History and the situation of the migrant workers in Korea


Migrant Workers Background

The MOU between Korea and the EPS sending countries have varied qualification requirements for each country. In some countries being a highschool level or graduate is enough to apply as workers in Korea. But for some countries they require workers to have at least some college level education or trade/vocational graduates.


However, due to the high costs of migration and the high education level of most job seekers, a large majority of the migrant workers who came to Korea have had a higher degree of education (sometimes professionals), or had long term employment in manufacturing industries, were also migrant workers from other countries or belonged to the lower middle class families. The very poor cannot access financial sources to process their application requirements because they have no collateral for loans, families cannot give financial support or they are credit risks (no regular or long term employment).


Some migrants came here on tourist visas or family invitations. Now, most are hired through the Employment Permit System or EPS, entertainers visa, some professionals get working visas. Some people also come here on student visas.


Since most of the workers are industry based, most of the workers are male and around one third female.


Majority believe that they will only stay here temporarily.

Majority support immediate and extended families. (Wife, children, parents, siblings and other relatives).


Migrants are immediately given a higher social standing in the community and therefore are given a higher social responsibility. Therefore, in emergency situations they are usually looked upon in the community as a source of help or assistance.


The age bracket for migrants are 20-45 years old. Many have families of their own.


Most migrants are aware of the difficulties of working in Korea through the pre-departure training/education requirements.


Majority of the migrant workers directly and indirectly suffer from labor violations but a high majority of the workers fail to realize or know that there rights are being violated. Even if they knew that their rights are being violated most migrant workers are not aware what they should do.


Language is the primary barrier for migrants in seeking redress and correction for their violated rights.

Even if migrants knew what to do or they completely knew the process in taking corrective actions or measures the law is designed to protect the workplace and employers than protection of the workers.

There is no job security for migrant workers, very limited opportunity to change workplaces even under unfavorable or abusive conditions.


Most have to endure slave-like conditons: unpaid wage, underpayment, salary cuts, huge pay deductions, forced labor, verbal abuse, long working hours, not enough rest time, not enough rest days, no sick leave or vacation leave, illegal termination, no benefits, contract violations, industrial accidents, health issues, physical abuse, deplorable working and living conditions and all sorts of discrimination, limited access to health care and sometimes even prevention of their access to medical checks and treatment, women are highly susceptible to sexual violence and harassment, and all forms of discrimination. The undocumented workers suffer from all these and much more. The crackdown, criminalization, inability to seek redress against crimes committed against their person, limited mobility, stress due to uncertainty (their job, stay and status), could not easily go home because of the inability to return, loved ones dying and being uncapable of seeing their loved ones one last time, loved ones getting sick, and so much more.


Most migrants intention is to work abroad only for a few years in order to save up enough money to use as capital for businesses back home. Others, to support the education of their children or siblings. Others to provide support for the medical treatments of loved ones. A few handful of people come to seek independence financial and/or social independence. And some intend to save up enough money in order for them to be able to immigrate to another country.

Lack of knowledge either in labor law or language are the usual reasons why the migrants are abused. Migrants are threatened with termination or repatriation to the home country if we do not follow or endure the working conditions in a company. The limitations in the law also gives way to abuse.


Results of migration on the life of the migrant workers:

Migrant workers would come to Korea in the hope of securing a better future for themselves and their families. Being economically and financially disadvantaged, workers would risk their health and quality of life to sacrifice not only for the family but for our countries as well. Our earnings help to keep our nations economies afloat.


Injuries and illnesses vary depending on the nature of work. Repetitive stress injuries, respiratory diseases, accidents like amputations, sleep deprivation, organ failures and ailments, blood poisoning, heavy metal poisoning, nerve damage, psychological stress, and many other ailments and illness.


De-humanization of the migrants. Most migrants are treated like machines or animals in the workplace. We are always expected to work harder longer and faster than the native workers. Our accomodations are either too cramped, dirty, not suitable for living, expensive or all of the above. We are usually housed inside the company premises so that they are easily accessible. We are deprived of adequate rest because of the noise, extremely cold/hot rooms, dirty environment or too much work load.


Common problems arise from separation of the families. Extra-marital affairs, broken marriages, lack of parent figure, low self-esteem for the children or puts a higher value on materialism over relations, vices, lack of communication and an overall stress on relationships.

The prime of the migrant workers life is spent in doing hard labor and rarely does the migrant worker go back to the homeland completely free from illness or injury. The savings, if the migrant is able to save would usually be spent on medication and treatment, or the quality of life is extremely reduced, or would not be enough to secure a decent life.


