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Migrant Workers Rally For Recognition, Rights

The Equality Trade Union (ETU), Korea's first migrant labor union, joined forces with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the nation's largest and most militant organization of workers.

Source  :  BASE21

By Terry Park and Chang-nam Lee/Staff Reporters

December 17, 2001

[Seoul, Korea] -- A multi-national alliance of over two hundred migrant workers and their Korean comrades held a press conference and spirited rally in front of Myondong Cathedral on Sunday.
They urged the Kim Dae Jung administration to take immediate measures to protect the physical safety and political rights of over 30,000 foreign laborers working in a variety of industrial sectors all over South Korea. The boisterous contingent then marched to Dongguk University for a cultural festival.

The Equality Trade Union (ETU), Korea's first migrant labor union, joined forces with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the nation's largest and most militant organization of workers.

There was much singing, including English and Korean renditions of "We Shall Overcome" and "We Are A Union." Throughout the rally and march, people shouted chants such as "Stop the Crackdown!"An all-female dance troupe from Ewha Womans University performed an inspiring number despite the cold weather. Activists and workers held colorful signs in many languages. Some brought their children. All of this leant a warm, lively, international atmosphere, which contrasted with tales of cold brutality and feelings of righteous anger.

At the press conference, migrant workers made five demands: abolishment of the trainee system, arrest of exploitative employers, guarantee of migrant worker's job safety, legalization of undocumented migrant workers, and the suspension of discriminatory social policies in regards to migrant workers.

However, as an ETU activist Lee Yoon-joo alluded to, the Kim Dae Jung adminstration has treated their demands in the same manner as they have treated their existence: "We tried to initiate a dialogue with the Korean government, and give them a statement from an international human rights group, but they turned us down without any explanation."

Critical to the five demands is the "International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Member of Their Families," which was unanimously passed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 18th, 1990.

After eleven years, only nineteen countries have ratified the convention. South Korea, both a major exporter and importer of migrant labor, has so far refused to ratify the convention.

Migrant workers and labor activists argue that the ratification of the convention would lead to more attention, and therefore, an improvement in the treatment of migrant workers in Korea. The U.N. Economic and Social Council has echoed these sentiments, calling for the South Korean government to immediately ratify the treaty. The present situation of migrant workers in Korea is worsening day by day. "Migrant workers suffer from harsh discrimination by their Korean employers. They have also been deprived of their basic rights," said Lee. She added, "The Korean government must stop the exploitative trainee system to secure alien resident's rights."

Abolishment of the trainee system is one of the main goals of migrant workers and labor activists. According to ETU, "trainees" in fact receive inadequate training.

They are also given a small allowance instead of a wage, and a portion of this is kept by the boss to "ensure" that the worker does not run away, which is often the case because trainees are the victim of many on-the-job accidents, in addition to unchecked physical and verbal abuse from their Korean employers.

If they do escape and become undocumented workers, they run the risk of becoming vulnerable to periodic police crackdowns, which have intensified in the past year.

All of this, and they are expected to perform the "3Ds"--difficult, dangerous, and dirty jobs. Like migrant workers all over the world, they are reviled and criminalized even though they are crucial to the functioning of an industrial economy.

Sangrasa, a 28-year-old Nepali worker, told a story that is becoming all-too-common among migrant workers in Korea. "My friend who was supposed to be here today, instead committed suicide," he said. "He was continuously beaten by his employer. He killed himself to curse Korean society, a land of egoism and discrimination."

Mark, an activist from KASAMMA-KO (Unity of Filipino Migrant Association), elaborated on Korean society's lack of understanding of the situation of migrant workers: "Migrant workers are like shadows in the dark," he said. "Their conditions aren't known. Korean people only see them on the subway. They don't know about the unpaid salaries, the beatings, the discrimination. They don't know that migrants have to work on holidays, or that there is a difference in salary between Koreans and foreigners. They don't realize they have to live far from their families, which adds to the difficulties."

He added emphatically, "We want to empower migrant workers to speak for themselves, not to depend on others."

This appeared to be the case, as there was no evidence of Korean activists trying to take over the rally. Migrant workers sat at the front of the rally, while their Korean comrades, many of them university students, respectfully sat in the back.

Migrant workers led the chants, the songs, and many of the speeches, mostly in Korean. KCTU members made strong speeches declaring their uncompromising solidarity with the migrant workers, a tactic sure to upset the Korean government, which in the IMF and post-IMF era, has used migrant workers as scapegoats for economic problems in a classic "divide-and-conquer" maneuver.

"It's extremeley shameful that, in a country where the president is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the government heavily suppresses migrant workers' rights," said acting KCTU president Huh Young-koo.

He also chastised the Korean government for discriminating against poor migrant workers while entitling overseas Koreans with many economic and political benefits.

Jin-kwan, a Buddhist representative, commented, "Even George W. Bush wants to legalize Mexican migrant workers in their country."

The desire for migrant workers to spread their stories touched at least one Ewha Womans University student. "I've always known about the plight of Korean workers, but now I'm beginning to recognize that migrant workers in Korea suffer from even worse treatment."


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Labor | Science & ICT | Society | Human Rights
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