Pandemic Highlights South Korea’s Migrant Worker Abuse

Source: The Organization For World Peace

Mass Covid-19 outbreaks amongst foreign migrant workers in South Korea have raised concerns over a possible fourth wave in the country. Despite government efforts to increase testing in areas with a high concentration of foreign labor, language barriers and unregistered migrants continue to prove to be obstacles in the way of anti-spread measures. In response to the predicament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Chung Sye Kyun called on foreign workers to cooperate with the government’s inspections of quarantine conditions at workplaces, saying there would be no disadvantages for doing so even if one was not a registered worker. As of Monday, an administrative order has been issued in the Gyeonggi Province where the cases remain high, for foreign workers and their employers to be tested for COVID-19 from March 8 to March 22.

This level of increased scrutiny directed towards migrant labor has also brought into focus, once again, South Korea’s workforce exploitation problem. There are around 20,000 Asian migrant workers legally working on South Korean farms, mostly from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Nepal. These workers live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, work 10-15 hours a day with only two Saturdays off per month, and earn wages that are well below the legal minimum wage their contracts are supposed to ensure. In fact, one of the major reasons for the mass outbreaks is the deplorable working and living conditions provided to these workers where access to healthcare is limited and spaces for self-quarantine along with recovery absent.

The migrant laborers mostly come to South Korea under its Employment Permit System which was launched in 2004 to replace the Industrial Trainee System notorious for horrific working conditions. However, labor rights activists argue that little has changed under the new system which forces workers to comply with their employers on whom they depend for prolonging and maintain their working visas. The director of the Assan Migrant Workers Centre Woo Sam-Yeol even stated that the ways in which migrant workers are tied to their employers are similar to ‘’the conditions of slaves’’.

Out of the 200,000 migrant workers brought under the EPS system, only 10% are farmhands while the rest work in factories, fisheries, and the service industry. And while exploitation is a common factor for all, the situation of the farmworkers is particularly sensitive as rules about working hours, breaks and time off don’t apply to agriculture. The country’s Labour Standards Act also doesn’t apply at all to workplaces with four or fewer employees, which is typical of many farms. As a result, the workers are subjected to constant verbal and physical abuse and forced to live in shipping containers or poorly ventilated huts with no access to any sort of legal recourse. The conditions are such that The Labour Ministry told a lawmaker in October that 90-114 EPS workers died each year from 2017 to 2019. In December of last year, in the wake of the death of a Cambodian woman, Nuon Sokkheng, at a farm in Pocheon and consequent outrage changes were promised by officials but most of them are yet to be implemented.

As South Korea grapples with the pandemic and its devastating consequences on both health and the economy, dealing with the issue of foreign workforce exploitation has become an even more difficult task. Earlier this week the country announced plans to improve conditions for migrant farmworkers, including expanding health care access. However, issues such as poor housing and low wages have not been addressed due to fears of opposition from farmers who too are struggling to survive. Foreign identities when juxtaposed to national ones are often not the priority when it comes to Government concerns, and therefore hopes among the migrant workers for change are low. Most of them wish to earn money quickly and go back to their home countries. Nevertheless, an active nexus of pro-labor rights lawyers, activists, pastors, monks, and unions are relentlessly organizing and pushing for a change in Korea’s laws and practices.

-Soumya Sharma

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