The Hamilton Spectator

The Harsh Lives of Migrants in South Korea


POCHEON, South Korea — Samsung phones. Hyundai cars. LG TVs. South Korean exports are available around the world. But the country is more dependent than ever on an import to keep its economy humming: foreign labor.

This shift is part of the fallout from a demographi­c crisis that has left South Korea with a shrinking and aging population. Data released recently showed that last year the country broke its own record — again — for the world’s lowest total fertility rate.

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government has responded by more than doubling the quota for low-skilled workers from less-developed nations including Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, the Philippine­s and Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of them now toil in South Korea, typically in small factories, or on remote farms or fishing boats — jobs that locals consider too dirty, dangerous or low-paying. Many foreign workers endure predatory bosses, inhumane housing and discrimina­tion.

The work can be deadly — foreign workers were nearly three times more likely to die in work-related accidents compared with the national average, according to a recent study. Such findings have alarmed rights groups and foreign government­s; in January the Philippine­s prohibited its citizens from taking seasonal jobs in South Korea.

But South Korea remains an attractive destinatio­n, with more than 300,000 low-skilled workers here on temporary work visas. About 430,000 additional people have overstayed their visas and are working illegally.

Migrant workers often land in places like Pocheon, a town northeast of Seoul where factories and greenhouse­s rely heavily on overseas labor. Sammer Chhetri, 30, got here in 2022 and sends $1,500 of his $1,750 monthly paycheck to his family in Nepal.

“You can’t make this kind of money in Nepal,” said Mr. Chhetri, who works long days in tunnel-shaped greenhouse­s.

For nearly three years, Asis Kumar Das, 48, from Bangladesh, worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, in a small textile factory for a monthly salary of about $2,350 — which he did not regularly receive.

“They have never paid me on time or in full,” he said.

Migrants annually report $91 million in unpaid wages, government data shows.

The Labor Ministry said it is “making all-out efforts” to improve working and living conditions for these workers. It

is sending inspectors to more workplaces, hiring more translator­s and enforcing penalties for employers who mistreat workers, it said.

Some towns are building public dormitorie­s after local farmers complained that the government was importing foreign workers without adequate housing plans.

The government has also offered “exemplary” workers visas that allow them to bring over their families. Officials have said that South Korea intends to “bring in only those foreigners essential to our society” and to strengthen “the crackdown on those illegally staying here.”

But the authoritie­s — who plan to issue a record 165,000 temporary work visas this year — have also scaled back some services, for instance, cutting off funding for nine migrant support centers.

The government introduced the Employment Permit System, or E.P.S., in 2004, eliminatin­g middlemen and becoming the sole job broker for low-skilled migrant workers. It recruits workers on threeyear visas from 16 nations, and in 2015 also started offering seasonal employment to foreigners.

But serious issues persist. “The biggest problem with E.P.S. is that it has created a master-servant relationsh­ip between employers and foreign workers,” said Kim Dalsung, a Methodist pastor who runs the Pocheon Migrant Worker Center.

That can mean inhumane conditions. The “housing” promised to Mr. Chhetri turned out to be a used shipping container hidden inside a tattered greenhouse-like structure covered with black plastic shading.

During bitter cold in December 2020, Nuon Sokkheng, a Cambodian migrant, died in a heatless shack. The government instituted new safety regulation­s, but in Pocheon many workers continue to live in substandar­d facilities.

If E.P.S. workers have abusive employers, they often have two choices: endure the ordeal, hoping that their boss will help them extend or renew their visa, or work illegally for someone else and live in constant fear of immigratio­n raids, the Reverend Kim said.

Migrants also say they face racist or xenophobic attitudes.

“They treat people differentl­y according to skin colors,” Mr. Asis said.

Chandra Das Hari Narayan, a worker from Bangladesh, said managers have insulted foreigners, but not locals, for similar mistakes.

“We don’t mind doing hard work,” he said. “It’s not our body but our mind that tires.”

 ?? ?? South Korean greenhouse­s rely heavily on overseas labor. An illegal dormitory for migrants with a makeshift latrine next to it. Top, harvesting vegetables in Gasan-myeon.
South Korean greenhouse­s rely heavily on overseas labor. An illegal dormitory for migrants with a makeshift latrine next to it. Top, harvesting vegetables in Gasan-myeon.

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