

Visa status

The employment of migrant workers in Korea has been very limited to date. There are three categories of visa status for migrant workers: the legally employed, the industrial and technical trainees, and the undocumented migrant workers.

In general, DACA does not allow unskilled foreign labor to enter Korea as an additional part of the workforce; unskilled migrant workers are allowed to enter only as an industrial and technical trainee. Nevertheless, a large number of unskilled migrant workers have entered Korea for the purpose of employment. The number of foreign migrant workers who came to Korea as of the end of May 2000 totals 243,363. Among them, there were 14,697 legally employed migrant workers, 80,915 industrial and technical trainees, and 134,030 undocumented migrant workers.

The first category of legal migrant workers is composed of professionals and production workers after training. Professional and technical workers, such as university professors (E-1), language teachers (E-2), researchers (E-3), technology instructors (E-4), professionals (E-5), entertainers (E-6), and those under specific activities (E-7) who cannot be substituted by native workers. Therefore they can easily obtain a valid visa for employment in Korea. Most of them from advanced countries such as USA, Canada, Japan, UK, Germany, or France are working as professionals. According to Table 2, as of the end of May in 2000, there were some 14 thousand professional workers in Korea. Language teachers make up more than half. It is expected that the number of foreign professionals will increase very rapidly as the Korean government has recently deregulated the immigration policy for this category of workers. Accompanying the globalization of the Korean economy, demand for foreign professionals who could transfer their knowledge, skills and technologies to the Korean people has increased. Furthermore, allowing free mobility of highly skilled workers provides a foundation to promote foreign investment. To encourage this, the government abolished the maximum period of stay so as to permit almost unlimited residence in Korea. Administrative regulations on the entry and stay of professionals were relaxed and formalities were simplified to speed up the visa process. The open-door policy for professionals is to be strengthened in the near future. A one-stop service will be provided and the acquisition of the nationality will be eased. In 1997, the government also deregulated most the policies of foreign investment into Korea, just after the financial crisis. It is expected that more professionals associated with foreign direct investment and portfolio investment will work in Korea. The production workers after training (E-8) are just 440, because the first skill-test was conducted in April 2000.

The second category of industrial and technical trainees is not legal workers but trainees. Korean government prohibits unskilled workers immigration, and only unskilled industrial technical trainees having been issued D-3 visa are admitted. In 1991 the Korean government launched the ITTP, modeled after Japanese policy, to solve the labor supply shortage in the manufacturing industry, and the purpose of this program was to supply migrant workers for the SMBs suffering from a severe labor shortage in the short run. In fact, they receive no industrial technical training but merely work as simple laborers or fishermen in SMBs, in the sites of construction, or in inshore fishing grounds. In other words, they are disguised workers never being admitted their status as a worker by the Labor Standards Act. Thus I regard the ITTP as an expediential policy far from rational.

With the globalization of many large companies since the late 1980s, managers from overseas branches would be sent to factories in Korea for a period of training. The Korean government permitted this kind of training on one-year basis, marking the beginning of the ITTP 1991. The program was later extended to SMBs in the manufacturing sector after 1992. Employers who suffered from labor shortages welcomed the foreign trainees.

In this way, the ITTP became the migrant workers recruiting program in Korea after 1994. Fourteen countries were selected for sending their nationals as a industrial and technical trainee: China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Mongolia. Foreign industrial and technical trainees should be between 18 and 35 (between 20 and 50 from March 1993) years old without criminal records.

The third category, undocumented migrant workers, is for those having neither valid employment visa nor valid industrial and technical trainees visa. Undocumented migrant workers came to Korea seeking employment opportunities, as wages increased and the labor shortage became much more severe since the late 1980s. Their figures jumped from around 4,000 in 1987 to 153,879 in 2000. They are illegal in the sense that they violate the DACA. Most undocumented migrant workers are those who stay to work longer than the permitted period. Some of them also have improper visa status, namely by violating their purpose of stay. Others, to a lesser degree, have entered Korea without any legal permission. All these workers can be classified as undocumented migrant workers. No exact statistics on undocumented migrant workers exists, but their numbers can be estimated from the figure for undocumented foreigners.

Among them, about twenty percent are former trainees. Many trainees became undocumented migrant workers after the expiration of their visa, and some were even found to have moved to other factories, without permission, immediately after entry.

Most of them come from late developing countries such as China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Iran, Peru, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ghana, Uzbekistan, and so forth. Hereafter, I focus on unskilled manual workers, excluding professionals.

Ethnicity

About one third of foreign migrant workers are ethnic Koreans. They are descended from those who crossed national boundary and established settlements in the northeastern provinces of China in the area formerly called Manchuria, Siberia, Sakhalin island, and Central Asia in the late Chosun dynasty from 1860s to 1900s and Japanese colonial rule 1910-1945.

