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Migrant workers treated like "slaves" in South Korea's agricultural industry

Channel News Asia - 29 May 2015 - South Korea relies on thousands of migrant workers from Southeast Asia to power its agricultural industry. But cases of assault and abuse by employers continue to occur and are rarely punished.

A young woman sits in silence, eyes downcast as ferocious yells echo around the small room. Her own soft voice can be heard, whimpering, "I won't, I won't", over and over again. She is 23 years old and in a country she hardly knows.

"Tina" is a Cambodian migrant worker in South Korea, playing a voice recording of the abuse she received from her former employer at a mushroom farm in Cheongju, south of Seoul. She sought shelter at a centre that helps migrant workers, after being fired from her job and claiming she was kicked out without any of her belongings.

"I don't know what to do. I don't know whether I should file a complaint or not," she said. "At that time, I felt panic. The supervisor asked me to meet the employer together with him. He spoke to me with strong words and I cried.

"I miss my parents and my relatives very much. But, I have come to Korea for work because of poverty and because I have seen my neighbours who have gone to work in Korea could earn a lot of money," she said.

Tina is explaining her situation and seeking help at the People of the Earth’s Station (Earthian) in Ansan, a working-class city near Seoul. She is one of many Cambodians who rely on this non-governmental organisation's (NGO) services after experiencing trouble at work in South Korea.


There are about 250,000 migrant workers in the country under the Employment Permit System (EPS), which allows employers to bring in workers in industries where labour is tight, including agriculture, construction and manufacturing. Many of the new arrivals come from Southeast Asia, mostly Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

However, the country continues to grapple with alarming issues of abuse and mistreatment among those who now call South Korea home. Due to a special clause in the Labor Standards Act, Article 63, the safeguards that protect workers in most industries, such as rules on working hours, weekly paid rest days and daily breaks, are excluded from the agricultural sector.

The main complaints from agricultural migrant workers include abuse or assault, working overtime without pay, inadequate shelter, lack of proper toilets and threats of deportation.

It is an issue that Norma Muico, the lead researcher of an Amnesty International, said has existed for a decade. Yet she believes the South Korean government has done little to address the serious concerns of vulnerable workers and human rights groups.

"The government knows it but they choose to turn a blind eye to it because it's convenient for their citizens," she told Channel NewsAsia.

"The Korean government just needs to implement the laws that they have, and they're not doing that. They're not monitoring farms so that exploitative and abusive employers are punished," she said.

She said the complaints mechanism available to migrants can often be complex, difficult to navigate and riddled with disincentives to push forward with grievances.


The South Korean government admitted agricultural workers work under tough conditions but said it doubled the number of farm inspections last year and is providing extra incentives and training programs to improve worker welfare.

"In comparison to foreign workers in other industries, the workers in the agricultural sector are often known to face relatively poorer and harsher working and living conditions due to the inconsistent work hours and secluded surroundings far from the city," said Pyo Daebum, Deputy Director of the country's Foreign Workforce Division.

"The South Korean government administers year-round workplace inspections on 3,000-4,000 businesses that hire foreign workers and imposes harsh penalties on those that conduct unscrupulous practices or violate labor laws," he said.

However, these punishments are rare. After the government identified nearly 8,000 foreign worker violations in 2011, only six cases led to prosecution.

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRC) published a fact-finding report in 2013 addressing the welfare of migrant workers with similarly damning findings. One of its investigators said the problems are ingrained and cultural.

"Those who work in rural areas have a bias against migrant workers," he said. "Instead of the wage relationship from the industrial society, they think of migrant workers as a slave who has been ordered to work, like in the past, said NHRC investigator Yook Seong-cheol.

South Korea is a lucrative destination for Southeast Asian migrants who can earn about US$1,000 per month, up to ten times what they could in their home countries. But most are forced to take extensive loans to pay for their journey, often up to two years' of their domestic salary.

"The problem is when they arrive in South Korea they realise that the conditions of work are a lot different than what they've been promised during the recruitment process," said Ms Muico. "Without a job, they cannot begin to pay back that debt and start supporting their families back home."

"There's absolutely a lot of baggage with it and they have a certain expectation that a country like South Korea would have very good labour laws to protect them and they found out that that's not true," she said.



