BUSAN, South Korea – Last month, the number of foreign nationals visiting, living and working in Korea passed 1.2 million for the first time – 1.21 million as of June 30th. In all categories the numbers are up, though considerably more so in tourism than for those on longer-term visas – mostly marriage, education and working visas.
Calculating the actual number migrant workers in any country is surprisingly complicated and Korea is no exception to that rule. However, the statistics from the Ministry of Justice for December of last year give a figure of around 550,000 foreign nationals employed in the country–roughly 2 percent of the working population.
China leads the crowd, by a mile with over 320,000. It's worth noting that the vast bulk of that number comes from Korean-Chinese. To pick a few Western countries, there are calculated to be a total of 713 New Zealand citizens working in Korea (712 legally, one illegally), Americans number 13,613 (13,548, 65), and Canadians 5,402 (5,365, 37).
The reason for citing these figures is simply to indicate that overwhelmingly those in the country on long-term visas are working here legally, and therefore deserve the protection of the law. For what it's worth, those working illegally also have a lot of protections, but let's save that subject for a later date.
However, think back over your time here and estimate how many times you have heard from a friend or read on a blog any of the following phrases:
“Standards of working conditions shall be determined by Act in such a way as to guarentee human dignity”
“No employer shall discrimante against workers on the basis of gender, or give discriminatory treatment in relation to the conditions of labour on the basis of nationality, religion or social status.”
“No employer shall force a worker to work against his own free will through the use of violence, intimidation, confinement or any other means which unlawfully restrict mental or physical freedom.”
“1) Payment of wages shall be made directly to the worker in cash; however, if otherwise stipulated by special provisions of laws or decrees or by collective agreements, wages may partially be deducted or may be paid by other [means] than cash. “2) Wages shall be paid at least once a month on a fixed day; however this shall not apply to extraordinary wages, allowances, or any other similar payment or those wages provided for by presidential decree.”
Many experts suggest that this approach may be short sighted. “Protecting the rights of workers isn't just good for the individuals concerned, it helps the business and their customers,” says Hak-Chun Lee, Professor of Labor Law and Global Studies at Busan's Dong-A University, as well as CEO of Rights Watch.
Greg Dolezal, President of the Association for Teachers of English in Korea (ATEK), makes a similar point. “While I believe that employers should abide by the law, I think that the quality of education suffers when teachers are not treated fairly,” says Dolezal, a Busan resident. “Teachers who are exhausted or facing insecurity about matters such as their income, health, and visa security are not at their most effective.”
Prof. Lee concurs when he says, “In any process, progress can only be made when the rights of all parties are respected. When any labor situation is one-sided then everyone suffers.”
Increasingly this firm but conciliatory tone seems to be coming to the fore. Migrant workers are increasingly aware of their rights but understand that any relationship, whether that's between employer and employee, husband and wife, friends or nations, compromise is required on both sides. In the same way, respect is a two-way street.
Nick Bibby is a guest professor of Global Studies at Dong-A University and a doctoral candidate in labor law as it affects foreign workers in Korea. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information contact www.rightswatch.or.kr (as of September 1, 2010) or www.atek.or.kr. If you need help, information or simply want to get involved, you can either contact Nick or Chris Green, the Chair of Busan ATEK, at email@example.com
You can also see Nick's companion piece to this article in the Korea Times.