Creating Resistance: Migrant Worker Organizing in South Korea

Posted by admin on Oct 1st, 2010

By Wol-san Liem, Published on: October 01, 2009, Leftturn

“Hello? Comrade Masum!” “Yes, Comrade! It’s been a long time. I was wondering how you have been.” ABM Moniruzzaman Masum, Former General Secretary of the Migrants Trade Union (MTU) in South Korea, answers my call from his home in Bangladesh. For once, his voice comes across clearly, relatively uninterrupted by the static that often muddies the connection between Seoul and Dhaka. A feeling of warmth, longing, and guilt comes over me; I have not called for several months. I hurry to tell him about MTU’s recent membership retreat and our new officers.

ABM Moniruzzaman Masum, or Masum as most of his comrades in Korea know him, returned to Bangladesh in December of 2007 after living in South Korea for over ten years as a migrant worker and activist for migrant workers’ rights. After experiencing multiple abuses at the hands of Korean employers and witnessing migrant coworkers suffer the same, he began organizing those around him against unpaid wages, workplace related injury, and poor work conditions. Assisting others to confront these difficulties led him to recognize the systemic nature of these problems, which are rooted in policy that condones and invites such abuses. In 2005, Masum, along with other workers from Bangladesh and Nepal, became the founders of the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants Trade Union (MTU), the first union in South Korea whose leadership is made up entirely of migrant workers.

Masum’s return to Bangladesh was not of his choice. At the end of 2007, while he was serving as the MTU General Secretary, Masum was arrested, detained, and finally deported, along with MTU’s President and Vice President. While South Korean immigration officials have claimed the three were caught in a routine raid on undocumented migrants, it was obvious that their arrest, only one case in a history of similar repression against the migrant workers’ movement, was carried out in an effort to break the MTU. Less than six months later, MTU’s newly elected President and Vice President were also arrested and deported in a similar fashion. In spite of such repression, MTU has now entered its fifth year and continues to bring migrant workers together to fight for their rights.

South Korea and international migration

Until recently, South Korea was primarily a labor exporting country. Throughout the twentieth century Koreans left their homeland for destinations around the word—as forced laborers of the Japanese colonial empire, as refugees of the Korean War and its aftermath, and as workers, students, and professionals seeking to escape the uneven results of South Korea’s rapid industrialization and later the Asian Financial Crisis. Given South Korea’s neocolonial relationship with the United States, many Koreans who emigrated during the second half of the twentieth century have ended up in the US, which now has a Korean-American population of over 1.5 million.

When national industrialization reached its climax in the mid to late 1980s, this trend changed. Although Koreans continued to move abroad, South Korea also became a destination for migrants, primarily from poorer Asian nations, many of whom had become aware of Korea as an “advanced” country through its hosting of the 1988 Olympics. These migrants, struggling to support families in the midst of underdevelopment and unemployment in their home countries, came to provide an important source of cheap labor for small and medium-size businesses, whose dirty, difficult, and dangerous conditions were and continue to be shunned by most Korean workers. At the time, South Korea had no comprehensive system for regulating foreign labor migration; these first migrants, including Masum, came on tourist and other short-term visas and continued to work in Korea as undocumented workers once these visas expired.

South Korean policy on migrant labor

In the early 1990s South Korea began to regulate labor migration through a system by which migrants were granted visas as “industrial trainees.” Ostensibly, these migrants were to receive training and gain technical skills that they could employ in their native economies upon returning home. In fact, the system, which did not recognize “trainees” as workers with basic labor rights, resulted in grave exploitation and abuse, including low and unpaid wages and verbal and physical abuse. As a result, many trainees left their assigned factories, leading to a rise in the number of undocumented migrant workers. According to the South Korean Ministry of Justice, in August 2003 the number of undocumented migrant workers had reached 306,382, up from 54,508 in 1993 and occupying over 78 percent of the total number of migrants in South Korea.

While heavy social criticism forced the government to introduce a new Employment Permit System (EPS) in 2004 and phase out the Trainee System by 2007, South Korean policy towards labor migration continues to be shaped by a goal of importing cheap, easily controllable labor, and a racist posture towards non-natives from poorer countries. While the Korean government allows long-term residence for investors and foreign nationals of Korean descent from industrialized nations, it blocks long-term residence for working-class migrants, including people of Korean descent from China and Russia, except for those who marry Korean nationals.

Migrant workers of non-Korean origin who work under the EPS face the most restrictions. Although the EPS technically protects migrant workers under the labor law, the system also preserves the basic intent of the trainee system by creating a highly unequal relationship between workers and employers, thus facilitating exploitation and abuse. EPS workers are granted short-term visas and must be employed to retain their status. Heavy restrictions on changing workplaces means that migrants are often stuck working under exploitative conditions with no recourse but to leave the company where they are legally registered and become undocumented. Moreover, even those who do win approval to change workplaces must find new employment through the mediation of regional Job Centers, and must do so within two months after leaving the previous job or face becoming undocumented.

