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PSPD    People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

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  • 2000.10.31
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Joint Committee for Migrant Workers in Korea

by Jung Shin Hee


On January 9, 1995, a protest or rather a performance was given by 13 people who did not look like your typical Korean neighbors. They were tied up with heavy metal chains and were repeatedly shouting something as if they were rehearsing a dialogue in a play. We are not animals. We are human beings just like you. Treat us as decent human beings.

They were not actors who portrayed slaves. They were so-called industrial technical trainees who came from Nepal and were being exploited and treated insultingly by Korean colleagues in their workplace. These 13 people cried out primarily for their basic human rights over their rights as laborers. This protest stirred the public and prompted the Korean government and the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Businesses (KFSB), which regulates, manages and supervises migrant workers, expressed that they are willing to comply with the laborers demands and tried to end the case.

Behind this successful protest was a coalition of groups who had been working for the rights of migrant workers in Korea. Organizers from counseling centers for foreign laborers, religious groups and labor unions got together and arranged a joint committee to deal with matters pertinent to migrant laborers. This served as the predecessor of the present Joint Committee for Migrant Workers in Korea (JCMK).

JCMK was formed in July 1995 with this background. This was the year when about thirty thousand trainees were already staying in Korea right after the initial implementation of the industrial trainee system during the previous year. These trainees were working under miserable conditions. They were offered minimum wages for long hours of labor, they were not given the whole amount every month but half of their wages were forcibly deposited to a certain agent bank, and their passports seized lest they should run away from their workplaces. Their rights as decent human beings were ignored as well.

In the 1990s, Korea had been going through serious problems in seeking manpower for the so-called 3D (Dirty, Difficult and Dangerous) industries such as construction, fishery, and manufacturing due to the rapid growth of the nations economy. Thus, foreign workers were introduced in domestic labor markets and the Korean government itself started a business involving foreign labor forces. This was in collusion with capital under the guise of the economic concept of low cost and high gain, and this in turn virtually legalizes the abuse committed on low-waged foreign laborers.

However, these foreign workers were toiling for more than 12 hours a day and were paid merely one or two hundred dollars a month. Needless to say, they were not receiving basic rights that workers generally deserved. Since their status was that of a trainee and not that of a regular employee, they could not be protected properly despite the fact that they were required to hold a job for two or three years with just one or two days of training.

JCMK has been clamoring that a system that fails to recognize a trainee as a laborer must be abolished. The problem with the industrial trainee system reveals complex patterns in addition to illegal staying, human rights violation, industrial damages and delayed payment. The foreign industrial technical trainee system was introduced in 1991 with the influx of foreign laborers working for Korean companies in their native countries. This system was made possible based on a guide for issuing visas to foreign industrial technical trainees. Starting 1994, the KFSB arranged a considerable number of trainees to come in through twenty-seven agents from eleven Asian countries. As of today, trainees number nearly seventy thousand (excluding one hundred thirty thousand illegally staying workers).

There are 3 types of migrant workers in Korea. First, as mentioned above, the trainees introduced by KFSB, the industrial technical trainees, are compelled to work more than 12-18 hours and to deposit half of their wages to banks lest they should run away from their workplaces. The rest of the wages are supposed to be returned to them when they go back to their homeland. However, considering that their monthly pay is merely three to four hundred thousand won, which falls short from the minimum cost of living, and considering that they have debts to local agents amounting to two to ten billion won, it is no wonder that they have no other choice but to run away from their workplaces to make more money. Because of this forcibly deposited money and their status as trainees, they are also exposed to vicious supervising agents in Korea as well as those in their homelands. Consequently, they choose to become illegal aliens. The second type consists of trainees sent from Korean companies located in the region. These workers are likely to be under more miserable labor conditions as exact investigations on them have not been performed yet. Even though the trainee system was introduced in order to legalize migrant workers, the number of illegal foreign laborers is soaring since the system was beset with various problems. The third type is comprised of those who choose to be illegal aliens in disregard of many disadvantages such as being kicked out of the protective umbrella of the Labor Standards Law or the Industrial Damages Law, or being deported from Korea, just because wages amount to almost double what they would usually get. These laborers are reduced to suffering industrial damages, delayed payments, violence in the workplace and labor exploitation. The trainee system does not reflect the reality of workplaces and this is beset with human rights violations, and likewise brings about more illegal aliens.

JCMK has consistently clamored for the abolition of the trainee system and the enactment of the migrant workers law. In 1996, JCMK presented a legislative petition and launched a campaign to collect signatures for the bill. Amid this campaign, some activists were arrested and the issue of migrant workers was presented to the public. In October that year, the petition was submitted to the National Assembly along with the proposed migrant workers protection law. To encourage the enactment of the protection bill, JCMK directed subsequent protests by performing rituals such as cutting hair, fasting, and memorial services for those who died from industrial damages. The following year, the government presented an alternative plan for the trainee system. The trainee-employee system clarified that every trainee is allowed to get a one-year employee? visa if he passes a test after the two-year training course. However, not a single trainee took the examination that was first given last March. JCMK asserts that the trainee-employee system cannot resolve the problem, and demands the government to acknowledge trainees as regular employees by enacting the migrant workers law.

