The South Korean Government is cracking down on undocumented migrant workers with new labour laws introduced in June 2003 to restrict employment rights. These have been met with civil unrest and almost daily protests. Thousands of migrants have gone into hiding as a result of a November 2003 ultimatum to deport 120,000 illegal workers before a June 2004 deadline. However, policing problems mean it is looking increasingly unlikely to be enforced.
Many migrants, principally from Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and Nepal, find themselves in impossible positions. Thousands are trapped in South Korea through debts to unscrupulous labour agencies. Some continue to work illegally, only surfacing for long nightshifts in the furniture, plastics, textiles or motor industries.
Enter the Equality Trade Union Migrant Branch (ETUMB) representing members from 91 countries and one of the first of its kind in the country. Seventy migrant workers have staged a sit-in against the new employment laws and deportation order at Myeong Dong cathedral in central Seoul, a traditional place of political refuge into which the authorities can enter only at the church’s discretion. The union also holds daily street demonstrations against the new working directives, running the risk of detention by immigration officers.
In early March the chief spokesperson of ETUMB, Samar Thapa, was detained by an immigration snatch squad after they tracked him via his mobile phone. He joins some 2,000 other migrants in Hwaseong jail with no legal representation. He and 18 others have gone on hunger strike in prison.
One of the country’s largest and most powerful workers unions, Hyundai, has offered support to ETUMB and the campaign is beginning to embarrass the Government. Websites and student groups are analyzing the way the new directives seek to prolong the exclusivity of Korean society. By restricting workers to a maximum stay of two years with one employer, the laws ensure that no foreign workers can ever settle permanently in the country. Many argue that South Korea will have to make concessions to a more cosmopolitan society. Whether this Government will be forced to back down by the action of so many of Korea’s new faces remains to be seen.Robin Maddock