Welcome, huddled massesThe fire at the immigration detention facility in Yeosu, South Jeolla province was a shameful disaster and a warning to us that we have neglected the human rights of immigrants.
We should take the issue of human rights for immigrant workers more seriously and we should mean it when we express our concern. Mere lip-service is no longer enough.
There are 400,000 immigrant workers in Korea and they are a vital part of our society, making an important contribution to industry. Had it not been for people from the developing world, many Korean companies would have closed down for want of staff to do manual jobs or temporary work.
Nonetheless, frequent violations of these workers’ human rights have not attracted people’s attention just because they are “aliens” from poor countries.
They are often not paid and they have been the victims of violence, industrial disasters, contempt and sexual harassment.
Some employers exploit and abuse foreign workers to an extreme extent that is nothing short of inhuman.
After the system of hiring industrial trainees was transformed to permit the employment of foreigners, it is said that the number of foreigners overstaying their visas has decreased, but still the number has at least 186,000 as of last year. That’s because some Korean employers prefer immigrants whose visas have expired because they can exploit them, paying low wages.
To overstay one’s visa is certainly illegal, but even a person who stays here illegally is entitled to have their human rights protected.
The law that allows the Korean authorities to hold foreigners with expired visas for an unlimited period violates human rights. The law that restricts non-Koreans to three changes of workplace before they must leave and that stipulates a foreigner has to depart within two months of leaving a job, unless they get a new one, is likely to produce more illegal immigrants.
Laws that make it more likely that the human rights of immigrants will be violated must be corrected.
But what’s more important is our attitude toward non-Korean workers.
We should acknowledge that foreign workers have as much human dignity as Koreans. We must ensure our human rights record meets the highest global standards. In New York, the Statue of Liberty asks that America be given the “tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free.” Korea should aspire to the same standard.