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SOUTH KOREA: Migrant Workers’ Rights Clouded by Race, Class

Alex Jong Lee

SEOUL, Dec 18 2007 (IPS) - Since August, rights activists in South Korea have been fighting a crackdown on illegal migrant workers. But South Asian and South-east Asians are resentful that Westerners, particularly those in the country’s booming English language teaching industry, are seen differently.

“I guess the perspective of the Korean left (how they focus on migrant exploitation) is okay but that can be problematic if they are not talking about ‘white migrants,’” said Bonojit Hussain, a member of the Progressive Students’ Union in India and a graduate student at Song Kong Hoe University.

Most “progressives” in S. Korea, he suggested, highlight the “plight” of migrant workers and push for legal reforms, but downplay issues of race, class, and nationality, particularly where it concerns English language-teaching foreign workers from the richer Western countries.

Moreover, he said, popular discourse on migration has become more politicised and the word, “migrant” itself usually evokes negative sentiment.

“If you bring the element of class into it, not their class background in their own country but after coming to Korea – white or brown or yellow or whatever – then if you add the dynamics of class, then I think we should qualify it this way: ‘working class migrant’ and ‘elite migrant,’” Hussain argued. “There is a distinction -all white migrants are elite.”

In 2006, the Korean immigration service issued 29,263 ‘E-2’ visas (teaching visas) to foreign workers mostly from the U.S. , Canada, and Australia. The number would be much higher, if English-teaching foreigners who work illegally in S. Korea are taken into account.

According to a 2007 Canadian government study, S. Korea spends more per capita on English language education than any other nation. Currently, it spends 4.6 billion US dollars on language education abroad and between 2-4 billion dollars domestically.

Meanwhile, according to Amnesty International, approximately 350,000 migrant workers – or roughly 1.5 percent of the total Korean workforce – are present in this country of 20 million people. Most South Asian migrants are from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, while those from South-east Asia come from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Burma.

According to Hussain, historical factors, such as colonialism, knowledge production, and hegemony have allowed white foreigners to avoid the “migrant worker” label.

“Koreans look at even me as a migrant worker,” said Nur Kholis, a commissioner for the Indonesian national commission on human rights, and a graduate student at Sung Kong Hoe University.

Kholis argued that S. Korea’s historical allegiance to the U.S. , as well as its embrace of capitalism and Minjok ideology (nationalism based on “one race, one bloodline”) were mostly to blame for many Koreans’ racist perceptions towards South Asians and South-east Asians.

“The current situation is because the Korean economy is high now – who make them like this? United States,’’ said Kholis in broken English. “It is not fair. Korean people will try to learn from the white but if who come from the poor country, they say: ‘You cannot teach us anything.’”

But he was careful to clarify that he was “just against the system in Korea, not against Korean people’’. As an example, he said if Indonesia were to experience similarly rapid economic growth, Indonesians would most likely have the same prejudices and attitudes.

Nilani Manthrinayake, a member of Lawyers for Human Rights and Development in Sri Lanka, and a graduate student studying Sri Lankan migrant workers agreed that race and class were factors.

“I think the Korean government wants to get rid of all these illegal migrants,” said Manthrinayake. “There are many reasons (but especially) if these people get married to Koreans then they become permanent residents of Korea. They don’t mind if the Americans do it, but if other people do it, it’s a problem.’’

The Korean government has signed agreements with several sending countries, effectively legalising cheap migrant labor in Korea, she said. In this way, poorer countries also attempt to solve their domestic problems by exporting their labor to richer countries with the expectation of receiving gainful remittances.

In recent years, more Sri Lankan migrant workers have opted to go to Korea instead of popular destinations like Saudi Arabia, in hopes of receiving higher salaries. “You know the basic (monthly wage) for a migrant in Korea is really about 800 dollars,” she said. “Compared to (what you get in) Sri Lanka that is big money, and if you compare to Middle East, it’s also big money. (Sri Lankan migrant workers) think it’s big money.”

Hussain echoed this point and added that migrant workers who come to S. Korea require enormous amounts of social capital to make the journey possible. Many of them already come from relatively higher economic backgrounds in their home countries. Therefore, they view their experience in S. Korea only as a temporarily intense period in their life to earn money (up to 20 times what they earn in their home countries).

Manthrinayake said, however, that migrant workers in S. Korea have made positive strides, including the formation in 2005 of the Migrant Workers Trade Union (MTU) and setting up Migrant Workers Television (MWTV).

 
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