Because of the limitations of the law in the protection of the migrant workers rights the system continuously threaten the job security of the workers. It has also institutionalized the abuse of the migrant workers despite of laws put into place. The contradiction of the immigration law and labor law make it difficult for the migrant workers to enjoy their full labor rights. The systems policy is also a vehicle for the migrant workers loss of status. These in turn only perpetuates the existence of undocumented workers in Korea. The system also aims to keep the migrant workforce temporary by making the working periods shorter so that they may easily exploit the migrant workers. This limits their ability to adapt, educate themselves, achieve empowerment and experience. In short they aim to keep the migrant workers submissive to their employers instead of call for better working conditions. Complaining about the bad conditions in the workplace easily endanger our job security, our visa status or repatriation.


Discrimination is commonplace in the Korean work environment as well as the society in general. The negative stereotyping of migrants like hygiene, criminality, ignorance, uneducated, poor, barbarism or the lack of social graces are the most common stereotypes for migrant workers. These stereo-typing generally paves the way for the discrimination of the migrants. Undermining the values of our humanity, we are then treated as sub-human as what is reflected in our working conditions and living conditions.


Short History of Migrants in SK


During the latter part of 1980's through the early 1990's it was notably visible that there was a sudden influx of migrant workers to South Korea. Concurrent with Korea's economic boom, the 1998 Olympics gave light to the fact that the Korean Industry is an employment opportunity for foreigners whose native countries have a high rate of unemployment and limited opportunities. The Korean Small and Medium Scale Enterprises are in dire need of this labor force because native workers refuse to work for these companies given that typically the work would be dirty, difficult or dangerous, what is otherwise known as 3D jobs.

Migrant labor came from as far as the African continent but majority of these workers came from poorer Asian neighbors. Around half of the foreign population in Korea are Chinese or Chinese-Koreans. The rest are from the 14 other EPS sending countries and others (Russia, Mozambique, Ghana, India, Peru, etc.). Assylum seekers and refugees, F2 visa holders or Korean spouses can also be considered as part of the migrant workforce since they are also employed in these industries and it is quite difficult for a foreigner married to a Korean to get citizenship and are deemed of lower stature than native Korean workers.


Before the Employment Permit System came to being, the Trainee System of employment was introduced in Korea around the 90's. This system was used to manage the migrant labor force that was growing in Korea during that time . The trainees, as they were called were not entitled to same the labor rights of Korean workers and thus, discrimination and abuse led to the rise of undocumented migrant worker population. Because of heavy criticism from social groups and communities who are sympathetic to the migrant workers, the Government drafted a new system of employment, which we now know as the Employment Permit System or EPS. None the less, migrant workers and some Korean social groups criticized EPS as still being too restrictive. These criticisms and other abuses like the crackdown led the migrant workers and Korean social groups to conduct a sit-in struggle in front of the Myeong dong Cathedral protesting the lack of protection of migrant workers and being treated as disposable labor.


The EPS was first put in effect in 2004 and up to now is still being currently used as a system of employment for migrant workers. For the EPS workers, the employment policy restriction of limiting the work place change to only 3 times is a primary deterrence for the migrant worker to exercise their rights. Given the severity of the repercussions like losing their legal visa status, they would rather put up with the sub-standard work and living conditions. In principle, the EPS workers are on an equal footing as native workers. In reality, the policy restrictions are paving the way for abuse both physical and verbal, forced labor, excessively long work hours, not enough rest hours/days, unpaid wages, huge pay cuts, denied benefits and more. The policy restrictions serve as the invisible chain that binds them in servitude to their employers. The EPS policy on migrant workers is an ineffective tool in securing the Labor Rights and Human Rights of the migrant worker. It has not only encouraged employers to abuse their migrant workers this system also helps perpetuate all forms of abuse against EPS migrant workers.


It is especially hard for EPS workers to secure their rights under the current system but for undocumented migrant workers it is nearly impossible. Undocumented workers are criminalized in Korea. The current Crackdown against undocumented migrant workers is obviously a transgression on their humanity. Productive individuals who have contributed to the economy of Korea are treated no better than ordinary criminals. The Crackdown has led to several deaths, injuries, loss of livelihood and deep mental and emotional stress. Crimes committed against undocumented migrant workers are more often than not remain unresolved and are not given justice because the victims(undocumented workers) are the ones treated as criminals. * (cite as example: undocumented Filipina worker stabbed, undocumented Filipino worker turned over to the immigration after filing a complaint for being beaten up.)