The ethnic Korean migrant workers group is made up of three categories of residents. Of the ethnic Korean migration flowing back into Korea, most are from China, but there are also ethnic Koreans coming from Russia, Uzbekistan, or Kazakhstan. As of December 31, 1996, there were 40,286 Korean Chinese, and 51 citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Migration channels

Migrant workers have migrated to Korea through both material and cultural-ideological linkages. The number of migrant workers is determined neither by the income gap nor the size of surplus labor force but by the amount of export from Korea and the size of ethnic Koreans. In other words, foreign workers immigrate much more from those countries having strong social linkages than from poor countries having abundant surplus labor force. This fact is reaffirmed by investigation of the major reasons why migrant workers choose Korea as their destination. In short, social networks play an important role in international labor migration.

The influx channels of migrant workers vary by visa status. According to Table 2, 26.8 percent of the industrial and technical trainees are recruited by Korean firms with a foreign affiliate, while the other (73.2 percent) industrial and technical trainees arrive in Korea through invitation by the KITCO under the KFSB and international manpower recruiting agencies. Undocumented migrant workers having a tourist or visiting visa flow into Korea through illegal immigration agency or by the help of informal and individual ties.

Wages

Two key variables, the visa status and the ethnicity of migrant workers, were found to have effects on workers wage differentials. Undocumented migrant workers earn more than industrial and technical trainees do, and overseas Koreans earn more than non-Koreans.

Low wages of industrial and technical trainees are institutionalized by ITTP and WATP, and by the KITCO under the auspices of KFSB that regulates the wage level based on only GNP per capita of labor sending countries irrespective of domestic wage levels.

The fact that the wages of industrial and technical trainees are much lower than those of undocumented migrant workers results in the disengagement of trainees from the arranged companies. Moreover, as ethnic Korean undocumented migrant workers are fluent in Korean, they can get a job in non-manufacturing sectors, such as construction and catering, with relatively higher wages. That is, they are capable of taking jobs different from those of the other migrant workers.

As migrant workers are engaged in unskilled jobs, where the ability of workers matter little, most of them get much lower wages than native workers. However, the wage level of undocumented migrant workers is approaching the market wage reflecting their skills. In other words, in the case of undocumented migrant workers, no wage discrimination exists within a firm, although there are some wage differentials among industries such as manufacturing, construction, and service sectors, or due to their job career.

The discrimination against migrant workers in the workplace is manifested in work allocation process. As eternal novices, they take charge of undesired jobs. As an underclass, most migrant workers believe that discrimination is prevalent in Korea. Their feeling of discrimination does not originate from the specific experiences of individuals, but from work life in general. Although overseas ethnic Korean workers get a higher wage than other migrant workers, they feel more discrimination because their reference group is not migrant workers but indigenous Korean workers.

At the initial stage of the ITTP, trainee wages were about half that of native workers. After 1995 minimum wages were guaranteed to trainees, who were covered by the industrial accident compensation insurance. But market forces soon raised the migrants wages to the level of their productivity, estimated at 87.5 percent of native workers by the employers (SMBA 1999).

PROBLEMS AND RESPONSES

Migrant workers face many problems in their work life: long working hours, low wages, physical abuse, overdue wages, and poor working conditions. In addition, they are often exposed to great damages in the workplace.

Industrial and technical trainees

Though it is clear that the industrial and technical trainees are offering valuable labor power in much needed industries in Korea, the government treats them merely as trainees, taking away all the rights and privileges of being workers. Because of this labeling and subsequent inapplicability of labor acts to worker-cum-trainees, this program is in need of major reform. As a result, numerous trainees attempted to escape from their assigned jobs. It made sense economically to many industrial and technical trainees to find illegal employment that pays significantly more. According to data released by the Ministry of Justice, 37.5% (50,980) of all the industrial and technical trainees in the 1994-2000 period (135,769) escaped from companies with which they contracted to work and the number is expected to increase year by year.

In some ways, industrial and technical trainees are in worse conditions than undocumented migrant workers. This contradiction can be easily found in the existing ITTP and WATP. One of the serious flaws in the recruitment strategies employed by these mediating agencies concerns false and/or exaggerated advertisements. In many cases, these agencies advertise that migrant workers are able to make between $210-260 per month. As such, the labor recruitment and management agencies manipulative tactics and their threats to detain workers have become an additional problem. If trainees happen to retaliate in some form, a number of agencies would send people to physically abuse and forcibly take away part of their wages. Many of the counseling centers dealing with such cases have described this situation as a modern form of slave labor.

Nowadays, trainees still suffer from basic human rights violations such as discriminatory low wages, compulsory overtime working and holiday working, frequent occurrence of industrial accidents, intermediary exploitation by agencies, passport seizure, prohibition of going outside company, violence, abusive language, and so forth. The JCMK published a white paper titled ?he Report on Oppressed Human Rights of the Migrant Trainee Workers in March 2000. It reminded the public that the human rights violations of migrant workers are prevalent in Korea. The overall situation has not changed since the launching of WATP in April 1998. Especially, trainees under overseas joint venture are, more often than not, in quite a poor situation. They receive extremely low wages of 80-120 thousand Won every month and even if they encounter industrial accidents, they cannot be entitled to industrial accident compensation insurance.

