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Union for Migrant Workers Launched

Korea Times, Vol. 200105, no. 66, 28 May 2001

The movement to protect the rights of migrant workers in Korea has taken another step forward with the launch of the nation’s first union for foreign workers.

The union was launched in a ceremony sponsored by the Seoul-Kyonggi-Inchon Region Equality Trade Union (SKIRETU) at Yonsei University in Seoul on Saturday. SKIRETU, a regional union affiliated with the progressive Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), established the migrant workers’ union as one of its branches.

The chapter has been formed so that foreigners who are subject to harsh working conditions and are not guaranteed their basic labor rights have the chance to stand up for their rights on their own, said SKIRETU President Im Mi-ryong in a speech.

So far, about 100 foreigners, mostly undocumented workers from developing countries who are overstaying their visas, have joined the union.

Im, stressing that the birth of the migrant workers’ chapter means a new start in our nation’s labor movement, stated, Korean and foreign workers alike will work together to do away with the current discrimination against foreigners in the workplace. ?

We are all workers who have basic rights. Now we will act to protect those rights, migrant workers proclaimed in a joint declaration.

Various music and dance performances in celebration of the union’s launch followed the inaugural ceremony late into the night. Bangladeshi workers put on a play, Filipino workers sang songs and Nepalese workers performed a traditional dance. More than 200 unionists and college students participated in the event, including some 50 foreigners.

Labor Ministry officials, meanwhile, seemed reluctant to take an official position regarding acknowledgement of the migrant workers’ union, as current laws prohibit undocumented workers from forming unions.

Although it is our basic view that all foreign workers, whether they are staying illegally or legally in Korea, should be ensured their labor rights, granting union activities to undocumented workers is a separate issue, said a Labor Ministry official.

According to the Justice Ministry, the number of foreigners overstaying their visas was estimated at 200,600 as of the end of March this year, accounting for 40.2 percent of the total 499,000 foreign residents.

The number of foreigners illegally residing in South Korea has continued to rise significantly in recent years.

Chinese, mainly ethnic Koreans, make up the largest group of illegal immigrants with an estimated 50.3 percent, or 100,900.

Bangladeshis came next with 15,000 or 7.5 percent, followed by Mongolians with 7 percent, Filipinos with 6.7 percent, Thais with 6.6 percent and Vietnamese with 4.1 percent.