The Koreas

Dashed Korean Dreams: The Plight of Migrant Workers

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Dashed Korean Dreams: The Plight of Migrant Workers

South Korea’s handling of migrant workers is a blotch on the country’s reputation. 

Dashed Korean Dreams: The Plight of Migrant Workers
Credit: Depositphotos

This year’s Labor Day in South Korea saw an outpouring of migrant workers denouncing forced labor and discrimination. As if in a pointed snub, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) renewed its commitment to ousting undocumented workers in a statement released on May 3.

Migrant workers in South Korea have lived on the edge for decades now. Although the government knows they are indispensable for harvesting agricultural produce and greasing the wheels of South Korea’s manufacturing base, it has neglected their grievances.

The countryside, hosting farms and factories, bears the brunt of South Korea’s uneven regional development and buckling demographics. Half the entire South Korean population lives in the greater Seoul area. A quarter of cities and towns – 59 out of 228 – are likely to disappear in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the working age population will shrink by half in the next 40 years, shedding around 17 million people.

Consequently, the South Korean government has turned to migrant workers to fill the void. Approximately 374,000 non-professional migrant workers are legally residing in South Korea. More than half of them hail from Southeast Asia, with E-9 visas reserved for laborers abroad without Korean ancestry. The visa limits their employment to agriculture, fishery, manufacturing, construction, and other arduous sectors. The South Korean government decided to issue 110,000 E-9 visas in 2023, the largest annual quota since their introduction in 2004. In addition, more than 410,000 undocumented workers toil in the shadows in such industries.

Their necessity notwithstanding, migrant workers have become easy targets of exploitation and social exclusion. It is a prevalent practice among Korean employers to lodge them in places unsuitable for accommodation. In one extreme case in March, a Thai worker died of hydrogen sulfide poisoning, having lived in a pigsty soaked in slops and excrement from a hundred pigs.

About 20 percent of migrant workers live in shanties, usually made up of corrugated steel sheets and shading nets. This is in spite of the government policy – instituted in 2021 after a Cambodian worker froze to death in a plastic greenhouse – that repeals employers’ recruitment applications if they quarter laborers in unauthorized constructions. The measure, however, allows temporary buildings approved by local municipalities to be used as accommodation. More than 60 percent of migrant workers currently live in shipping containers and panel structures.

The practice of letting out shabby dwellings is lucrative. The Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL)’s directives permit Korean employers to deduct up to 20 percent of migrant workers’ paychecks in exchange for room and board. The less the employers spend on quality, the more they can save. Some workers pay almost $400 a month for a rickety shack.

Hence, almost all employers opt to house migrant workers, the majority of whom live on or right next to their work sites. Living in greenhouses on fields, containers on aquafarming infrastructure, or annexes to industrial plants, they are under 24-hour surveillance by their employers – and often forced to overwork.

Living in such close proximity to their workplaces, they fall prey to various forms of abuse by their employers and supervisors. Surveys of female migrant workers found that around 12 percent of them had been sexually assaulted at some point. Entreaties for better treatment are met with physical violence. Some employers flat-out refuse to pay salaries and severance packages after years of hard labor.

This is why the International Labor Organization advises that “it is generally not desirable that employers should provide housing for their workers directly,” recommending instead “the provision of housing for their workers on an equitable basis by public agencies or by autonomous private agencies … separate from the employers’ enterprises.” Otherwise, workers are isolated from local communities without recourse to external help, subsisting on the whims of their employers.

In addition, the Employment Permit System (EPS) that administers E-9 visas traps migrant workers in a vicious circle. They receive their visa only when certain employers decide to hire them. Therefore, their visa’s validity hinges on perpetuating this initial employment.

From the get-go, this subordinate relationship creates ample room for employers to tweak working and living conditions to their benefits. Despite abuse, workers still need to secure legal consent from their original employers to transfer their E-9 status to another employer or extend their stay. Otherwise the migrant workers lose their legal right to stay, which is why they still stomach abuse and “behave well” in front of their employers. Accepting deplorable lodgings is one example.

MOEL does allow migrant workers to find other jobs without their employers’ approval under proven circumstances of assaults, poor living conditions, and periodic payment default. However, when migrant workers enter a labor complaints center, the center often calls or summons their employers only to conclude all is well. Facing the language barrier, most workers forgo appealing. Even if they succeed in switching jobs, MOEL maintains a cap on the number of job transfers, which the United States Department of State cited as fueling human trafficking violations and labor exploitation in South Korea.

Undocumented migrant workers fare even worse. When they report cases of abuse to MOEL, the latter sends their dossiers to the Justice Ministry, which handles undocumented personnel with detention and repatriation. At times the ministry resorts to violence in rounding undocumented migrants up, even raiding cultural events and religious facilities to target nation-specific cohorts. Using such tactics, it has expelled 25,000 undocumented workers so far in 2023.

Running roughshod over migrant workers is hurting South Korea’s image as a cultural and economic powerhouse. Concerns have arisen over potential diplomatic fallout and reduced trade, as workers are forced to process food inimical to their religion and the South Korean media and politicians foment discrimination. More and more people are becoming disillusioned by the Korean Dream. The 2023 United Nations Universal Periodic Review exhorted South Korea to uphold migrant workers’ labor and housing rights.

The world is slowly waking up to the fact that Korean exports, in the end, come from migrant workers used up as grist for industrial mills.