Undocumented migrant workers

Though the problems related to industrial accidents were unacceptable initially, the seriousness of most cases subsided as a result of government measures to provide industrial accident compensation insurance to illegal migrant workers beginning March 1993. Yet, other problems such as concealing industrial accidents still loom large. It is fortunate that the government decided to compensate those who returned to their countries with injuries. But as long as the primary concern for illegal migrant workers is the danger of being repatriated to their countries after reporting injuries to authorities, many employers use this weakness to conceal industrial accident cases.

In some cases workers must surrender their passports and work overtime against their will. In worst cases, employers beat foreign employees or sexually abuse foreign women workers. The over-crowded living conditions and unsafe working arrangements induce serious health problems.

One problem I cannot leave out is the clandestine recruitment activities of migrant workers. People who come to Korea through such networks take out a loan and spend about $1,700-$2,500 for travel and broker fees; usually they save money in Korea and pay their debt upon returning to the country of origin.

Once they make a decision to return to their home country, the illegal workers must pay heavy fines. According to the DACA, undocumented migrant workers are subject to less than $135,000 fine and up to 3 years of jail sentence. On average, they pay about 1,000,000 Won for each year they stayed illegally. In the process of repatriating illegal workers, problems related to detaining and processing them emerge. In Seoul, where one of the detention centers is located, its small facility is unfit for humans and other physical abuse and battery incidents occur on a regular basis, making this detention center the last hell in Korea.

Responses

The major responses of migrant workers to these problems include appealing to the manager, transferring to another company, or simple endurance according to my survey research (Seol 1999). While industrial and technical trainees usually appeal to managers, undocumented migrant workers choose to transfer to other companies.

The expansion of the migrants social networks has the effect of reducing the risks of failure in Korea. Social networks among migrant workers are based on their origins. They meet one another regularly at local concentration centers, and manage some associations for mutual assistance. These associations provide programs for adaptation. The development of social networks among migrant workers may be an important reason for their continuous stay in Korea 1998-1999. Hence the migrants tend to stay despite relative decreases in their earnings.

DISCUSSIONS

The influx of migrant workers presents a new challenge for the Koreans, because they have lived in a homogeneous culture for many centuries. Cultural pluralism is a new idea to them, and international marriage is very unpopular in Korea. They dont have multi-cultural attitudes toward foreigners, and their attitudes are characterized by discrimination and prejudice. The near-sighted policy of Korean government dealing with migrant workers fostered this false consciousness. The government issues a trainee visa not an employment visa for foreign unskilled workers, which, in turn, results in a very low wage and easy control. As such, the government denies them the privileges and rights as workers. Many policy makers still believe that by not legalizing the import of foreign labor and by accepting them as trainees, Korea will be able to reduce the possible negative economic and social impacts of foreign migrant workers but still enjoy the benefits of their services.

However, a lot of academics, civil movement activists, and policy makers had raised the question as to whether there was a better scheme to maximize the economic benefits from the inflow of unskilled migrant workers without discriminating them economically and socially. They suggest the government to enact the Foreign Workers Human Rights Act to fundamentally solve these issues since 1999.

The government also realized that the introduction of new employment program is inevitable to better protect the human rights of foreign workers staying in Korea. In Spring 2000, President Kim Dae-Jung instructed the cabinet and the ruling New Millennium Democratic Party (NMDP) to work out measures to eliminate violations of foreign workers human rights.

NMDP and the Ministry of Labor try to launch EPP, and are now making a bill for the Employment of Foreign Workers Act. Germany, Singapore and Taiwan, Province of China had already introduced EPP, which seemed to be successful in dealing with the short-term importation of unskilled migrant workers. Under EPP, a firm intending to hire foreign workers shall have an employment permit from the government, and the foreigners will obtain work permits. Foreign workers will be entitled to bonus allowances, retirement pay, the three basic labor rights and dormitory, if the new program is enacted.

On the contrary, the employers of KFSB, and the officials of SMBA and the Ministry of Justice are insisting on keeping WATP. They argue that WATP is a program improved from ITTP, and most human rights violations involving foreign workers occurred for undocumented migrant workers. It is expected that the group, which wants to maintain WATP, will campaign to stop passing the bill in the National Assembly as they did in 1997.

It is difficult for pro-migrant activists to enact EPP without the backing of universal norms of human rights, partly because there have not been powerful domestic actors pushing for migrant rights. Thus, business pushed for migrant workers at various times, but not for rights and not for integration. However, as globalization continues, Koreans should also learn to live together with people having different cultures, languages and religions. Even though the employers including KFSB stubbornly oppose the EPP, the enactment of EPP will be realized in the near future.

REFERENCES

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* The project was researched with the support of the Korea Research Foundation in a postdoctoral fellowship 1997-1999, and was written while I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Demographic Studies, Duke University. I would like to thank Nan Lin, Gary Gereffi, George Myers, and John Skrentny, for instruction, comments and suggestions.

 

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