With the tragic incident of this past Feb. 11th in Yeosu, Korea at the Foreigners Protection Facility where 9 people were killed in a fire, attention paid to the situation of immigrant workers in Korea has suddenly increased. Nevertheless, its been noted that beyond the problem of the lack of human rights of the immigrant workers inside the Protection Facility, the deeper problem is that without any fundamental changes in the approach of the government and their policies towards immigrant labor, there is no way to bring about any fundamental solutions. I recently met with Anwar Hossain, former President of the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union, to ask about the realities of life inside these Protection Facilities and the specifics of what took place during this recent tragedy.
In May 2005, Anwar became a target of surveillance after stating the goal to move ahead in organizing migrant laborers into a single union. He was detained and then jailed in a Foreigners Protection Facility in Cheongju. He was released on March 26, 2006, when officials cited his deteriorating health, a condition he suffered as a direct result of his time in detention.
“Go to the bathroom, change your clothes, and even shower outside where everyone can see.”
He said that when he first entered the facility, the surveillance cameras where the first thing he saw. “There were two rooms, a big one and little one. In the big room, there were two bathrooms together. When you had to go, you could see everything above to here. (He raises his hand up to his chest). He noted that the Protection Facility was such that even if you went inside the bathroom, the people outside were right there and could see anything, so it made it difficult even to go to the bathroom. “The people outside the room could see everything that the people inside were doing. And there was only one shower room. You had to take your clothes off to shower. There were people of many different religions there, but most were Muslims who generally don’t take all their clothes off when showering. So some people ended up not even taking them.” His eyes were thus opened to a difficult life where he couldn’t find even the most basic consideration for him as a human in his daily life
“Not allowed to talk and menaced with intimidation.”
Anwar pointed out that an even more formidable problem was the language barrier and the lack of communication. Of those who entered the Protection Facility, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t have at least one or two major labor or compensation issues that needed to be resolved. “Language is a big issue. Everyone’s was different. There are people from every nation. Everyone in there has a problem of some sort. They haven’t gotten their discharge allowance, or their back wages. They enter the facility in the midst of having these problems. Because of the language problem, they face these problems but can’t do much about them. They can’t explain the details of the situation and they can’t find any solution.” If the detainees don’t know either Korean, English, or Chinese, they have little chance to be treated fairly.
“One day they put a paper with some information on the wall. It was written in English, Chinese and Korean. It was just about some simple things such as that you are entitled to receive a discharge allowance, you can get counsel, some things they are supposed to be able to do for you… etc. etc. They explained a few of these things, but they were only in these three languages, nothing else. There were people who didn’t know any of these. The majority were like this. When the facility workers would give instructions, even though they realized that we couldn’t understand, they just blow us off and left it at that. There were lots of people who waited for a long time, but it was so tiresome that they just returned to their countries. They never go their money they were owed.”
“If you to raise any complaint, solitary confinement”
Anwar complained that given the lack of communication, those in charge at the facility have a very limited ability to properly solve any problems, and as a result, it is very common that migrant workers who run into problems are basically forced to just leave without their just compensation. “They get so much stress. When the guards speak, they use coercion, they get annoyed, yell and swear at you. In the consultation room, you’d say that you are owed $1000 but then they’d try to force you to accept just $500. The migrant workers wouldn’t budge, saying that they have to get all that they are owed. In such situations, there were then cases of beatings. There was no solution, more months passed, still no solution, you fight back. Hunger strikes. There’s nothing you can do but stage a hunger strike. Then they put you into solitary straight away. They coerce you and put you into solitary. If you don’t quit the hunger strike unconditionally, they threaten you with more solitary.” Without any means to communicate, detainees couldn’t even begin to deal with getting proper instructions, because dealing with the threats and coercion was a daily priority.
