Troubled Waters for Migrant Workers in Korea



A disturbing report was released last week on the high levels of abuse dealt out to migrant workers in Korea, with large numbers responding that they suffer from verbal, physical and sexual abuse in the workplace.The release of the report comes at a time when 32 Indonesian workers recently walked off their Korean-run vessel in New Zealand, claiming physical and sexual abuse on-board.


SEOUL, South Korea -- According to a recent survey by the Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea (JCMK) 26.8 percent of migrant workers in Korea report being physically abused and nearly 14 percent reported sexual abuse in the work place. The reported numbers highlight ongoing concerns by worker’s right groups over the lives of migrant workers in the workplace on the peninsula.

The release of this report could not have been more timely, after members of the New Zealand parliament last week sought to grant temporary amnesty to 32 Indonesian sailors who walked off a Korean-run freighter claiming they suffered from physical and sexual abuse while on board the Korean vessel Shin Ji.

New Zealand Labour minister, Kate Wilkinson told reporters: "Deporting the men now would be unjust. The crew are also prime witnesses for the ministers' inquiry, and they shouldn't be bundled out of the country so quickly."

The crew of the Shin Ji will remain in Auckland waiting for a New Zealand Department of Labour investigation.

And while international attention turns towards Korean companies at sea, the release of the JCMK report gives groups on the here the ammunition needed to get the attention of Korean legislators and the media.

To the government’s credit, Amnesty International has heralded South Korea as being the first country in Asia to protect the rights of migrant workers by law. As yet the implementation hasn’t kept pace with the hopes and expectations of migrant workers and the organizations seeking to protect them.



Korea has a strong history of organized labor movements such as those pictured above. Even sex workers in Seoul organized this year to protest police crackdowns on their livelihood.


The JCMK study found that out of the 931 people surveyed, 78.2 percent reported being verbally abused, and nearly 14 percent answered that they were sexually harassed.

JCMK conducted the survey to measure instances of human rights abuses in Korea toward foreign migrant workers with the help of 33 member organizations around the country. The JCMK distributed surveys translated into 10 languages from May 1 to May 31 of this year.

“The human rights conditions of foreign migrant workers have not improved at all. We have conducted research on the actual conditions continuously for the past few years but we cannot say that any improvements have been made,” said Lee Young, secretary of the JCMK, told the Korea Times.

Lee attributes the high amount of abuse to the nature of the job and lingering racism against foreigners in Korea.

“The reason why discrimination exists in these work places is because the foreign migrant workers work in 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous, demeaning) under poor conditions. Also, the prejudice against foreigners, especially from developing countries, still exists,” said Lee.

“Now seven years into Korea’s implementation of the Employment Permit System (EPS), that was meant to better protect the rights of migrant workers, many continue to face hardships and abuse,” says Amnesty Internationals Roseann Rife.

“Despite the advances of the EPS system, the cycle of abuse and mistreatment continues as thousands of migrant  workers find themselves at the mercy of employers and the authorities who mistreat them knowing their victims have few legal rights and are unable to access justice or seek compensation for the abuse,” said Rife.

According to the Ministry of Labor, over 700,000 migrant workers have come to Korea for work, mostly from Thailand, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Vietnam. On their daily work schedule, the survey found that, 39.5 percent responded that they work 8-10 hours per day and 34.9 percent said 10-12 hours.

Of the 1.39 million foreign residents, 716,000 came here to work. It represents 2.9 percent of the total number of employees here. The ministry also reported that illegal sojourners accounted for 166,000 or 23.6 percent of the ROK’s foreign workers.


Lead photo courtesy of Korea IT Times



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