All-out Attack on Migrant Workers: A Look at Recent Trends in South Korea's Policy on Foreign Labour

This article looks at the recent trend towards greater exploitation and control of migrant workers in South Korea, placing it within the context of the nation’s overall foreign labour policy. It also briefly discusses migrant workers’ unionizing and its relationship to the mainstream labour movement.

On 25 September 2008, the South Korean ‘Committee on Strengthening National Competitiveness,’ a committee initiated and overseen by President Lee Myeong-bak, issued a report entitled, ‘Plan for Improving Policy on the Unspecialized Foreign Labour Force.’ This report contains several policy reforms to be implemented by the first half of next year aimed at ‘rationalizing’ the system regulating foreign labour and cutting the costs incurred by employers who employ legal migrant workers by shifting more costs onto workers themselves. It also includes a plan to reduce the number of undocumented migrant workers from the current 223,229 to 200,000 by the end of 2008 and down from 19.3% to 10% of the total foreign population in South Korea in the next five years through arrest and deportation. This horrifying plan, along with new proposals for revision of the Immigration Controls Law and the ‘Act on Foreign Workers Employment,’ signals an all-out attack against migrant workers’ human and labour rights.

The recent repression represented by the National Competitiveness Committee report should be understood as an immediate reaction to increasing economic stability in the midst of a wider atmosphere of conservatism ushered in by the Lee Myeong-bak administration; however, it should also be seen as a continuation of the racist, xenophobic and exploitative tendencies that have existed since the South Korean government first began regulating migrant labour in the early 1990s.


I.    Policy on Documented Migrant Workers

The essential goal of South Korea’s policy on migrant workers is to provide short-term easily manageable foreign labour to small and medium-size businesses, which began to experience labour shortages in the late 1980s due to a lack of willingness on the part of native workers to take the 3D-difficult, dangerous and dirty- jobs they offer. South Korea first began to regulate the introduction of foreign labour through an Industrial Trainee System, implemented in the 1990s, whereby migrants were employed not as workers, but as trainees and were thus excluded from labour law protection, making their labour inexpensive and easily exploitable for business owners. Due to heavy social criticism the government eventual introduced the Employment Permit System (EPS), phasing out the Trainee System by 2007. Although under the EPS migrant workers are technically protected by labour law, the system preserves the basic intent of the Trainee System by creating a highly unequal relationship between workers and employer and thus facilitating exploitation and abuse, and by excluding low-skilled migrant workers from chances at long-term residence and citizenship.

Under the EPS migrant workers originally sign contracts with employers while they are still in their home countries and are meant to say with the same employer for their entire three-year residence period. Under specific circumstances such as a when an employer wishes to dismiss a worker or when a worker can prove his/her employer has violated labour law, workers may transfer to another workplace; however they are only allowed to do so three times, very exceptionally a fourth. These restrictions are meant to ensure a stable workforce for small and medium-size firms, many of whom cannot meet labour standards. For migrant workers they often mean ending up trapped at workplaces with unfavorable conditions because employers will not grant transfers or because all transfers have been used up.

      The situation of migrant workers is also complicated by the short period of time they are given to find new employment when transferring workplaces. Because the government seeks to channel migrant workers only into certain industries and only to firms where there are proven labour shortages migrant workers may only transfer to workplaces approved by the Ministry of Labour and must do so within two months after leaving the previous employer or face becoming undocumented. As such they are forced to choose among similarly poor workplaces and must rush to sign new contracts before their two months run out. Consequently many migrant workers are forced to enter factories with poor conditions, thus creating a cycle where they must try to change workplaces again later on.

      By effectively trapping workers with employers this system clearly allows and even induces exploitation. What is more, its racist character can be seen in its underlying attitude towards migrant workers, the majority of whom come from less developed Asian countries, which views them not as human-beings but simply as labour power.

