This article appeared in the November 2015 issue of Groove Korea. Edited by Anita McKay. Story by Dave Hazzan. Photos by Steve Smith. Additional photos by Jo Turner. Illustration by Craig Stuart. Translation by Sy Park.
Rath Mony Muth, 28, is from the Cambodian countryside. Ten years ago he came to Ansan, just south of Seoul, to work in a factory. His parents took out a 5 million won loan to buy a plane ticket, pay the immigration fees, and secure the Korean lessons necessary to qualify Rath for Korea’s Employment Permit System (EPS) — the visa scheme under which many migrant workers come to South Korea.
His days at the factory in Ansan were straight out of Charles Dickens. “I would usually wake up at 7:30 in the morning and get to work by 8,” Rath says. “I’d start work right away and have lunch time from 11:30am to 12:30pm. Then I would work again until 11pm or midnight. If there was a lot of work, 12pm. If [there was less work], then 11pm.” There was no break after lunch, which meant 10 to 11 hours without a meal. If he got hungry, he would pick at the pieces of fruit or sweet potatoes that he hid in his pockets from lunch.
After his shift ended, he would shower, eat dinner, study Korean, and then go to bed at 1:30am, only to wake up in six hours for work. He did this six days a week, with Sundays off.
Rath had trouble describing exactly what his factory made — it was unclear even to him — but it seemed to involve chemicals and the recycling of aluminum cans. He described the work as “very dangerous.”
“I often had a nosebleed when I was at work. There was a large possibility of getting crushed by the heavy machines,” he says. Rath and the people he worked with were not given any helmets or masks. Once a year, they would buy their own boots.
They lived in tiny dorms above the factories, which were unheated in the winter. He didn’t mind the tight quarters, but remembers that it was “really cold.”
Apart from the nosebleeds, Rath would get minor cuts and scratches from the machinery. But he saw others suffer much worse. “One of my fellow workers was fixing a machine up high, and he fell into a drum of acid,” Rath recalls. “He really suffered from severe acid burns. He really, really suffered for about 10 days.”
The worker walked to the hospital himself, was treated, and was back at work a few days later. According to Rath, he was never compensated.
Poor working conditions
Unpaid and late wages, dangerous working conditions, tyrannical bosses, and gruelling hours are common for Korea’s more than half million migrant workers. There are few people to complain to, and it can be difficult to get help when trouble arises. For those with legal status, the EPS is heavily stacked against them and in favor of their bosses. For those working illegally, it’s a constant game of cat and mouse with Immigration.
At People of Earth’s Station, an NGO in Ansan, dozens of Cambodian workers come to get help. It was from here that Amnesty International got the raw material for its 2014 report “Bitter Harvest,” an 87-page takedown of the brutal conditions, forced labor, and trafficking faced by migrant laborers on Korea’s farms.
In a press release, Norma Kang Muico, an Asia-Pacific Migrant Rights Researcher at Amnesty International, described the exploitation of migrant farm workers in South Korea as a “stain on the country” created by the authorities, who have allowed trafficking for exploitation and forced labour “to flourish.”
Amnesty detailed beatings, verbal abuse, unsafe conditions (such as having to spray pesticides without protective equipment), cramped and unpleasant quarters, broken contracts, bad food and filthy water, and above all else, extremely long working hours without breaks.
On the Saturday we visited the NGO, Va Savy, 26, and Chhuet Samnang, 24, both from Cambodia, were there to discuss filing a claim against their boss, whom they say mistreats them.
“I have to work Saturdays,” Savy says. “It’s supposed to be a day off, but I have to do the morning shift before I get the rest of the day [off].” Sundays are regular, full workdays.
They say it is “very hard” work, emphasizing the word “very.” From 6:00am to 6:00pm they work, with a lunch hour that is often cut short. “The contract says 226 hours per month, but we are working up to 310 hours,” Savy says.
“When I’m working slowly, [my boss] says some things to me that are no good,” Savy says. She says her boss calls her an “idiot,” “bitch,” and other Korean swear words. “Verbal abuse is often.”
They are paid 1.3 million won per month for their labor, but during the winter this is usually cut to 1 million won as there is less work.
Savy and Samnang want to change jobs, but their boss refuses to give them the permission they need under the EPS. “When I ask if I can go, he says, ‘No, you cannot do it,’” Savy says. Instead their boss tells them to “Go to Cambodia!”
Choi Jong-man, 35, is the CEO of People of Earth’s Station. They provide education and training for migrant workers, including the dozen or so Cambodians we met when we visited. He works closely with the Association for Khmer Workers’ Rights, who run two shelters — one for men and one for women — a few doors down.
