[FORUM]Migrant labor and human rights

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[FORUM]Migrant labor and human rights

"Kim In-seong, an ethnic Korean from China, splashed kerosene on himself and lighted a match. Mr. Kim wrote on a wall of the company he worked for, speaking of the CEO of the firm, 'Damn you, you bastard. My spirit will torment you forever. It was sad living in Korea."

The book, "There Is No Borderline for Workers," started with such a grudge and a curse. It was written and published last year by Kim Hae-seong, a Christian clergyman who started church services for immigrant workers in Seongnam, and Kim Ji-yeon, a photographer. As the subtitle, "The anguished records of immigrant workers and ethnic Koreans from China," lays out, the stories of the harsh lives of immigrant workers who came to Korea looking for "a Korean dream" sadden our hearts.

The government recently announced a two-month grace period beginning next Monday in which illegal immigrants can voluntarily register. After the two-month period, a crackdown on illegal immigrants will begin, and the government and illegal immigrants will play another annual game of hide-and-seek.

The government will be on alert, especially during the World Cup games and the Busan Asian Games, because the number of illegal immigrants entering Korea is expected to increase sharply. The number could exceed 350,000 by the end of this year ?it is now estimated at 261,000 ?unless the government takes effective steps.

Seoul banned unskilled workers from entering the country, but for 10 years foreign workers have come to Korea by methods like abusing the industrial trainee program. These so-called industrial trainees are actually unskilled laborers for the most part; they later fled from their workplaces because of low wages and harsh treatment and became illegal immigrants. As of last December, 65,000 trainees, more than half the 110,000 total number, fled their workplaces. There are also many illegal immigrants who entered the country as tourists. On March 16, 43 Chinese tourists disappeared as soon as they arrived at Incheon International Airport.

Illegal workers are not only involved in immigration-related fraud and bribery, but distort the domestic labor market. Above all, they often fall victim to human rights abuses that could ruin the image of our country. Beginning some time ago, foreign laborers have been in a blind spot concerning human rights in our society, and have been subjected to low wages, late wage payments, industrial accidents, physical and verbal abuse and sexual assault. Immigrant workers perform difficult tasks often avoided by our citizens, but have been denied their rights as workers and humane treatment. They are subject to deportation at any time if it is felt necessary.

According to research on immigrant workers and human rights, illegal immigrants work an average of 64 hours per week, 20 hours more than the legal limit. Most reportedly work overtime, and some even work 36 consecutive hours. They are also especially exposed to industrial accidents; from 1998 to August 2001, nearly 3,600 met industrial accidents and 130 of them died.

There are some stunning stories about human rights abuses and racial discrimination against immigrant workers. Some received instructions in their home countries to prepare for insults they might receive in Korea, including slaps on the face. They learned to say, "I am a human being too. Why do you hit me?" A man from Bangladesh said the first Korean expression he learned after he came here was "Go back to your country, you S.O.B." Can anyone believe that these kinds of things are happening in this country, which we think protects human rights?

It is not simple for the government to decide whether to treat immigrant workers like domestic workers or to do without them. But they should not be treated as expendable, good only to fill holes in the domestic labor market.

"The government plans to introduce new measures to deal with foreign workers in the first half of this year," Bang Yong-seok, the labor minister, said Monday. The new rule is expected to allow small and medium companies to legally hire immigrant workers and will grant legal status to some illegal aliens. It is time to end the long controversy over immigrant workers.


The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Han Cheon-soo

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