While undocumented migrant workers have more freedom to change employers, their mobility is severely restricted in other ways. Since 2003, when the government implemented a partial legalization timed with the start of the EPS, the only policy towards undocumented migrants has been one of detention and deportation. Surprise raids, which take place in factories and residences, lead to widespread human rights abuses, most notably the injury and death of migrants who flee in terror. In addition, there are many reports of physical and verbal abuse at the hands of immigration officers and inhumane conditions in detention centers. Since 2004, over 130,000 migrants have been deported, with over 30 percent of these deportations occurring in 2008-2009. Daily raids and arrests mean that most undocumented migrant workers rarely venture outside their workplaces and homes, and fear of being reported to authorities by an employer often leads them to endure exploitation and abuse without complaint.

Migrant worker organizing

Despite the obstacles, migrant workers have come together to challenge the discrimination and oppression they face. Like Masum, the first migrant activists formed local organizations focused on mutual aid. Over time, leaders of these groups came together with Korean activists to focus on workplace-related problems and publicly criticize government policy. In 2000, migrant and Korean activists began discussing the prospects of unionization with the goal of strengthening migrant worker leadership. These discussions lead first to the formation of the Migrants Branch of the Equality Trade Union, a local general union. In 2003-2004 members of the Migrants Branch, migrant community leaders, and Korean supporters carried out a year-long sit-in to protest against the implementation of the EPS and massive crackdown against undocumented migrant workers. While the sit-in did not reverse the direction of government policy, it did bring widespread public attention to the plight of migrant workers and provided a training ground for migrant worker activists, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Migrants Trade Union (MTU) in April of 2005.

Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants Trade Union

While MTU is not the only union with migrant members, it is unique as a union established and led by migrant workers themselves, which seeks to unite members from different countries. MTU’s founders were primarily undocumented. Its current membership and leadership, however, is composed of both documented and undocumented workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Since its founding, MTU has been fighting to improve migrant workers’ work conditions and secure their labor rights, win a relaxation of the restrictions on documented migrant workers, and oppose the crackdown against undocumented migrant workers.

In addition, MTU has, by necessity, carried out a struggle for the recognition of migrant workers’ right to freedom of association. This is because the South Korean Ministry of Labor has until now refused to recognize MTU’s legal status as a union, based on the assertion that as undocumented migrant workers, its founders do not have the right to form and join unions under the South Korean Constitution and Labor Relations Act. Despite winning a ruling from the Seoul High Court in February of 2007 recognizing migrant workers’ freedom of association, regardless of visa status, and specifically MTU’s right to union status, the Ministry of Labor continues to refuse to register the MTU. Moreover, the last several years have seen the South Korean Immigration Authorities repeatedly target MTU leaders for arrest and deportation.

Because of the severity of the repression, and because its struggle for recognition stands to set a precedent for migrant workers’ union rights, MTU has received considerable attention from the international human and labor rights community. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, the International Labour Organization (ILO), and large NGOs such as Amnesty International have all criticized the South Korean government’s repression against MTU leaders and called for a protection of their rights. Significantly, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association recently issued a recommendation on MTU’s case, reaffirming that the eight core ILO Conventions, including the convention protecting freedom of association, “cover all migrant workers, regardless of status.”

On the ground

After I finish my conversation with Masum, I begin chatting with one of MTU’s new leaders. I tell him Masum sends his regards. “I wish I was able to get to know Masum and the other founders and discuss union work with them,” he replies. This comment points to the difficulties of continuing MTU’s struggle in the face of repression. Most of the new leaders do not have the years of experience Masum and others did, nor are there many seasoned activists around to provide guidance, so many have become targets for deportation.

Nonetheless, MTU continues to push forward. An important part of this work is finding new ways to reach out to a wider and more diverse group of migrant workers. MTU is now using Korean language classes, small neighborhood and hobby-related groups, and sports activities to create “safe spaces” in which migrant workers can come together easily, relatively unthreatened by the government crackdown. It also provides counseling and assistance with workplace-related problems such as unpaid wages, industrial accidents, and workplace transfers. Through these activities, MTU’s membership is expanding and new leaders are emerging.

While MTU’s new officers do not have easy access to the experience of those who came before them, they have inherited a firm belief in their rights as workers. They are also developing their own understanding of how these rights can be achieved through the unity of migrants from around the world, documented and undocumented. This understanding includes recognition that despite some differences in the experiences of documented and undocumented workers, the problems they face derive from the same racist and exploitative policies that seek to turn them into cheap labor. In the face of these injustices, they are asserting that, whatever their status, workers are workers with the same basic rights: freedom of employment, fair compensation, and unionization. As they carry out this struggle, they are aware that they are struggling for one another and indeed for migrant workers around the world.

Wol-san Liem is a third-generation Korean-American currently living in South Korea. She has being doing local organizing and international solidarity work for MTU since 2007.

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