“They’ve never even thought about the problem of safety at that Protection Facility”
I asked Anwar about the recent tragedy in Yeosu. Given his own experiences, I wondered what he’d think about this event. Surprisingly, he answered quite plainly that it was something that could have happened at anytime, anywhere.
“I talked about these problems when I was inside. And they became known when I was back outside, too. When I think of the migrant workers, when I think of their safety there, there is absolutely nothing done for them. ‘People will get by,’ seems to be the attitude. There are just two doors. Somebody’s locked the keys. All areas of escape are blocked to the migrant workers inside and the keys are in the office. If any problem arises, someone has to go to the office and bring them back and then open three separate locks. But it’s not easy to call anyone anyways. When this kind of problem erupts, I have no idea how they could deal with it. I can’t even think about it.”
In the Ministry of Labor, there are some who do care a bit, but they only look upon the migrant workers with pity. The majority just ignore them as if they were less than human. “In this incident, they spent a full 15 minutes just trying to find the keys. But they should have known, they should have given some concern to these people’s safety, but they didn’t at all, and so this kind of accident happened. A Protective Facility, this kind of place, is suppose to protect, but that definitely wasn’t the case at all. It was worse than jail. Being migrant workers, and with no interpretation help, all the different languages, they didn’t feel like human beings. They were ignored as pathetic, poor people.”
For migrant workers, It’s jail outside of the Protection Facility as well
But Anwar wanted to say that there is a problem beyond what goes on at these facilities that must be paid attention to. Outside of the facility as well, migrant workers live lives that are just like being in jail. “It’s really horrible. Even for those outside of the facilities, they live as if in jail. They just stay in their rooms all the time. They go to work, and then immediately come right back home. They are in a situation where they just can’t go out. Then their bosses force them to do so much work. Their wage is already really low, but even after getting all this work assigned, they don’t even get the money they were promised. If the worker complains about it, the bosses will threaten to turn them in. This just leads to even more coercion. ” After the implementation of the 2004 employment license system, there was a big push to get the system into place, leading to a massive crackdown. The pain of these workers, struggling every day just to survive, was palpable. After this 2004 crackdown began, a number of workers killed themselves in fear of being deported, penniless. Some tried to flee in a rush, others jumped off the Immigration Office building, killing themselves. And now, with the tragic fire in Yeosu, these victims were denied even the most basic of human rights. They are victims of a government that is solely concerned with making sure their employment license system is safe and sound.
A need for the regulation of all migrant laborers through a suitable and just employment licensing system
Anwar sees this tragedy as a moment in which the necessity for an overall policy reform regarding migrant labor can gain attention. “The employment license system, the prohibition against the freedom to change workplaces, and the year-by-year contract system are all problematic. All the rights are on the side of the employer.” He explained that under the current system, all rights and authority for contract renewal is totally within the hands of the companies, and if management suddenly decides to end a contract, this means the worker automatically becomes undocumented. In this situation, the single most important condition for survival here in Korea is making sure you don’t upset your boss in any way. That means a worker is left with the choice either to work under horrible conditions, or secretly flee. In the end, the majority end up fleeing and becoming undocumented. “If you think about it in terms of the worker, the system and the policies have to give some kind of rights to the laborer. The contract period must be extended to five years, with a possibility for another five-year renewal. There must be the freedom to move to other workplaces. These three essential rights for workers must be secured in order for this overall situation to be solved. If the current system just continues to go on as before, it guarantees that further incidents like these will continue and get even worse.”
Anwar said that it would be good if this accident can serve as an opportunity, through which a legalized system of labor could be established, “Unregistered migrant workers need to be legalized, workers must be free to move to a different place to work, and a 5 year residence period needs to be established. A system for migrant workers needs to be created very quickly. I think that only then can these kinds of problems be solved.” This spirit of criticism is not Anwar’s alone. It’s the spirit of all migrant workers who come to this land seeking to work and survive, without fear of death.
Translated from Korean by Seoulidarity–Radical Language Xchange.