Send to

[Us and Them] Migrant workers’ struggles in Korea continue despite better awareness

Discrimination and abuse of foreign workers continue

Oct. 11, 2021 - 16:28 By Ko Jun-tae
Emmanuel Sanou, head of dance group Koule Kan, who moved to Korea and lives as an artist, performs at a press conference urging to improve support policies for foreign artists in front of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Jongno-gu, Seoul, on Sept. 29. (Yonhap)
Discrimination against foreigners and migrant workers is apparent in how they are treated here, which hasn’t changed much from the past despite more people being aware of the problem.

In many cases, migrant workers are deprived of their rightful wages, subjected to poor living conditions.

In December, a Cambodian female worker at a farm in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, was found dead in a greenhouse made of plastic after temperatures fell to minus 18 degrees Celsius.

According to a Labor Ministry inspection released January of 3,850 foreign workers at 496 workplaces in the farming and fisheries sector, nearly 70 percent said they were living in makeshift structures. Only 25 percent were staying in houses, with another 2.6 percent sharing lodging facilities.

Those offering makeshift structures as shelters are required to report their residential usage to local governments, but 56.5 percent had not made the reports. The improvised dwelling units were also found to pose fire hazards and privacy issues, such as improperly separated bathrooms.

At the same time, migrant workers have reported more than 150 billion won ($126.6 million) in unpaid wages last year. The annual amount has risen around 20 billion won each year from 50 billion won reached in 2015, according to Labor Ministry data.

Yet such reality is in conflict with the fact that Koreans are already aware that racial discrimination exists in the country and they oppose discriminatory practices.

According to a survey from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea released last year, 68.4 percent of migrants and 89.9 percent of government officials and teachers responded that racism exists in the Korean society.

Past research and examples show that Korea hasn’t improved much from years before despite increased awareness.

Controversy arose in 2014 when the Pocheon Africa Museum of Original Art was found to have abused workers from various African nations by paying them subminimum wage and providing mice-infested housing facilities.

The museum was owned by Hong Moon-jong, a former conservative lawmaker. The story came to light when 12 of the workers employed at the museum staged a protest and press conference in Yeouido, western Seoul.

Yoon Soo Ryon, a cultural studies professor at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, writes in her research on the issue published last year that the museum’s workers “had been given thin mattresses and pieces of plywood as beds, and the house was filled with mold and, sometimes, mice.”

While the workers were employed as performers, their performances were treated as simple labor.

Yoon says the case also exemplifies how unprotected migrant artists were in terms of labor rights due to abuse of foreign entertainers’ visas and lack of legal basis on how to monetarily value their work.

“A lot of it has to be with where these performers come from, and what kinds of performances they put on,” Yoon said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“Do we treat French performers doing contemporary dances on stage the same as Burkinabe performers doing this folk and traditional performances in a museum? That is part of the larger concerns that I have seen.”

To better accommodate migrant workers and make Korea a country of choice for newcomers, officials say that South Korea’s conservative, sometimes hostile attitude towards migrant workers must be changed.

Open immigration has been regarded as one of the solutions to shrinking, aging population, but the solution is only available when the country is systematically open and the public is welcoming to newcomers.

“So much (in Korea) would collapse without migrant labor,” said Steve Hamilton, chief of mission of the International Organization for Migration to Korea. “The government is aware of this, and they are always pushing policies to be more open, but there’s an issue of political balance.”

Hamilton said a negative perception towards foreigners has prevented officials from being more open to migrant workers. Local media outlets and politicians have often opted to negatively portray foreigners and their impact here, which has prevented solid improvements on their welfare from taking place.

“The food on your table came from migrants, and the building you are in would not have been constructed without migrants,” Hamilton said. “There’s so much that relies on migrant labor. The entire SME sector is migrant-led.”

The fear-based misconception of foreign labor displacing jobs and decreasing wage levels should be tackled, he added, a step that must be taken while reforming Korea’s immigration policies at the same time.

He argued that Korea’s employment permit system should be changed so that employees can freely choose employers, which will motivate employers to upgrade their pay and welfare offers to better attract migrant labor.

Under the system employers that meet related regulations can hire foreign workers, who are given temporary work visas.

However, the Act on the Employment, etc. of Foreign Workers limits visa and hiring conditions, so foreign laborers’ visas are largely dependent on their employers and limits their prospects of finding new employment even when facing unfair conditions.

Such restrictions include that foreign labor can only be hired by employers who are deemed unable to hire Korean nationals, and that a foreign laborer must obtain the labor authorities’ permission in order to find a new job.

“If there’s a freedom of choice on where you want to work based on the way employers are treating you, like there is for Koreans and most people around the world, the employer offering the best package will get the best employees,” Hamilton said.

“But now, you’re having people’s visas tied to employers, having to prove abuse if they want to leave. Who’s going to take the risk of reporting their employers?”

Hamilton also suggested Korea being more open to providing permanent residential status for foreign workers instead of having them replaced with new batch of workers. Providing more room for migrants to settle and achieve success could also in return change the perception of migrants here, he says.

“Kids are growing up on K-pop and K-dramas, and they learn Korean even before they come here. It’s an area where people want to live their lives,” he added. “But if they come here and are not welcomed, they would think they were sold fake stories.”

By Ko Jun-tae (

The concept of “us” is a strong force in Korean culture, and to be counted as “one of us” in any group comes with privileges big and small within its boundaries. However, for those who fall outside the boundaries of “normal,” life in Korea is riddled with hurdles and sometimes open hatred. In a series of articles, we take a closer look at the biases that exist in Korea, and the lives of those branded as “them” by the mainstream society. – Ed.