South Korea's Migrant Workers in the Public Eye

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The plight of migrant workers in South Korea is steadily receiving more attention in popular media, suggesting that social and political changes are afoot.

Reading uncritical articles from the English-language Chosun Ilbo might lead some to believe that the influx of migrant workers and immigrants in Korea is creating a vibrant, multicultural Korea. A “Korea Sparkling,” or something of that sort. Starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the South Korean state began accommodating the demands of business, particularly small and medium-seized enterprises, by permitting an influx of migrant laborers. The effect, likely unintended, has been a slow but certain demographic transformation. South Korea has gone from an ethnically homogeneous society to an increasingly multiethnic one (with implications for nationhood abounding). According to data from the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs, the foreigner population has risen to 3.4 percent. This shift has also created a new underclass in Korean society: migrant workers.

When Americans, Canadians, and other Anglo-American nationals think of foreigners working in Korea, they might think of English teachers. This is reasonable, but not particularly accurate. Most foreigners are not teaching English, because, as Dong-Hoon Seol and John Skrentny note in their study of foreign workers in South Korea, most are not native English-speakers; they’re Chinese.

If one were inclined to do so, the foreigner population could be divided into two groups: oeguki (foreigner) and oegukin nodongja (foreign worker). The former group is (predominately) white people working white-collar jobs (e.g., teaching English). The lifestyle and the working conditions, while not perfect, are good by global standards. These are likely the people the Chosun article (cited above) claims are sailing on the weekends and patronizing Itaewon’s nice new restaurants and pubs. (Itaewon is an area surrounding Yongsan-gu, where a major U.S. military base is located. Major restorations and developments have transformed this area from one to be avoided to a desired destination.)

The latter of the two groups—the foreign workers—occupy many of the positions in the “3D” industry: jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and demeaning. Some of these jobs are in agri-industry in the countryside, others in Korea’s urban SMEs; Amnesty International’s investigations into the working conditions for workers in these industries are quite damning. (See, among others, “South Korea: Disposable Labor: Rights of Migrant Workers in South Korea.”)

But things are starting to change—it seems. On August 20 of this year, the Korean Ministry of Labor granted the Korean Migrants’ Trade Union (MTU) official legal registration, following a Supreme Court ruling. The Court ruling represents the culmination of a ten-year legal battle. Importantly, Korean NGOs, labor activists, and unionists supported the migrants’ struggle and efforts. (Sam MacDonald, who was involved in the movement, provides a good overview of the process.) The MTU, with support from other Korean labor groups, might be a vehicle through which change is enacted.

Furthermore, public recognition of the plight of migrant workers in South Korea appears to be steadily rising. On September 9, Yonhap ran a story (in Korean) on the racial discrimination faced by migrants. The article notes the wage discrimination in South Korea for migrant workers (the highest in the OECD by a long shot) and the tribulations faced by workers under the Employment Permit System (EPS). Under the EPS, migrant workers must obtain permission from their employers before changing jobs; many employers exploit workers under this system. This is to say nothing of undocumented workers (of which there are many).

Interestingly, the working conditions for South Korea’s foreign workers are strikingly familiar to those faced by (ethnic) Korean laborers in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. More interesting is how migrant laborers are (or perhaps ought to be) changing the nature of social movements and activism in a democratic South Korea. Giving the increasing interest in labor insecurities and the social dislocations caused by globalization, one might wonder if migrant laborers and ethnic Koreans will act collectively, or whether notions of Korea as an ethnically homogenous nation will further isolate those of a non-Korean ethnicity.

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