02/02/2015, 00.00
KOREA - NEW SLAVES
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Korea's illegal migrants, the "outcast engine" of a growing economy

by Maurizio Giorgianni OMI
On February 8 the Church celebrates the first day of prayer and reflection against human trafficking. In preparation for it, AsiaNews presents stories and testimonies of migrants in Asia and missionaries who try to help them. The situation in wealthy South Korea, where work is not lacking, but the workers are too often victims of "new slavery".

Gwangju (AsiaNews) - Migrants are the "outcast engine" of the Korean economy, which is rapidly growing but which is also marred by serious social disparities. This is apparent in the reflection signed by Fr. Maurizio Giorgianni, Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who has been working with undocumented migrants in South Korea for years. AsiaNews presents testimonies and data on the phenomenon of migration and human trafficking in Asia, in preparation for the first day of prayer and reflection against human trafficking that the Church celebrates on February 8. The second part of Fr. Giorgianni's article will be published tomorrow.

As was the case in Italy, increased material well-being in Korea has led society to search for bettwe working and living conditions. So the most menial jobs, and consequently the most tiring and difficult, are avoided. Migrants here take on the so-called "3D work" ("dirty, difficult and dangerous"). And then we must consider the fact that in Korean society is totally projected towards  producing: here business takes precedence over the person. A factory boss, to ensure timely production, can even ask his workers to work 24 hours straight, including Saturdays and Sundays.

Cultural reasons also come into play here, in the sense that Confucian culture - which equates personal dignity to social status - has become a "normal" frame of mind, according to which those belonging to the poorest class are also considered less than others. Thus their situation of "slavery" is tolerated. In truth, it must be said that even the Korean workers are sometimes treated like servants.

In Korea, there are different categories of migrants. There are those who come with a prior contract, so are "regular", and those who arrive with tourist visas and then go to work in factories, in and thus are "irregular". There are those whose contract expired and instead of returning to their country of origin (as they should by law) decide to stay in Korea without a visa (the so-called "illegal"). And then there are those who migrate to Korea (especially women) through marriage agencies and brokers who work for "international marriages" among Koreans (mostly men) and foreigners. The marriage becomes an opportunity to migrate and possibly even find a job.

Immigration in Korea is tightly controlled: the migrant must arrive in the country already in possession of a visa and knowing the factory where they will work. The residence permit is closely connected with the type of work they will do and the factory where they will work. For example: a migrant who must go to work in the rice fields (agricultural work) will not have a visa that allows him to work in the factory (industrial work) and vice versa. Moreover even changing jobs (should there be problems) is not easy: after changing one's job three times the visa expires.

These types of visa restrictions give a glimpse at how difficult a migrant's life in Korea can be. Typically migrants work in small factories where living conditions are not easy. Often their accommodation is a container (very cold Winter and very hot in summer) and the way they are treated in factories or in agricultural  fields is far from good. Migrants who share their experiences with me feel offended in their dignity, when they are not called by name in the factory but referred to with vulgar epithets.

In all honesty, neither are Korean factory workers treated well. This also depends on the type of "Confucian" culture that evaluates individuals and hence the way in which they must be treated according to their social status. It means that in the factory the "Boss" is superior and the workers are inferior, at the service of what he says.

Working hours can sometimes be exhausting. Apart from the eight (sometimes ten) hours of work on a daily basis, often overtime and night work is expected, to the point of 24 hours straight shifts being worked. The monthly wage is among the highest in Asia (about $ 900) but sometimes overtime and night shifts are not paid or calculated according to the criteria that are required by law (overtime and night work should be paid to more than the daily wage). Sometimes contracts can be "easily" not respected by employers (in the sense that the "Boss" is always right). But if the worker does not respect his contract his visa may be canceled.

The migrants may find help in case of problems at work, appealing to branches of the Ministry for Labour who are in the area. But often the impression is that these offices, rather than ensuring the rights of workers, tend to favor the employer. And this concerns only "regular" migrant workers.

Instead irregular migrants are worse off, because their irregular situation does not allow them to appeal to the employment tribunal without the risk of being reported by the Department of Migration. The migrant is guaranteed a regular insurance at work and even medical assistance in case of accidents. Irregular migrants are denied all this. For both, however, there are help centers run by the Catholic Church and other groups, religious and non. Among them a center that I founded in 2007.

The life of a migrant therefore unfolds  mainly in his work place (factories, construction or agricultural fields). As we have seen, both the regular and the irregular situations are difficult ones. Added to this is the stress of a completely different culture (the Korean) and a difficult language to learn that prohibits even simple communication, which means that the migrant feels socially and psychologically "insecure".

Even the "culture of work" is different in the sense that the style business in Korea is not that of the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the other countries from which migrants originate. Thus the culture clash weighs heavily on them giving rise at times to psychological problems. In a similar situation, problems of loneliness or depression can sometimes lead to deterioration in their performance on the job, resulting in increased difficulty in insertion.

Adding to this problem is the difficulty of working alongside foreigners of other nationalities (often there is no discrimination even among foreign workers). Irregular migrants also the fear being caught by migration officials and being repatriated in a worse-off condition.

Yet none of these obstacles stem the flood of migrants. The latest figures published recently by the Ministry of Justice show that the number of irregular migrants in Korea in 2014 totaled 208 thousand units: a 14% increase compared to 2013. (end of Part I)

 

 

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