“There are two kinds of people staying in the shelter,” Choi says. “Forty percent of them have been through some kind of workplace abuse, so they stay there for a short time. The other 60 percent are given three months to find a job at other workplaces, after they quit a job or are fired.”
Choi says people usually stay at the shelter for an average of two months, though some have stayed up to six. “There are a few cases of people running away from abuse,” he says. “But most of them are just collecting files for their cases, and they stay there for the process.”
The biggest problem, Choi says, is unpaid wages. He estimates that about 70 percent of those who come to the shelter have not been paid a basic salary with overtime. Other problems include the verbal, physical, and sexual abuse of workers. Sometimes they are forced to hand over their passports or other personal property, and there have been accidents.
“They live in a dorm beside the workplace,” Choi says. “There is lots of substandard housing. No toilets, or no partitions between the men and women. Bosses will often just come in at night, to tell them to work harder or work more.” They can sometimes enter the women’s dorms drunk, and sexually harass the workers.
The minimum wage this year is just under 1.1 million won for 226 hours per month, Choi says, “but actually they work almost 300 hours per month and are not paid overtime.” During the winter months, they’ll often be paid less or nothing at all if they’re not illegally subcontracted to work on southern farms. They will also often take out loans to pay for the tickets to Korea and the Korean lessons they need to qualify for the EPS.
“Since they live in a dorm and the factory provides the food, they can live on [the salary], but it’s really, really hard to save out of it,” Choi says.
Labor rights: a two-tiered system?
The EPS, also called the E-9 visa, is valid for a maximum period of 4 years and 10 months. (It takes five years to qualify for permanent residency.) In 2014, there were 270, 563 E-9 visa holders, representing just under half of the unskilled labor force, with the largest share coming from Vietnam, followed by Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines, according to statistics from the Ministry of Justice. The EPS has been in place since 2004, when it replaced the old labor apprenticeship program, which was also highly exploitative.
Though the EPS technically protects workers, advocates say these protections are not serious and are out of reach for most laborers.
The Labor Human Rights Center (LHRC), formerly The Association of Migrant Human Rights, is located in a small office near Sookdae Station. Its shelves are stacked with Mongolian handicrafts and there is a basket of free condoms by the front door. A small woman, Seok Won-jeong, 57, runs the center.
“I’ve been doing legal counselling since 1991,” Seok says (though she is not an actual lawyer). “I’ve been working with foreign workers here since 2000.” She says the difference between her and the lawyers is empathy. “I do care,” she says “and I do actual work to…get the money the laborers haven’t received.”
According to their literature, the LHRC “deals with cases of delayed payment, industrial disasters, international marriage, passport problems, problems regarding return to home country, and other civil and criminal cases.” They also pursue education-culture activities, research and publishing, and they focus on getting the children of undocumented migrants registered for school. She says she is about to break the story of an underground sweatshop where the workers receive no rights or care.
The biggest problem Seok encounters is that migrants need permission, or a letter of release, to change jobs from their employers. The most common reason laborers request a letter of release is because the boss has abused the laborer’s rights, but Seok says this is difficult to prove.
“For 10 years there has been no protection for the laborers,” Seok explains. “It has been almost impossible for them to use [EPS protections]. They need actual proof [that] they have been injured severely, which is almost impossible for them [to get]. They need to prove they are severely injured or [have] serious problems in their workplace to get their release forms from the employer.”
Under EPS, you can only change jobs a maximum of four times. “The government wants to control the supply [of workers] from abroad, not [protect] their rights,” she says.
There is also the problem of contract length. Commonly, migrant workers sign the contract back in their home countries, without knowing where they are going to work.
“The contract is commonly for three years, so the owners of the factories and farms think the [workers belong to them] no matter what,” Seok says. “So the labor groups are arguing for a reduction of the length of the contract, like one year, so they can finish up their contracts and move along.”
This virtual indentured servitude is usually a one-way street. Seok tells the story of a Mongolian construction worker who was abandoned by his workplace after an accident.
“There was one guy who was [sawing wood] and he injured his eye and almost lost his sight,” she says. “At first, the supervisor took him to the hospital and paid for it. But then the laborer immediately lost contact with him.” He never heard from the man again. “So he was forced to pay the rest of it. He was abandoned.”
Seok explains that both illegal and legal workers are entitled to the same workplace protections, but illegal workers rarely get any protection at all. And those who have legal status face bureaucratic hurdles thrown up by the EPS when they try to use these protections.
“The [EPS] does not back up the welfare of the laborers. It just goes for the factory owners. It is encouraging the owners to cheat,” she says.
In terms of changing the system, Seok’s request is simple: she would like migrant workers treated the same as Koreans. No more, no less.