The keywords in the bill include systemization of legal employment by law, said Mr. Cho Daewhan of JCMK. The core of the bill is approving the labor and employment permission system for them. For the system to work properly, they said it is necessary to make some amendments in the way migrant workers are selected. First, the whole process of selecting workers must be revealed to the public, so that corrupt KFSB and local agents can be replaced by public representatives chosen from the government, labor unions and employers. This migrant workers employment committee needs to be formed to decide on significant issues concerning the number of migrant workers to be taken, as well as their management and protection. Second, the types of labor permission need to be categorized into general permission and special permission. The first one limits the duration and workplaces for five years, while the latter does not have any limitation and can be given after five years under general permission. These two amendments reflect the recognition that foreign labor forces must be introduced through a fair and just route, guaranteeing the same work conditions given to domestic laborers and securing the three major rights of employees.

What comes in is not just labor power but people. This can be a good chance to learn how to live with other peoples together and put forth a pluralistic society as stated by Mr. Cho of JCMK. JCMK bluntly stated that this is not a welfare business for foreign workers but a problem of people and the society in general. Furthermore, if we fail to learn to live with them, we will find it hard to live peacefully in this country after reunification with North Korea.

The JCMK project is focused on people and aims to resolve the problem created by the influx of foreign workers. Granting amnesty to illegal aliens, establishing a committee for the resolution the migrant workers predicament, applying social security laws justly and equally as to domestic workers, permitting them to move to another workplace under certain conditions and educating local employers as well as foreign laborers about the different cultures, religions and languages are all part of the committees attempt to help peoples live together harmoniously and productively in this land.

However, the way toward these goals is not a level road. In collecting fifty thousand signatures to petition the migrant workers protection law, the incumbent president of JCMK was arrested. JCMK continued to hold protests against the trainee-employee system, lobby for the enactment of the law and improve related systems. The committee likewise directly called for data about the industrial trainees to legislators and wrote out interpellation on policies with the inspection team of the administration. Through these dynamic activities carried out by JCMK, the Labor Ministry revised its policy regarding trainees.

JCMK comprises 26 branch offices including counseling centers and rest places for people with relevant problems. The committee reflects ideas from different perspectives since it is an associated group that includes personnel from legal, religious, labor and academic circles, including those from the Association of Lawyers for Democratic Society, Associated Medical Center, Council for Damaged Industrial Workers and several human rights groups.

Major decisions for its proceeding are made through general meetings and by the steering committee once every year and twice a year, respectively, while managerial concerns are settled practically by the office bureau. This bureau usually concentrates on structural matters such as campaigns for the enactment of the law or establishing networks among local groups and international organizations.

JCMK? perception of migrant workers is not just as foreigners in need of help or welfare service from the Korean government, but as decent workers who are entitled to their own rights that have been abused by the social structure under the name of globalization. The committee believes that the most urgent matters for popular movements is to determine the cause and practical situation of all Asian migrant workers whose status is even worsening after the Asian economic crisis, so that the people themselves can resist. For this purpose, JCMK comes up with all kinds of events and protests to correct the status of migrant workers and recognize them as honorable members of the labor community. It also tries to socialize them and give them practical help by educating them about human rights and the Labor Standards Law, as well as by expanding and networking the medical associations financial basis around the country. Furthermore, the people behind JCMK are exerting their best efforts to solve the problem regarding protection of the migrant workers families.

It has been 10 years since foreign workers started coming to this land and cases of inter-marriages with Koreans have frequently happened. Consequently, struggles to ensure their social rights including their rights to educating children or preserving their families have been carried out. While marriage is allowed, married couples are not entitled to live here with only a short-term visa, F1, that is limited to 3 months to 1 year, and also prevents them from being employed. What is worse, under the peculiar status of migrant workers in Korea legally they are trainees- they remain anxious about being exiled. To address this, JCMK launched several campaigns to secure the right of residence and employment for the migrant workers family, so that they could practically find a way to secure nationality.

One of the significant parts of the campaign is to urge the government to ratify the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families. For the agreement to take effect, JCMK collected signatures from 300 celebrities in Korea including the Cardinal Kim, Soowhan to urge the government and at the same time lobbied with local networks including labor and popular movement organizations and solidified international networks such as MFA and APWSL which have consistently participated in the campaign for the improvement of migrant workers rights. Actually, this outstanding matter has been submitted to the UN Human Rights Commission among the four major urgent issues in Korea when Ms. Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), visited Korea in September 1999. Moreover, this problem was presented through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to the Korean government this April as a gesture of the MFA members determination to ratify the UN agreement.

Urging the government to enact the law and organizing the local and international networks to gain access to the structural problem are not the only ways that JCMK is developing the movement. It likewise focuses on details such as taking care of individual workers. The branch offices located in districts particularly carry out projects such as preparing for the cold winter -project or the experiencing mutual cultures program. They offered heaters and food to foreign friends - majority of them coming from tropical countries - who have low resistance to cold and also spent some time to teach and learn mutual cultures, languages, and religions. JCMK helps migrant workers find their identity as workers and strengthen them by establishing their own rights. The true meaning of migrant workers to JCMK is not as foreign workers, but as regular workers, and it is not about the transfer involving labor forces, but of human beings.


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