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Foreign workers demand job change rights

The Korea Times, Korea, 15 October 2018 - Hundreds of migrant workers and civic activists rallied in front of Seoul Finance Center in Jung-gu, downtown Seoul, Sunday, demanding workers' freedom to change workplaces and denouncing government crackdowns on undocumented foreign laborers.

"We are not machines, we want human rights," the crowd shouted, as an opposing rally down the street called on the government to "kick out illegal migrant workers."

"The work of migrant workers is what keeps the bottom tier of the Korean economy going," Udaya Rai, head of the Migrants Trade Union, told the crowd. "We workers should be able to freely choose our workplace. But the Korean government does not see us as workers; they see us as disposable goods." 

Protesters say Korea's Employment Permit System (EPS), enacted in 2004, has to go. Under this system, usually enacted by agreements between Korea and Southeast Asian countries, migrant workers sign a minimum three-year employment contract while still in their home country. 

On arrival, they cannot change their workplace freely without submitting evidence of physical, sexual, or frequent verbal abuse by employers; and even this change is limited to three times over a period of four years and 10 months. To extend their working visa by one year and 10 months after three years, they need their employer's recommendation.

Fears of injuries in an unsafe industrial workplace, or physical fatigue from long hours of manual labor are not valid reasons for applying for a change in workplace, according to the government.

"Without your boss's signature, you cannot change your workplace, even if it exposes you to a great amount of stress and dangerous tasks," Ojha Madhusudhan, a migrant worker from Nepal who is a general secretary at the union, said as he handed out red union vests and signs. "If you leave without the signature, then you are illegal."

Protesters also mourned the recent death of a Burmese migrant worker, who fell head-first out of the window of a makeshift cafeteria that was eight meters above the ground at a construction site in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, Aug. 22, while running away from a sudden police raid. Another migrant worker who witnessed the fall said he was not able to land on his feet because an officer grabbed his legs before the jump. He died of brain damage 17 days later. 

Similar deaths have occurred in the past, mostly during sudden on-site police raids. Some 80 migrant workers have sustained injuries during these raids since 2008, according to the Ministry of Justice. Ten have died, most of them after falls.

"It was very sad, to see another migrant worker die like that," Shekh Al Mamun, a Bangladeshi movie maker who has lived here for 20 years, told The Korea Times at the rally. "I think people should remember there are undocumented workers everywhere, some Koreans are also undocumented workers in the U.S. — it's a common tragedy."

Like hundreds of thousands of others in the country, the deceased was an illegal migrant worker. He came to Korea on an E-9 working visa in 2013 but became an illegal resident after he could not renew his visa six months ago. 

Many migrant workers who arrive with the E-9 visa end up disappearing into the undocumented workforce, due to the lack of freedom to change workplaces under the EPS system. There are currently 335,455 illegal migrants in Korea, according to the most recent immigration office data from August.

The United Nations has repeatedly called on the country to allow migrant workers to freely change workplaces, calling the current ban a form of racial discrimination. 

Just across the street, another rally took place to call for the deportation of illegally staying foreigners and the abolishment of the Refugee Law. 

"We denounce the policy that discriminates against Koreans and damages Korean culture under the pretext of multiculturalism," the protesters shouted. "Abolish the Refugee Law that accepts fake refugees and undocumented foreigners under the name of humanitarianism. Deport them all."


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