While, as stated above, EPS workers are granted three-year visas, it has become possible since last year for them to renew visas once for another three years after returning to their home countries for one month, but only if their current employers are willing to rehire them- another measure implemented for the benefit of employers who may experiencing difficulties in making new hires. Since most workers want to stay longer than three years in order to pay off debts and support families, being granted reemployment and a visa extension has become a high priority. The fact that employers have complete authority to decide visa extension gives them incredible power over workers. While employers may demand that workers forfeit wages or severance pay or endure unfair working conditions in exchange for promises to rehire them there is nothing workers can do to challenge an employers’ refusal to rehire or even cancellation of his/her visa once he/she has returned home expecting to return in a month. 

      In July of this year the Ministry of Labour announced a proposal for new legislation that would revise the Act on Foreign Workers Employment (the EPS law) and be implemented by the first half of next year if passed. Changes includes in this plan include requiring migrant workers to pass skills tests, in addition to language tests, in home countries before coming to South Korea, making it possible to sign contracts that cover the entire visa period (up to three years) rather than the yearly contracts currently required and making visa renewals possible for just under two additional years without migrants returning to their home countries for one month. While a few of these provisions may provide minor benefits to migrant workers- such as being able to renew visas without returning home- the proposal’s overall aim is to facilitate employers’ use of migrant labour. For example, the system of three-year residence plus two-years extension is designed to save employers the loss of labour while employees return home for one month and yet prohibits migrants’ total stay in South Korea to exceed the legal amount of time necessary for applying for permanent residence (five years). In addition, because visa extensions continue to remain the choice of employers under the new bill, migrant workers are still susceptible to abuse and may not be able to return home even if they wish. In the case of longer contract periods, because employers have the right to dismiss workers at will while migrant workers cannot change workplaces freely, there is a strong potential for trapping workers in substandard conditions. All these provisions increase the power of employers to exploit migrant workers, while at the same time being informed by and reinforcing racist and xenophobic attitudes, which regard migrants as less than human and seek to exclude them from become permanent members of society.

      The plan for revision of the EPS issued by the National Competitiveness Committee includes the Ministry of Labour’s proposed revisions and adds more cost-saving measures for employers. These include requiring migrant workers to pay a portion of meal and housing fees- the standard for which is to be set by the Korean Federation of Small and Medium Businesses- and increasing the ‘training period’ (currently set at three months) during which migrant workers may be paid 10% less than minimum wage. The committee’s report sites the low-productivity yet high costs of foreign labour as justification for these measures. For migrant workers, the plan offers the establishment of a desk for ‘alleviating troubles’ for foreign workers at Labour Ministry agencies and support for cultural festivals, as if these tokens to multiculturalism and individual support can soften the impact of greater exploitation.


II. Policy on Undocumented Migrant Workers

According to government-issued statistics there are currently 223,229 undocumented migrant workers in South Korea, 19.3 percent of the total foreign population and about 1/3 of all migrant workers. Like documented migrant workers, undocumented migrant workers play an important part in filling the labour-shortages experienced by small and medium-size companies. Recognizing this fact the government did not carry out a systematic crackdown until after the EPS was passed and a program of voluntary return was carried out in 2003. Since that time, however, it has dealt with the issue solely through arrest and deportation, a policy which, despite its brutality, has not succeeded in reducing the number of undocumented migrants. In addition to attempting to stop irregular migration, the crackdown also acts as a deterrent against documented migrant workers leaving their workplaces in large numbers, thus contributing to the stabilization of the EPS. For undocumented migrant workers, the insecurity they experience due to fear of the crackdown puts them in an even more vulnerable situation with relation to their employers, making them more susceptible to exploitation.

While the previous administration of Noh Moo-hyun implemented a concentrated crackdown from August to December of 2007, the current administration has moved to the next level, declaring another concentrated crackdown beginning in May 2008 and setting quotas for the number of migrants to be caught in each region of the country. The National Competitiveness Committee’s plan calls for strengthening infrastructure necessary for a joint crackdown by the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Labour and police, carried out regularly two times a year, the first being from October to December this year. By the end of the year the plan calls for the arrest and deportation of over 20,000 migrant workers- more than the total number of arrested in the first two-thirds of this year. In addition, the plan assumes the passage of bill revising the Immigration Controls Law, initiated last year by the Ministry of Justice, which will strengthen the authority of immigration officers to carry out the crackdown. This full-out attack, justified by the portrayal of undocumented migrant workers as a criminal class in government statements and the mainstream media, has to be seen as an intensification of the racist and xenophobic tendencies that have characterized South Korea’s immigration policy in reaction to economic crisis and a turn towards greater repression under the new Lee Myeong-bak administration.

