Looking for human rights cures

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Looking for human rights cures

INCHEON -- At the Seoul National University Hospital earlier this month, a group of medical doctors issued a statement and held a press conference calling for migrant workers to have the rights to healthcare. The event largely went unreported by the media.

"It is a shameful time in the history of the nation how we are denying the rights of foreign workers," said Dr. Lee Wang-jun, the president of Inchon Sarang Hospital in Incheon, who led in reading the statement signed by more than 340 doctors that day. Sitting at his office Tuesday, Dr. Lee recalled a visit to Germany in 1992. "I heard firsthand accounts of the plight of Korean miners and nurses who went to West Germany in the 1970s in search of better paying jobs," he said.

Dr. Lee finds a similarity in Korea's current import of foreign workers to fill the labor shortage, particularly in the so-called "3-D" jobs -- difficult, dangerous and dirty. "Many of the Korean men who worked in the mines held college degrees," he said. "They took the jobs so they could send money back home to their families, much like the migrant workers here, many of whom have professional degrees back in their home countries."

However, there is a big difference in how the two countries have treated their foreign workers. "Korean workers in Germany received very favorable treatment and their rights were guaranteed," he said. "Our treatment of foreign workers is deplorable."

The doctors who signed the statement issued Sept. 11 went beyond urging the guarantee of healthcare rights to migrant workers, addressing the broader issue of the government's new migrant worker policy. "With our statement, we were expressing our support for the National Human Rights Commission of Korea's recommendation," said Dr. Lee.

In response to the government's new policy on migrant workers announced in mid-July that raised the quota on foreign industrial trainees to 129,000 and set a deadline of March for the deportation of all illegal migrant workers, the state human rights panel last month recommended that the government phase out the industrial trainee system in favor of a work-permit system. The panel also recommended granting temporary amnesty to illegal foreign workers after the deportation deadline. More than 250,000 illegal migrant workers who reported to the immigration offices to stay here legally face deportation next March.

Civic groups and labor unions have criticized the industrial trainee scheme for fostering the exploitation of migrant workers. Under the system, the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business selects foreign workers and assigns them to local small- and medium-sized enterprises. The trainees are prohibited from changing jobs for a given period. Many trainees become illegal workers when they leave their assigned companies for better paying jobs, leaving themselves vulnerable to human rights violations. A work-permit system, on the other hand, would allow workers to change jobs, and guarantee full labor rights, according to labor activists.

Why are doctors rallying for foreign workers' human rights? "We need diverse voices," Dr. Lee said. "Professionals such as doctors and lawyers need to speak out, not just the labor and human rights activists, so society will become conscious of the problem."

Raising consciousness is not new to the 38-year-old former student activist. The eldest son of a doctor who practiced in Jeonju, North Jeolla province, Dr. Lee led a comfortable life: He did well in school, had violin lessons and never really "planned" on becoming a doctor. It just seemed like a means of making a living for the young boy who counts four doctors on his father's side of the family. "Father's clinic occupied the first and the second floors and we lived on the third floor. I always saw my father with patients on my way up to the living quarters," Dr. Lee said.

He entered the prestigious Seoul University Medical School in 1983. Wishing to share the privileges he was dealt in life, he taught evening classes at a poor section of Seoul, preparing young people who could not afford to attend school to sit for the middle-school diploma equivalency tests. It did not take very long for the college freshman to realize that he was not making a difference. "No one was really interested in the test," he said. "They saw it as an opportunity to mingle with college students and found momentary satisfaction in that."

Disillusioned, he instead became a radical student activist and in 1986 he served a six-month jail term for leading a number of campus demonstrations. "The time in prison changed my attitude. I realized that I couldn't stay angry at the world forever," he said.

Instead, he chose to work changes within the system. In 1992, the year he got his medical license, he founded a progressive newspaper for doctors. In 1998, he bought out a failing 150-bed hospital in Incheon for 4.8 billion won ($3.9 million), summoned his progressive-minded colleagues and opened the Inchon Sarang Hospital. Here, the doctors would put to practice and test ideas they had discussed as students: making it patient-friendly, opening it up to the community and holding concerts.

Dr. Lee was introduced to Yang Hae-woo, a foreign workers activist, in 1999 through a Sarang Hospital social worker who knew about the hospital head's volunteer work at a free clinic for foreign workers. "We shared the same idea and after a two-hour discussion we had the blueprint for the Medical Mutual-Aid Union for Migrant Workers in Korea," said Ms. Yang, now the director of the Korean Migrant Workers Human Rights Center in Incheon.

The group received 50 million won in funding from the Community Chest of Korea to launch the service. By paying 5,000 won in monthly dues, the mutual-aid union members receive care at participating primary healthcare facilities at a 60-70 percent discount. "At participating university hospitals and general hospitals, we pay a maximum of 4 million won per member," said Kim Mi-sun, a coordinator at the medical-aid union.

The union is a boon for illegal foreign workers who are ineligible for the National Health Insurance. "In Incheon alone, there are more than 25,000 foreign workers, many of whom are illegal," said Dr. Lee, whose hospital participates in the program.

Mdsirazul Islam, 33, who came from Bangladesh five years ago, is one such illegal worker. He has been in Inchon Sarang Hospital for more than four months now, after a third surgery to fix his left leg which was badly broken when a pile of plywood fell on it at a woodworking factory in February 2001. "I had to have three surgeries because I did not get proper medical care the first time. I did not have medical insurance and left the hospital in a hurry," said Mr. Islam. Fortunately, he was able to secure the government's Industrial Accident Insurance payment, to which he did not know he was entitled, with the intervention of the Korean Migrant Workers Human Rights Center. The insurance is paying for his current treatment.

The mutual-aid union has about 10,000 members and 600 participating clinics and hospitals. "Many times, a member will miss payments and make a lump-sum back payment when he falls ill so he can get benefits," Dr. Lee said. He estimates that only 30 percent of the members make regular payments. "It would be a great boost even if only 50 percent would pay their fees regularly," he said.

Dr. Lee sees growing medical problems ahead for the illegal migrant worker population. "Ten years ago, we mostly got emergencies, on-the-job injuries and occupational diseases because the workers were mostly in their 20s and 30s and healthy," said Dr. Lee. However the illegal workers who have stayed on are starting families and aging, raising new health concerns. "Now, we are seeing more pregnancies, births, chronic illnesses and cancer," he said.

Too often, illegal workers seek medical care when their illnesses are in advanced stages requiring more expensive treatments, or when they can no longer be cured. "We are fighting a battle on two fronts," Ms. Kim said. "We need to educate migrant workers about getting healthcare and convince Koreans why we need to help these people although they are here illegally."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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