Fear of being caught
Gupta* and Sharma* are illegal migrant workers. They have long overstayed the tourist visas that first got them into the country. “Our boss is fair with us,” Gupta says. “Compared to India, the pay is fair.”
There is, however, one problem they cannot avoid. “We want to see Korea but we can’t. The only place we can go is to some mart to buy groceries,” Sharma says. Since they have no visas they are forever looking over their shoulders for immigration officers.
“For now it’s OK, [there is] not much fear,” Sharma says. “We stay in [our area], and stay away from places where there are lots of immigration officers.” But he knows that at any moment, they could be asked for papers, cuffed, put in prison, and deported. “There is no solution,” Sharma says.
Roughly half of the laborers who are not on the EPS are on other visas — student, marriage, or otherwise — or are illegal. Last year there were just under 209,000 illegal workers in Korea, with expired E-9 visa holders accounting for just over 25 percent, according to government statistics. Unlike most other countries, there is no route to residency for the long-term undocumented migrant. But they come anyway, and for some, life is pretty good, or at least good enough. Everything, the Indian workers are keen to stress, is “fair.”
Patel* explains how he has no real Korean friends, only Indian friends. “And a Vietnamese girlfriend!” his friends pipe up, in Hindi, Punjabi, and English. They all roar with laughter as Patel blushes. When I ask him if he really has a Vietnamese girlfriend, he nods shyly.
“Right now I’m not employed. I’m looking for a job,” he says. “I will do anything.”
He says he needs to only save for one more year before he has enough money to return home. He is always afraid Immigration will catch him. He says that he is worried about the visa situation, but overall things “are OK.”
Small problems for good pay
The Indian workers I met are happy, if insecure in their employment. At Hyehwa Filipino market, most people insist things are good, and they are happy to be in Korea.
On the same stifling Sunday afternoon that I met with the Indian workers, I visited the packed Hyehwa Catholic Church. It’s 4:00pm, and Father Alfredo Africa is winding up the service. In a mix of Tagalog and English, he delivers the final announcements.
“Please,” he implores, “wear very nice clothes to church.” He specifically asks for shirts to descend “no more than two inches” from the neckline, and that “skirts should reach the knee.” He then dismisses everyone from mass, and the parishioners stream out into the afternoon sun, to shop and eat in the Filipino market.
“Sunday after Sunday you can see a lot of people flocking to the church,” Fr. Africa says in an interview later. “And afterward they can eat the Filipino food and go around to the different stalls outside the church and so on. And have some clean fun.”
Manning a stall at the market is Monina Tangan, 41, from the north of Luzon. She works full-time as a nanny for a German-Italian couple. “I am treated very well,” Tangan says. “I feel like I’m a member of the family.”
This is the third family she’s worked for in the country. “I was able to adjust,” she says. “I could send my kids to a good school. But being away from the family, the homesickness kills me. Every day.”
Jumbo Madrigal, 37, sits outside a Filipino food stall, and explains his work in an Incheon furniture factory. “It’s difficult, working in a factory,” he says. “There’s dust, it’s heavy.” But he says his pay is fair and on-time, and he wears a mask for the dust.
“It’s very hard to find work in our country, even if you graduate from university,” Madrigal says. So he came here. “Korea has the highest salary, especially in Asia.”
Outside the church, a dozen or so Filipinos sit by the bicycle racks, waiting for mass to finish. Lloyd Gabriel, 35, talks about his simple, eight-hour, Monday-to-Friday shift at a plastic moulding company.
“Sometimes [my coworkers] don’t understand me,” he says, shrugging. “But my work is very good. There are little problems but that’s OK.”
He has a wife and two children in the Philippines, and he misses them dearly. But he likes working in Korea, and in any case, he needs the money.
“In the Philippines it’s hard to find work,” he says. “It’s very good to stay here.”
Organizing for change
For those who don’t think “it’s very good to stay here,” unionization is now becoming an option. A major victory for migrant workers’ rights was won on June 25, when the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented migrant workers had the right to organize with the Migrants’ Trade Union (MTU), which represents over 1,000 migrant workers and is under the umbrella of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).
However, when the MTU filed their paperwork to be registered as a legal union, it was sent back to them on July 2, with the claim that their demands were too political. On July 19, the MTU filed again, with several clauses removed. And again it was returned, this time with a request for a full membership list. This list has been submitted, and to ensure the application goes through this time, the MTU is sleeping on the Ministry of Labor’s lawn.
“We’ve been camping out since July 27,” says Udaya Rai, 44, president of the MTU. “There have been many difficulties because we’re small and they’re big. The government is forcing their side. There have been many, many difficulties.”