While this ‘war on migrants’ in South Korea is in line with a wider global trend, the South Korean crackdown has a particular character, that of targeting migrant worker activists. In particular, the government has attacked the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants Trade Union (MTU), a union formed for and by migrants in 2005, by tracking, arresting and deporting its leadership. Since May of last year MTU has lost no less than five central officers due to this ‘targeted crackdown.’ Although the government has claimed the deportations were solely because of the men’s undocumented status, it is clear from the way the arrests were carried out (in each case several immigration officers waited in hiding to surprise the union leaders near their homes or workplaces) that they were a direct attack on MTU’s union activities. Indeed, the National Competitiveness Commission calls for increased crackdown on MTU’s membership, calling the ‘formation of an extra-legal union by illegal residents’ part of the tendency towards neglect for the law brought about by undocumented migration.


III. Migrant Worker Organizing

Migrant workers in South Korea have been organizing themselves almost since they first arrived, first through mutual-help associations and later through labour unions. In 2001 undocumented migrant workers, with the support of Korean activists, came together as the Migrants Branch of the Equality Trade Union (ETUMB). Although only a small branch of a local general union, ETUMB proved an important space for training and leadership development of migrant activist. It became a driving force during the historic Myeongdong Cathedral sit-in struggle protesting the crackdown and implementation of EPS, which lasted for over 380 days from November 2003-November 2004. MTU, the first independent union in South Korea whose elected officers are all migrant workers, was born out of this struggle.  

MTU is an affiliate of the Seoul Regional Council of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the main progressive union confederation in South Korea. However while KCTU’s official position is in support of MTU and its demands for an end to the crackdown, legalization and full labour rights for migrant workers, the mainstream labour movement has been quite passive with regards to migrant workers’ issues. A prime example of this can be seen in the surprising lack of response from KCTU and the main industrial unions when MTU leaders (technically KCTU members) were arrested and deported in November-December of 2007 and May of 2008. In addition, while the Metal Workers and Construction Workers Unions have accepted a few migrant workers as members, there is very little drive on whole towards unionizing migrant workers from native unions.

      This lack of support for migrant workers can be attributed in small part to the animosity of native workers, who perceive migrants as a potential threat to their jobs. The problem lies deeper, however, in the fact that the central leadership and local officers of KCTU and the main industrial unions have yet to see the issue of migrant workers’ rights as their own. Thus, while union statements express support for MTU and migrant workers’ demands, there is no real leadership or infrastructure within the mainstream labour movement for planning and implementing campaigns to organize migrant workers, or intervene on policy issues such as the proposed revision of EPS and the Immigration Controls Law.


IV. Conclusion

While the KCTU has until this point been reticent with regards the migrant workers struggle, it should be noted that solidarity between native and migrant workers is needed now more than ever. As demonstrated above, the plan announced by the National Competitiveness Committee and the proposals to revise the Immigration Controls Law and EPS represent an intensification of the exploitative, racist and xenophobic tendencies in South Korea’s policy that have existed since migrant workers began arriving in the country. At the same time this trend must be understood in the context of increased overall repression under Lee Myeong-bak. Indeed the National Competitiveness Committee announced plans for a stronger crackdown on street protest and dissent on the internet at the same time as it issued its report on migrant workers; Lee Myeong-bak’s main campaign promise was business-friendly (anti-labour) policies. Thus while it is correct to say that migrant workers are being singled out as scapegoats in a time of economic crisis, it is not correct to say that this attack is their issue alone. Clearly, increased exploitation of migrant workers can only have the effect of holding down wages and working conditions for the entire workforce. More than this, however, deterioration of migrants’ working conditions and repression against migrant worker activists is one part of a wider attack against labour and other progressive forces. Thus, it is time for the native Korean labour movement to understand that fighting for migrant workers’ labour rights means fighting for labour rights in general an that organizing migrant workers is necessary for strengthening the movement as a whole.