08/11/2011, 00.00
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Burmese immigrants, hope for the future of Korea

by Alice Hyuna Park
From Myanmar, the road of immigration to Korea is increasing year by year. The Burmese see in the country of the Far East a dream come true, because from a military dictatorship it has become a democratic country with a growing economy. But the Seoul government should welcome them as children (which it also needs) and combat violations of their rights and racism amongst the population. For the good of all.
Seoul (AsiaNews) –For thousands of Myanmar workers who chose to leave their homes to find jobs abroad, South Korea was one of the most popular destinations ― a symbol of hope for their futures. Korea’s peaceful transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, along with its unprecedented economic boom, reassured them that Korea would be more welcoming, as Myanmar might share a similar history.

When these workers entered Korea, they encountered discrimination from the Korean people as well as human rights abuses from employers. Unlike their colleagues from other Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar workers had to make a choice between staying in Korea under unfavorable working conditions and returning to military rule and high unemployment in Myanmar.
Eventually, many chose to remain in Korea and apply for political asylum via active participation in pro-democracy groups such as the Democratic Voice of Burma and Burma Action Korea, as the historically labor-unfriendly Korean government granted political asylum more easily than requests for permanent resident status for workers. Myanmar, in particular, has a 42-percent approval rate compared to 10 percent for other nationals.

At the same time, Myanmar workers have been lobbying for better labor conditions and rights for foreign workers through migrant workers’ rights groups such as Migrant Workers’ Television (MWTV). While many leaders of the Migrants’ Trade Union (MTU) have been deported, it has been easy for Myanmar workers, who have received political asylum to maintain their leadership roles. Nevertheless, there are still hundreds of Myanmar workers who remain illegal due to restrictive Korean employment laws.

Myanmar workers make up less than 2 percent of the 239,179 foreign workers currently holding legal, nonprofessional jobs in Korea. As of June, there are 4,000 Myanmar workers in Korea under the Employment Permit System (EPS), half of whom are here as trainees and interns, subject to less pay and even more unstable working conditions.

This year, the first Myanmar workers to come to Korea under the EPS in 2008 will finish their third and final year in Korea. According to reports from MWTV, approximately 40 percent of all EPS workers are expected to remain in Korea as undocumented workers.

Prior to the EPS, the only way that Myanmar workers could legally enter Korea was through local brokers. These brokers were often affiliated with the Myanmar administration, and charged astronomical rates. Others overstayed their travel visas and chose to work illegally.

The EPS theoretically allows for a more democratic process, allowing people who have passed the EPS-KLT, the Korean language test, an opportunity to work in Korea. The Ministry of Employment and Labor website proudly announced that the EPS for foreign workers won first place at the 2011 U.N. Public Service Awards “in recognition of its fair, transparent, and migrant and business-friendly recruit system.”

The EPS, which began in 2007-08 for Myanmar, is indeed a successful model for fair recruitment but still lacks finesse when it comes to the details for working conditions and contracts.

According to the ministry, the sudden rise in demand for foreign workers in small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), combined with the end of the first EPS cycle, has also resulted in a steep climb in illegal residents, from 24 percent in 2010 to 31 percent in April.

While praise for the EPS comes from Korean employers who now have access to a wide pool of Korean-speaking foreign employees, criticisms of the program come from foreign workers themselves, who make up the core of the program yet have little input when it comes to their workers’ rights.

Korea’s aging population is evidence that foreign labour is a necessity for the future. With the revision of the immigration laws and the establishment of a new concentrated immigration office, the Korean government is making headway in improving and expanding the EPS.

A counselling centre for migrant workers was opened a few weeks ago in Ansan, south of Seoul, providing help in 10 different languages. More recently, the ministry amended employment laws to extend the application period for re-employment under the EPS.

Now that the EPS is beyond the initial stages, it needs to move beyond recruitment policies to allow for a sustainable program for the growing number of foreign workers, possibly including permanent resident status as well as legalization of migrant workers’ labour unions.

By opening dialogue and collaborating with both the migrant workers and their employers to find the best solutions, Korea can truly become a stage for the dreams of thousands of migrant workers.

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