[FORUM]Illegal workers are the victimsIn an newspaper article written by Mr. Tura, a foreign worker from Myanmar, the bittersweet memories of his eight years in Korea are well expressed. “Bucheon is like my hometown. The place gives me stability and warmth, and many people I like live there. Now Bucheon became part of my life.”
Although he suffered from low wages and discrimination, he takes pride in sharing and overcoming the difficulties of the 1997 financial crisis. Mr. Tura is an alien who illegally stays in Korea. Because he has been here for more than four years, he is subject to deportation. However, he says, “I don’t want to leave at all. I am not ready to just bolt from Korea. This is as if one day a sudden storm comes to sweep away a nest on the tree. I need more time to prepare for my departure.”
The government amnesty program ended on Oct. 31, under which workers who were illegally in the country for less than four years could apply for work visas and seek legal employment before the government enforces the work permit system in August 2004. And the grace period for unregistered foreign workers to leave Korea voluntarily ended Nov. 15.
If illegal foreign workers are caught in the government’s intensive crackdown, which began yesterday, they will face deportation. I don’t know whether Mr. Tura returned to his homeland or remains illegally in the country. But among 300,000 foreign workers who were in a similar situation, more than 100,000 people chose to remain illegally. Now they have to play hide and seek with the government authorities.
As the search for illegal workers draws near, our worst fears have been realized. Foreign workers pushed to the brink and facing a bleak future took their lives. A Bangladeshi worker, deep in debt, hanged himself, and a Sri Lankan, who could no longer send money to his family in his native country, killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train. Many workers began a sit-in at a church or cathedral.
Many illegal residents prepared emergency food and headed for a shelter in the countryside or into urban attics. They seem to think that if they hide for a few months, Korean authorities will stop looking for them. Because the government has delayed imposing penalties on illegal workers 16 times since 1992, it’s understandable that the illegal workers now believe that the government crackdown will let up once a few months have passed.
Although the government planned to deport a third of the 300,000 illegal workers before it implements the work permit system, this plan missed the mark from the beginning. Now, the government came to bear the burden of cracking down 100,000 people who chose to remain illegally all at once. In the process of searching and detaining illegal workers, it’s possible there were infringements on their human rights or other unwanted problems. Facilities to accommodate illegal aliens fall far short, too. It’s a pity that the Justice Ministry rejected the use of police detention centers to accommodate those awaiting deportation.
One Korean-Chinese worker set fire to the plant where he worked to protest his unpaid wages for three months. The government should actively solve the problems of illegal workers who suffer from the delayed payment of their wages. It is a disgrace to our country that there are vicious businessmen who postpone their paychecks by taking advantage of their vulnerability to deportation.
It will be no easy job to send away the second or third Mr. Tura who has undertaken all dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs to keep our industrial sites running. In addition to the shortage of domestic workers, small businesses will suffer greater difficulty finding labor, as foreign skilled workers who can communicate in Korean have left.
Considering this situation, the government changed its original policy to block illegal workers from getting jobs by strengthening the penalties for companies that hire illegal residents. Illegal aliens who work at small and medium-size manufacturing companies will be temporarily excluded from the crackdown.
It is an inevitable pain to deport illegal residents in the process of introducing the work permit system. To correct the abnormal structure of hiring foreign workers, the government’s consistent policy is most important. I am worried that the improper preparation and shaky criteria for its crackdown may lead to distrust in the government policy.
* The writer is a deputy managing editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Han Cheon-soo