[OUTLOOK]The present system is forced laborThe core of the government's policy on migrant workers is the "Foreigners Industrial Technology Trainee Program." With the workers thus defined as "trainees," it is considered justifiable to pay low wages and deny the most basic rights any laborer is entitled to. This system uses a large number of unregistered migrant workers to fill the gaps in the domestic labor market.
The prime minister's Office for Government Policy Coor-dination reported last year that 39,716 trainees are deployed to industrial workplaces to "learn" -- about 11 percent of the migrant workers accounted for in Korea. Most, nearly 80 percent, are among the 278,734 "tourists or illegal entrants who have overstayed their legal stay." Only 31,986 immigrants, fewer than 10 percent, are covered by Korean labor laws.
The office also announced last year that it would deport the 255,978 foreigners who had voluntarily declared themselves as illegal immigrants between March 25 and May 25 last year. They would be deported by the end of this March, and the resulting job vacancies in manufacturing, construction, fishing and agriculture would be filled by 145,000 new trainees. Service jobs would be given to Korean-Chinese immigrants who undergo job training.
This plan will not amend the evils of the irresponsible deportation of the entire population of self-declared illegal immigrants. It also would mean inflating a training program without attending to its problems. There is, moreover, the danger of racism in the new job training program. So much fault was found with this proposal that it was amended in November even before it could take effect.
Now the 149,000 or so workers who have been in Korea for more than three years are to be deported by the end of March and those here less than three years, 107,000, will be allowed to stay on for one more year. At first, extension permits were given only to workers whose employers applied for them, but public criticism forced a change to allow the illegal workers to apply for the permits in person.
The policy changes so often because it is devised according to "desk theories" that avoid the fundamental problem. No clear answers are given to urgent questions: What will happen to migrants with less than three years' stay when their grace period is over? Is it realistically possible to deport migrants with more than three years' stay by the end of March? Can the makeshift trainee system fill the labor vacuum left by the departing migrants? And no clues are provided on just how this new trainee system would work.
The Joint Committee for Migrant Workers in Korea is a nonprofit organization established to help solve the problems of the current foreign-labor policy. It has three proposals to safeguard the human rights of immigrant workers.
First, the deceptive and anachronistic industrial-trainee system must be abolished. It provides no training, only forced labor. Wages must be raised, and illegal tyranny over the employees and other rights violations must be ended.
Second, work permits must be granted to bring in foreign labor in open and above-board fashion. Labor laws and regulations must apply fully to foreign laborers.
Third, unregistered laborers should be granted amnesty and allowed to work openly. These workers have provided their labor for a considerable amount of time. They should be given amnesty and work permits.
Last year, the Millennium Democratic Party responded to our proposals by including certain ideas in its presidential campaign. The party proposed to keep the trainee system for now, but to correct its problems before abolishing it in the long run.
It promised to pass an act on the employment and management of foreign workers and to devise a system to accept a certain number of foreigners to work in labor-short sectors.
President-elect Roh Moo-hyun's transition team has called it unrealistic to deport 150,000 migrants at once and said it would work for the existing illegal migrants to be redeemed through an employment permit system.
The Korea Federation of Small and Medium Businesses and the government's Small and Medium Business Admin-istration, which have taken advantage of the trainee system, insist that there are too many side-effects to the proposed work permit system, such as an overall rise in labor costs. Yet most of the smaller businesses that actually employ these illegal immigrants say the trainee system does not satisfy their needs and welcome the pros-pect of legal foreign labor.
President-elect Roh Moo-hyun should ignore desk theories and the egotism of certain interested groups and keep his promise to provide a fair and square foreign labor system.
* The writer is a co-chair of the Joint Committee for Migrant Workers in Korea.
by Choi Eui-pal