Half a dozen Thai workers step out from their work truck, don thick pairs of gloves and trudge hastily to a nearby patch of green onions ready for harvest. Backs bent, they tear ferociously at the soil, pulling out the crop at its roots, as a cold wind whips across a field illuminated by mid-morning sun. This group will work ten hours or more like this, nearly every day.

From a distance, by a muddy access road, the owner of this farm in Haenum, south of Seoul, observes and barks the occasional instruction in Korean. Most of his employees know the drill by now.

Farmers like Jung Hyun-chul rely on migrant workers on the Employment Permit System to support their businesses. Down in Haenum, workers are hard to find and his recruits from Thailand are essential. He admits communication is difficult - he doesn't speak Thai; they don't speak Korean.

"Koreans do not want to work in rural areas, and Koreans do not want to do strenuous physical work," he said. "However, migrant workers are working hard, so I hire migrant workers."

"Some of the employees are happy, but some of them are not happy. Migrant workers who are not satisfied with their job change their work to other farms if they get paid more. If migrant workers do not want to work and tell that to the Ministry of Labor, then they can easily change their job. Workers who are happy with their job keep working," he said.

Norma Muico said, in practice, changing jobs is not easy or encouraged, and the system is designed that way. "(It) is intended for small- and medium-sized enterprises, so they need a constant flow of migrant labour that is cheap and durable. They want a workforce that won't change jobs, will continue to work under those harsh conditions, those exploitative conditions," she said.
"It's in rural areas, it's in isolated areas, it's very hard work. It's seasonal in nature, so it's very hard to get a salary throughout the year. It is the type of work nobody wants to do in Korea so they need to go elsewhere to find people to work on those farms," she added.

NHRC investigator Yook Seong-cheol admitted that making sure the Korean agricultural sector remains competitive is a priority for authorities, and said drastic changes to immediately improve pay and conditions for workers may not be welcome or sustainable.

"Some people are concerned about the side of the Korean agricultural competitiveness. If we apply the labour standards of an industrial society without taking into account the characteristics of the agricultural labour, it could generate controversy about rationality," he said.



There are some who are looking out for vulnerable migrants - like Earthian, in Ansan, a working class city outside of Seoul. It is run by Kim Yi-chan, a trained lawyer who now dedicates his life to providing advice, support and protection. His shoulder is a rare one to lean on.

"There is a number of problems, but the employment authorities do not understand," he said surrounded in his small, poorly lit office by a group of young Cambodians seeking his assistance. He is constantly on the phone to job centres and other officials, helping to translate the concerns and experiences of the workers, all without charge.

He has amassed an array of videos and photos on his desktop computer, which is evidence of the abuse and mistreatment of many of his Cambodian clients. They document communications with employers, instances of assault and work and living conditions.

"What 'no'? Who are you to tell me 'no'? That belongs to me, hand it over. Then go," yells an employer, purportedly to a Cambodian worker on a phone camera video.

"Shut up f***ing bitch. Hey, f***ing bitch," he continues. "I can't work because I have no strength, I can only (clean) two tables, but pay me more"? F***ing bitch. I'll rip your eyes out, bitch."

"The accommodation for agricultural workers, especially, is very difficult to live in. Some migrant workers live in the greenhouse container without toilet facilities or bathroom. It is hot in summer, and cold in winter. Some of the accommodations do not have a lock and are very dark," he said.

"Especially for female workers, they feel anxiety living in a house that does not have a lock," he said.

The government acknowledged the fears and risks for female migrant workers, and said it will work to increase awareness and improve "coping mechanisms" around the issue.

"Given that there is a high number of female foreign workers in the agricultural industry, the government will strengthen its awareness campaigns by providing education and distributing leaflets on the prevention of sexual harassment and coping mechanisms for it, during post-arrival training," said Mr Daebum.

Kim Yi-chan is vehemently opposed to legislative barriers to worker rights and protection, and mechanisms that allow for exploitation to go unpunished.

"I think that Article 63 should be eliminated," he said.

"In my opinion, it is reasonable that agricultural workers get sick. They work a lot, but get paid less. They work much more, but they get paid about 60 per cent of wages that manufacturing industry workers receive, if the working time is same. In this way, someone could die from excessive working hours," he said.



Lee, a 23-year-old Cambodian is one of the beneficiaries of support from Kim and Earthian.