Originally from Nepal, Rai says the police keep asking them to move to the street, but they refuse. “We have a strong will to achieve our goals, so that keeps us strong.”
When I visited on August 4, there were about a dozen workers at the protest site in front of the Department of Labour, which is located in a big glass building near the City Hall subway station. There were boxes of instant noodles, coolers full of bottled water, drums, and a few bottles of beer which went untouched. Most of the workers were from Southern Asia, though there were a few Koreans and one person from New Zealand.
Banners across the sidewalk read, “MTU’s claims are legit,” “The government shall accept MTU right away,” “We have waited 10 years. The Ministry of Employment and Labor must recognize the registration and establishment of MTU,” and “Labor is one!” The workers wore blue vests which had similar slogans in English and Korean.
Minsu, 40, is a Nepali worker who didn’t want his full Nepali name used. He’s now married to a Korean and owns a small business, but when he first came over in 1997, he was undocumented.
Minsu worked in a factory, which he said was very unsafe. “There were all the machines which we were not trained properly for at all,” he says.
“I saw a Nepali guy in my own factory using a press machine,” like a compactor. Minsu explains how the boss turned off the sensor, a piece of safety equipment, to increase productivity. “It makes more accidents. He put his hand in and-” Minsu claps his hands together. The worker’s hand was chopped off.
Three weeks later, the boss gave the injured man a broom and a new job sweeping up. The injured worker was afraid to go to the police, and got just the most basic medical care.
“These days the system is better, we can go to the police, we can complain and make a statement,” Minsu says. He praises the shelters and the human rights organizations migrants can use to make complaints to the police. But even though it’s better than before, “It’s still bad,” he says.
The MTU’s constitution had six clear goals when it was first submitted to the Ministry of Labor: cancel the industrial trainee system (an older work system for training migrant workers), cancel the EPS, introduce a work permit system (WPS), introduce basic free labor rights, stop deportations, and legalize unregistered laborers.
The government demanded all six clauses be removed. The MTU agreed to remove three of them: cancelling the trainee system and the EPS, and stopping deportations. The rest, they’re going to fight for. “We will never take those out,” Rai says. “We will fight for this. This is our main purpose of the MTU.”
Oh Young-min, head of the Department of Labor’s legal affairs division for labor and management relations, told the Korea Times in July that the clauses had to be removed because they were political.
Oh was quoted as saying, “Some of the rules say the union will pursue legalizing illegal foreign workers and abolishing the employment permit system. Such rules will jeopardize law and order if we allowed their application.”
The Korea Times also noted that since the MTU began in 2005, five senior officials have been deported, including two presidents.
“The MTU is now trying to cancel the EPS system,” Rai says. “We’re aiming for a labor permission system like Koreans have.”
They’re fighting for a better welfare system for laborers here. “We want freedom of movement, choice of workplace, choice of contract length,” Rai says.
The MTU also employs lawyers, and they will often call workplaces — literally call them on the phone — and tell them to treat their workers fairly, or face legal consequences. “We educate people to know they have the right to form a trade union and be a member of it,” Rai says.
Rai came over illegally at first, and worked in a miserable factory where he was twice physically assaulted by the boss. Pay was often late, and complaining to the Ministry of Labor was impossible given the language differences. Now he’s legal, his Korean is fluent, and he is on the EPS, keyed up for the long-haul.
“[The government] keeps saying they’re political demands but they are not,” Rai says. He insists they will win. “We will do this even if it takes 10 years.”
On August 20, the union was finally recognized by the Department of Labor.
Institutional changes needed to curb abuse
Despite all the horrors he went through, Rath Mony Muth worked the standard 4 years and 10 months before he went back to Cambodia. He swore he would never return to Korea, but today he studies sociology at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul.
“I try to be positive, to get better by studying hard, and Korea has a better environment for study,” he says. When he isn’t studying, he volunteers to help others like him. With his fluent Korean and Cambodian, he provides vital translation services for those who have had their rights abused and need to seek redress.
Rath has no problem with Koreans outside of work. Every migrant worker I spoke to said that the problems were with their workplaces, and that they found the Korean people themselves to be perfectly accommodating (if a bit stand-offish). The issue, it appears, isn’t cultural but economic and regulatory.
At the LHRC, the People of Earth’s Station, the MTU, and at similar organizations throughout the country, Koreans and foreigners are rallying to repeal the EPS and change the way migrant workers are treated. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen — what is clear is that thousands are trying.
*Names have been changed to protect identity
Migrants’ Trade Union
Korean Confederation of Trade Union
For information on Korean labor laws and practices contact the Korean Labor Board on
1305 ext. 5