Taking a Stand

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Groove Korea. Photo by Aimee Anne. View magazine here.


I first met Emmanuel outside a Burger King on a cold February day in Yeouido. Dressed in traditional Burkina Faso clothing, he seemed slightly anxious. Standing with him were five of his coworkers, some dressed as elaborately as he was, others holding drum-like instruments decorated with metal chains. As we watched the media frenzy gather outside the Saenuri headquarters opposite us, their conversation began to give way to nerves. After almost two years of working and living in slave-like conditions, Emmanuel and his coworkers were about to inform the nation of their experience working for the Africa Museum of Original Art.

Since their public announcement on Feb. 10, the exploitation endured by the workers from Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso at the AMOA has grabbed much media attention. The inadequate pay, grueling work hours and dilapidated living conditions suffered by the African dancers, sculptors and performers were made all the more startling because a senior lawmaker, Secretary-General Hong Moon-jong of the Saenuri Party, has been chairman of the museum since 2010. After one Burkina Faso worker ran away after being forced to dance with an injured leg or risk having her pay cut, the rest of the performers had their passports confiscated by the now ex-director of the museum, Park Sang-soon.

Following the protest, Park and Hong issued separate statements. Park claimed that the contracts were made in compliance with the legal minimum wage and admitted to taking passports away as a precaution because “migrant workers often tend to disappear and stay illegally.” Hong has denied any direct involvement in managerial duties of the museum, but said that if any illegal activity is found to have occurred, he would punish those involved and compensate the victims. In an interview with the Hankyoreh, Democratic Party lawmaker Eun Su-mi said that around 10 violations of the law took place.

“The contract said if you come to Korea, you will perform three times per day and the museum will give us food three times per day, insurance, a house, everything. Everybody would get one room each with one computer. We arrived and it was not like that,” Emmanuel recalled. 

Instead, what awaited him and his Burkinabe coworkers was a decrepit building wrought with holes, mold and mice. Rooms were shared with up to four people, and using a fan in the summer or heating in the winter could result in being docked pay. “If you use a fan and the electricity bill comes and it is big, the museum director would say if we don’t stop, he will cut our salary,” he said. 

On top of these living conditions, the workers were told they would have to teach classes, which was not in the contract. Each class lasted an average of five minutes with 20 to 30 children per class. Emmanuel said he would teach up to 1,200 students per day in the spring and fall. This, in addition to his daily performances, left him no time to even eat. “If you eat directly and go to dance it can be difficult. We cannot eat. We just wait until we finish all jobs, then we eat,” he said. He was expected to endure all this while living on a monthly salary of 600,000 won ($560) with the Zimbabwean workers earning 500,000 won. Everyone received a 2,500 won daily food stipend, which was increased to 4,000 won in July last year.  

This is just one of many times that abuse of migrant workers from their employers in Korea has been highlighted. Migrant workers are often treated as disposable labor by their employers, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, as seen in accounts in a 2009 Amnesty International report. In 2012, a survey by the South Gyeongsang Migrant Community Center found that over 13 percent of migrant workers living in the province had been beaten at work, with the majority of the 449 respondents citing wage discrimination as their biggest complaint.

In the 1980s, the economic success of the country resulted in Koreans turning down the “3D+ jobs – dirty, difficult and dangerous. With the ensuing level of wealth, the country became an attractive destination for migrant workers. Korea was one of the first Asian countries to legally recognize the rights of migrant workers and provide them with the same legal employment rights and benefits that natives have. To manage the growing inflow of migrant workers, the government implemented the Joint Venture Trainee System. Three years later, small and medium-sized businesses were allowed to recruit foreign nationals in the areas of agriculture, manufacturing, construction, fisheries and service industries on a three-year contract under the Industrial Trainee System. 

These systems left employees open to discrimination and exploitation. After much protest from NGOs and trade unions, the Ministry of Labor introduced the Employment Permit System in 2004. While the scheme gives migrant workers employment rights and protection from exploitation, mistreatment of workers and manipulation by employers still exists.

“There are many workers who are working like slaves just in one place,” Park Ji-noo from the Migrants’ Trade Union said.

“Right now, every migrant worker in Korea is under the labor law so they can have rights of a having minimum level of payment, retirement payment and compensation expenses for industrial accidents as the equal standard of Korean workers. This also means unregistered migrant workers can be applied to the labor law, which is the same condition as for Korean workers. But the reality is quite different.” 

Low-skilled workers enter Korea on an E-9 visa on a quota basis determined by the economic situation and domestic labor market each year. Prospective employees must be from countries that have signed a memorandum of understanding with Korea agreeing to the terms of the EPS system.

Requirements for the visa include a medical checkup and a TOPIK exam, and training is provided on arrival. Under this system they can change jobs up to three times within three years.

Park says that migrant workers can face challenges in changing employment if they feel that they are being mistreated. “It is very hard for migrant workers to move to another workplace because of a late payment, assault or verbal abuse. If they tell of the unfairness to the employment center or labor department in their district, they need to show the evidence to the officers, which is a tricky part to take legal action by themselves,” Park said. 

The MTU suspects that verbal, physical and racist abuse are common occurrences in the workplace for migrants because of the difficulty the labor department has in monitoring the issue. “Too many migrant workers are working at small-scale workplaces, but the number of labor supervisors is too small to visit all the places,” Park said. 

Korea’s E-6 culture and art visa has been criticized by some civil society groups for exploiting women and even facilitating human trafficking. This visa employs workers who are participating in musical, artistic or literary activities for profit. The aforementioned report by Amnesty International found that female migrant workers who were employed under this visa have been unknowingly recruited into jobs against their will, including the sex industry, once they arrived in Korea.

To protect foreign workers from mistreatment in the workplace, the government launched 27 support centers in 2011 to assist foreign workers with problems relating to everything from employment to day-to-day activities. That same year, the EPS system was awarded first prize at the United Nations Public Service Awards under the category of “preventing and combating corruption in the public service.”

I met Emmanuel again the week after his announcement. He seemed like a different person as he greeted me with a jubilant smile. “I am very happy because we fought and we won,” the 34-year-old dancer said, reflecting on the past week. With a croaky voice (possibly due to the “many interviews” he has done over the last seven days) he relayed his experience at the museum.

Since the extent of the abuses from the AMOA was made public, Kim Cheol-gi has been appointed as the new director of the museum and the workers have received back pay, flight tickets and have had their passports returned.

While Emmanuel is happy to not renew his contract, he does not believe financial payment is enough to compensate him for his trauma. “Money is not enough because what this museum did to me was very bad. This museum cannot buy my sufferance,” he said. 

As of press time, Hong Moon-jong had not offered an official apology.


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