He has lived for about two months, for free, at a refuge centre, supported by the NGO and the Khmer Labor Rights Association, while trying to find a new job, sharing a small sleeping space with six others.

About 50 people are housed in separate apartments for males and females, but they are grateful. Without this they would legally have nowhere to go but back home.

Lee was working at a ginseng farm when he had enough and quit. Now, despite having learned to speak Korean, he has few options. Having not stayed with one employer, like other migrants, he is heavily disadvantaged when it comes to getting his visa extended.

"I've changed my job because I faced so much hardship. The employer violated labour rights and did not respect the labor contract," he said.

"They don't care about labourers at all. They don't care about our lives."

Visa extensions of up to four years and ten months are only granted to workers who have never changed jobs. All workers must get written permission from their employer to change jobs, sometimes difficult to gain where instances of conflict have arisen, and must find a new post within three months or face deportation.

The Foreign Workforce Division said employees are allowed to apply for job changes and will consider "various methods, such as investigations on the actual situation" in relation to violations or exploitation.

"In cases where the worker and employer disagree on the reasons for changing employment, the local job centre under the government authority takes immediate action to investigate relevant facts and details by gathering objective evidence to determine whether the worker is eligible for employment change," said Mr Daebum.

However, workers told Channel NewsAsia that the system makes it difficult for them to report abuse. If they do, the complaint is often lost in a mire of bureaucracy, or thrown back at them on the promise by their employer of a resolution, which may or may not actually be honoured.

"Whenever we asked for a pay raise, the employer promised it to us but they never actually increased our pay," Lee said.



The distinct tang of kimchi, Korea's famous fermented cabbage, lingers on the nostril, overpowering what is just a small factory floor. Entering the complex requires a laboratory-style dress code.

There is a growing movement in South Korea to know where food comes from and to eat food that is organic and exploitation free. iCOOP is a food co-op with more than 2,600 producers trying encourage that practice. Its motto is "ethical consumerism, a beautiful practice".

The headquarters of iCOOP in Gurye, south of Seoul, is a strange place, a kind of empty food theme park but built on strong ethical ambitions. The group's small kimchi production line using locally grown cabbage is a showcase of their proper food processes, and many of the workers are foreigners.

"Most of the employees are Korean, but some of employees are workers of multicultural families. iCOOP’s standard is that we do not distinguish between foreigners and Koreans," said iCOOP factory manager Choi Jong-moon.

"They are doing same work at the same place, the employees respect each other, and have a caring relationship under the principle of equality," he said.

iCOOP Representative Director Oh Hang-sick said "Korean society is a closed-off society, and has a strong bias. iCOOP is trying to eliminate discrimination. Foreign workers provide a lot of labour force in Korea, that is why Korea can be developed."

The group said it deals with fair trade producers, but admitted there are still unsatisfactory practices down the food production chain.



On a spring weekend, Earthian organises an overnight field trip for 40 Cambodians, most of whom are jobless and craving time to relax. Most of them are barely 20 years old and this is precious time away from the stress of their daily lives.

They listen to Cambodian music, take selfies and speak their own language, catching up on the youthful days that they might have enjoyed back home. The young men throw rocks into the water at the beach while the girls watch on twirling their sun umbrellas.

For the likes of Lee, this is a time for fun, and also reflection. Most will stay on in South Korea while they can, but their futures are far from assured.

Kim Yi-chan has a clear bond with many of the workers he has helped. They share food and joke in broken Cambodian and Korean. He almost seems a father figure for some of them, but why does he do it?

"If you look at the workers, don’t you feel happy? I do," he said.

The plight of migrant workers in a universal issue. South Korea is far from alone in this.

The government was keen to point out that its immigration management system has been previously applauded by international organisations such as the International Labour Organization. There is a legitimate argument to be made that the future faced by workers here is much better than in other parts of the region.

But those who empathise with the struggles and push for positive change say that is no excuse. And there is a responsibility this country must take to protect everyone who makes it their home.

Names of migrant workers have been changed to protect their identity.

This selection of news and comment is provided as a service to Network users, and is not intended to be comprehensive. The articles featured are compiled by external agencies and in no way reflect the views of the ILO, its constituents or partners. Their inclusion does not imply the endorsement or approval by the ILO of the information contained therein.


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