The Sad Plight of South Korea’s Migrant Workers
Hyundai workers' protest in South Korea
Image Credit: Flickr/ mj jin lee

The Sad Plight of South Korea’s Migrant Workers


The number of migrant workers in South Korea continues to rise. Due to the downward pressures of the 21st century global economy, South Korean companies must seek out ever cheap(er) labor. For many companies, employing South Koreans isn’t an economically rational choice. One characteristic of postindustrial South Korean society is the increase in its immigrant population; many of these immigrants come to South Korea as migrant laborers to work low-skilled, often hazardous jobs — work commonly referred to as the “3D” professions: dirty, dangerous, and demeaning.

A 2009 Amnesty International report, “Disposable labor: Rights of migrant workers in South Korea,” argues in no uncertain terms that South Korea’s migrant worker population is being badly exploited. Notably, the report looks at the working conditions of legal migrant workers, or those recognized under the Employment Permit System (EPS), a system that legally binds small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with migrant laborers. The conditions of the SME-employee relationship are disadvantageous to the worker. Workers must obtain permission from the employer to change jobs, can be terminated with reason, and must have their contracts renewed yearly.

If dirt, danger, and belittlement weren’t enough, migrant workers in South Korea labor for less than “equilibrium price” and sometimes for nothing at all. The Amnesty report notes:

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They [migrant workers] are required to work long hours and night shifts, many without overtime pay, and often have their wages withheld. On average, they are paid less than South Korean workers in similar jobs and are at greater risk of industrial accidents with inadequate medical treatment or compensation. [They] are tied to their employer and face restrictions in changing jobs, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation such as unfair dismissal.

A more recent fact-finding mission for the approximately 20,000 farm workers in South Korea shows nothing has changed.

These conditions are eerily reminiscent of Korean migrant labor in interwar Japan, an episode in the history of migrant labor documented by historian Ken Kawashima in The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan. With little opportunity to make money at home, low-skill workers in colonial Korea migrated east to Japan, where they were seen as necessary and cheap labor in the eyes of the Ministry of Justice. The state made sure factories’ labor demands were fulfilled; it didn’t, however, ensure that foreign labor was adequately protected from exploitative employers.  With little political power, Korean migrant workers faced “the double shackles of low wages and ethnic discrimination.” The Unemployment Relief Programs (UERP), nominally designed to support low-skill workers, actually institutionalized the exploitation of colonial labor.

South Korea is no imperial Japan, but some argue it acts like a “surrogate empire,” taking in migrant labor that, until recently, would travel to core countries like the United States (or, in the interwar period, to Japan). Such is the reality of new international migration flows. It is an interesting and alternative take on South Korea’s “miracle” story. South Korea’s industrial strength has created the need for cheap, disciplined labor. Migrant laborers and labor rights activists will pressure South Korea to adopt and enforce laws that protect precarious workers. Such concessions will not come easily. The South Korean state has a history of working against, not for, workers.

Unionization rates in South Korea have been consistently low, comparatively speaking. This is, in large part, the result of a highly contentious relationship between labor and the state. During the 1970s the state and large corporations used the police and Korean Central Intelligence Agency (the predecessor to National Intelligence Services) to prevent the organization of labor. While union rates remain relatively low today, workers’ rights to strike, organize, and collectively bargain are recognized and protected.

The same cannot be said for migrant workers.

The Migrants’ Trade Union (MTU) has been stuck in legal limbo, waiting for official recognition (or a final rejection). According to the Hankyoreh, it’s been more than ten years since the MTU filed its case against the Ministry of Employment and Labor; the ministry rejected the union’s request for legal recognition because “some of the union members were undocumented migrants.” On appeal, the appellate court ruled that “the right to union establishment must be guaranteed even for undocumented workers.” A regional ministry appeal meant the Supreme Court would have the final say. That was more than eight years ago.

The Hankyoreh quotes a “Supreme Court source” as saying a decision “may be coming,” but no one should be surprised if that decision isn’t imminent — or if the decision, when it comes, is not a favorable one.

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