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Dreams of illegal workers end in despair

By Kim Sung-mi (smkim@heraldm.com), The Korea Herald, 15 November 2003

An illegal foreign laborer from Sri Lanka killed himself Tuesday by jumping in front of a subway train. An undocumented Bangladesh worker hanged himself on a 3-meter-high cargo lift the following day.

The two suicides highlight the fear and desperation among illegal alien workers here, as they face a massive roundup operation and deportation beginning tomorrow.

An estimated 110,000 illegal migrant workers are expected to be forced out of the nation as the government moves to clear the decks ahead of the implementation of the new work-permit system for hiring foreign workers next year.

For the past 10 years, the Korean government has been taking full advantage of cheap labor offered by illegal foreign workers, said Park Sun-hee, 27, a labor law specialist at Seoul Migrant Worker’s Center, a civic group for migrant labor. In fact, the government overlooked their existence. All of a sudden, it came out with a new rule and ordered them to get out. Foreign workers are treated like disposable goods here, she said.

Civic groups plan to stage large-scale rallies for foreign workers in major industrial cites today. We will protest the harsh and arbitrary government policy and demand issuance of work permits to undocumented workers, Park added.

The government announced earlier this month that illegal foreign workers who have stayed in the country for longer than four years and failed to leave the nation voluntarily by today would be subject to expulsion and heavy fines. Additionally, they will be banned from re-entering Korea. As of Tuesday, less than 10 percent of them had left the country.

For those illegal workers who have stayed for less than four years but who failed to register with the authorities by Oct. 31, the same punishment is in the cards. Employers who are found to hire illegal foreign workers will also be slapped with fines of up to 20 million won ($17,100) per person employed.

Workers in hiding

Many illegal alien workers are going underground to avoid the punishments. An illegal worker from Nepal, named Rhada, 33, has holed herself up in a small room in Osan, Gyeonggi Province, staying there with her 14-year-old child and some friends.

I was thinking of going back to Nepal but there were no airplane tickets left. Now we are very nervous and anxious about crackdown and arrest, Rhada said. She was fired last week after five years of work at an envelope maker in Ansan, a factory-filled city on the outskirts of Seoul. She said she originally entered the nation on a tourist visa.

Despite the government threats, some employers are offering shelter for their workers, who are vital to running production lines in the factories. My boss said that I can hide in the company basement with other workers. I speak good Korean and have skills after five years of experience. He said he wanted to keep me, said a 29-year-old Indonesian worker, identified as Samsuar, in the satellite city of Seongnam, south of Seoul.

I don’t understand why Korea is deporting these highly skilled workers. If we stop working here, production lines will stop, Samsaur said. I want to work here. If Korean people say that I should pay tax, I will.

History of exploitation

Foreign workers began to rush into the nation some 15 years ago as the growing wealth of Korea became known to the outside world following such international events as the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Even though Korea then was not ready to accept foreign workers in its legal and social infrastructure, people from poorer countries scrambled to come to the nation to realize their Korean Dream.

In line with rising demand, broker firms proliferated and brokerage fees skyrocketed. According to Seoul Migrant Worker’s Center, an average foreign worker had to pay up to 12 million won ($10,250) to enter Korea either through the industrial-trainee system or on tourist visas.

Due to their debt owed to brokers, foreign workers cannot leave the country, as it takes at least two to three years to repay the debt, said Park. Looking for better-paying jobs, foreign trainees run away from their low-paying ’training’ companies and chose to be illegal, she added.

This lot of problems resulted from the country’s disastrous foreign labor policies and repeated failures in implementing them, said Seol Dong-hoon, a sociology professor at Chonbuk National University.

The government has vowed to carry out strong crackdowns on illegal foreign workers more than 16 times since 1992, only to fail, Seol explained. The Korean government lacks authority and power and the foreigners expect the crackdown to wind down soon this time, too.

Risky system

In 1991, the Korean government initiated the so-called industrial-trainee system to normalize the status of guest workers, but human rights activists criticized the program, saying that it merely allowed small employers to exploit cheap foreign labor without any respect for the workers’ rights.

Foreign industrial trainees are excluded from protection by labor regulations meaning that minimum-wage protection, membership in trade unions, and other legal guarantees do not apply to them. That led to the demand for a new system, which would protect the rights of the workers.

In August, the National Assembly passed the new work-permit system, but it only allows foreign workers who had stayed in Korea less than three years as of March 2003 to receive permission to work. In implementing the new scheme the government has promised a crackdown on illegal workers and those who employ them.

However, many expect that with parliamentary elections scheduled for April, the crackdown on the illegal work force will be weak, as politicians fear confronting local manufacturing companies, which need the cheap foreign labor.

But this time, I think, the government will take the sternest measures to date because the fate of the newly adopted work-permit system is at stake, Seol commented. The government is also desperate because if it fails to ferret out illegal migrant workers again this time, there will be no longer a proper solution.

He also warned that the authorities should make their best efforts to protect workers from human rights violations by malicious employers. With the crackdown intensifying, hopeless workers will seek to hide by taking refuge with ill-willed local employers, who might ’enslave’ them and pay them nothing but food and a place to sleep. We have seen such tragedies in the United States.