[FOUNTAIN]Migrant labor, then and now

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[FOUNTAIN]Migrant labor, then and now

The word "coolie" means an unskilled Asian laborer. The British began to call unskilled immigrant laborers from China and India coolies in the 1820s.

Britain abolished slavery and banned the slave trade in the early 19th century after it secured the base of the country's growth through its worldwide system of colonies. But the country faced serious difficulties in securing a work force for farms, mines and railroad construction sites in its colonies. Britain chose peasants from China and India as substitutes for slave labor. The country offered legal stay in the colony and low wages to the poor Chinese and Indians. The laborers in those countries, who had wished for a new life, began to move overseas, half deceived and half on their own judgement, in the late 1820s.

To Britain and other Western colonial powers, those Chinese and Indians were lawful and voluntary immigrant laborers to replace slaves. But China and India regarded such emigration as illegal because they suffered a sharp drop in their own low-wage work force and had no power to protect their people abroad despite the inhumane treatment they often received. In some cases, the Chinese laborers were drowned in shipwrecks on their way to colonies in the Americas or were abandoned with no medical treatment if they fell ill.

But the number of Chinese and Indian laborers who fled their country to change their lives continued to grow. In the 1820s, about 6,000 to 8,000 laborers went to Singapore. The scale of the coolie trade began to reach that of the outlawed slave trade. In 1847 there were 120,000 foreign laborers in Peru and 150,000 in Cuba. In the United States, foreign laborers were also very popular because the country needed a great number of workers to build the transcontinental railroad. About 80 percent of the railroad's work force was Chinese.

In 1860, the Chinese government legalized the coolie system, finding resistance futile. The emigration of Chinese laborers increased; they settled in Southeast Asian countries and other places, building a network of 23 million Chinese outside China.

Recently, Korean-Chinese and other third-world laborers have been rushing to South Korea. A TV drama dealing with them is being aired and a settlement was created in Garibong-dong, in southwestern Seoul, but their conditions have little improved over those of coolies a century ago. Despite the World Cup fever, the movement to protect immigrant workers' rights is active. It is time for us to pay attention and take an interest in the movement.

The writer is a JoongAng Ilbo editorial writer.

by Kim Seok-hwan

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