Jan. 23  2020
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Migrant Workers Should Organize and Struggle for Their Own Labor Rights

A strategy workshop for organizing migrant workers in South Korea was held at Dongguk University on December 17th.

Source  :  BASE21

▲Workshop place in Dongguk University (Photos copylefted by BASE21)

By PatchA, Staff Reporter (

May 26, 2001 is a historical date for migrant workers in South Korea. On that day, the Equality Trade Union (ETU), the first labor union for migrant workers, was launched. It covered the Seoul, Kyeonggi, and Incheon regions, and affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) as a branch for migrant workers. For years, many progressive groups have struggled against the government's exploitative labor policies such as their implementation of the trainee system and police crackdowns on undocumented migrants. However, it was very difficult for them to inform the labor movement on these important issues since, at the time, there was no organized labor union for migrant workers.
Therefore, the establishment of ETU was a huge step forward for migrant workers, for two main reasons: first, through the union's activities, migrant workers' problems could now be considered as problems shared and addressed by the entire Korean labor movement. And second, for a long time, laborers had considered the migrant workers movement as a human right struggle, but now many Korean workers and activists could not help but change their mind--this movement is not only for human rights, but also the right to work.

It has been about seven months since the union was established. There were many twists and turns for the union activists. For example, the government carried out very strong crackdowns on undocumented workers last June. In this political climate, the unionists have done their best to continue their struggle and organize more migrant workers.

On December 17, ETU sponsored a strategy workshop on the establishment of migrant workers organizations. Thirty participants converged at Dongguk University to study and share experiences on organizing strategies. They also discussed ways to support the activities of the Migrants' Branch and for the Korean labor movement in the future.

Migrant Workers need to organize as independent union activists
ETU chair Lee Yoon-joo said in her keynote speech, "Now there are many Korean union members. Migrant workers should be organized as core activists. Of course, this work is very difficult because of oppression by the government or the company. The labor movement should defend migrant workers who wish to be union activists through solidarity struggle."

Back Seok-keun from the Korea Federation of Construction Industry Trade Union said, "Many migrants have to take step backward in front of their company since most of them are undocumented and are always faced with the danger of a police crackdown (undocumented workers are considered illegal in South Korea-ed). The wage issue is especially important to them. Although many times they don't receive their pay, they cannot complain because they are undocumented and illegal workers. If the union solves this problem through solidarity struggle, I think organizing migrant workers as volunteers will also be easier."

Break the wall between Korean and Migrant Workers
The attitude of Korean workers towards the migrant workers struggle is a very difficult issue. This attitude often acts as a barrier between the two groups. Back added, "Many Korean workers, especially at construction sites, still feel repelled by migrants. They think that if the number of migrant workers increases, jobs and wages for Koreans will decrease. It is a very sensitive problem."

This condition is similar to that of regular and irregular workers. Yoon Ae-rim, from the Preparing Committee of the National Solidarity for Abolishing the Unstable Labor Situation said, "It's very hard to create solidarity between regular and temporary workers because there are some confrontation points. We need to grasp irregular workers struggles not as an isolated movement, but within the context of larger labor issues. This also applies to the migrant workers' struggle. The migrant issue should be made wider and wider through powerful solidarity with the entire workers' movement with the basic viewpoint that migrants are laborers as are Korean workers."

More systematic and fundamental educational programs
Lee said, "I think there are not enough educational programs for organizing migrant unionists. We should try to research the roots of problems in our activities. We also have to focus on the struggles from each place of trainee system. Although it is not so big and powerful, if they come together, it can be a base of this movement."

There was a more concrete presentation about Asia Pacific Mission For Migrant Filipinos's (APMMF) education program and other examples given by Mark, a union leader from ETU. "Forming an organization is a process. That is to say, it is a 'step by step' program. It begins with initial social investigation [in]to building contacts, organizing groups--a committee of organizing groups and the formation of a formal mass organization that will genuinely uphold the interest of migrants."

"There are two ways APMMF deals with our organizing work. One is to organize those who are willing to organize themselves in their workplace. Second, is to organize the migrants or groups of migrants outside their workplace." He also added that the way to make migrant organizing more systematic, "It is recommended to start the work with individuals or groups of migrants in their workplaces. They can gather experiences from here and there, and can encourage others or a newly-formed migrant organization to do organizing in other locations. Thus, more organizers will learn from such experiences and a wider range of migrants shall be reached."

Several questions were brought up about the actual investigation and situation of migrant workers, such as, how many migrants were distributed? How much are their wages? What are their demands? Mr. Back said, "Labor unions should investigate the real situation of the migrant workplace and also make training information such as pamphlets for propagation."

Migrant Workers Should Organize and Struggle for Their Own Labor Rights
The workshop was four hours long. Many good ideas were said and discussed. One of the most important issues was the voluntary organization of migrant workers and making this a movement for labor rights as well as human rights.
Lee ended this workshop by saying, "In this struggle, ETU will be with migrant workers anywhere, anytime."

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