Exploitation cases spark a nationwide probe
The probe follows revelations that laborers at a salt farm in Sinan County, South Jeolla, who are mentally and physically disabled, had been forcibly enslaved.
On the first day of the investigation, 20 people - including 13 police officers from the Mokpo Police Precinct, three officials from the Ministry of Employment and Labor and four government employees from the Jeungdo-myeon Office - visited Jeung Island in Sinan County, South Jeolla, to interview 70 workers at local salt farms.
The interviewers focused on whether the employees had been exploited or abused, and in some instances conducted cross-examinations with the farm owners.
“We couldn’t find anything particularly suspicious, maybe because Jeung Island is frequently visited by tourists,” said Lee Min-hong, chief of the violent crime department at the Mokpo Police Precinct. “However, we are anticipating many possible cases of human rights violations on the more remote islands.”
The National Police Agency, which is in charge of the nationwide investigation, said on Monday that “Sinan County is where cases of exploitation have been repeatedly found in the past.” Therefore, the agency said it will conduct an “exhaustive investigation on the remote island, where two enslaved men were rescued by police in January.”
The police are also arranging individual face-to-face talks with the owners of fishing boats, as well as workers on fish farms, in the hopes of uncovering similar cases.
The police began their investigation after the two men were rescued from a salt farm in January on Sinui Island in Sinan County. The case captured the public’s attention after media reports revealed how the two laborers, surnamed Kim and Chae, were lured to the salt farm and forced to work in inhumane conditions.
According to the police, Kim’s nightmare began in 2012, when he was approached by a stranger claiming to be an employment broker at a free meal center in Yeongdeungpo District, western Seoul. Kim was homeless at the time and desperate, and the stranger’s sales pitch, which promised a well-paying job with free accommodation, sounded like a dream.
He didn’t realize at the time that he had just been sold for 1 million won ($927) to the owner of a salt pond situated on a small and isolated island near Mokpo in South Jeolla.
There, Kim was treated like a slave and wasn’t allowed to sleep for more than five hours at a time.
The owner of the salt farm, surnamed Hong, offered him food, drinks and accommodation, but later told Kim that he would have to pay several million won in return.
Chae, a 48-year-old mentally challenged man, was also a laborer on the farm and had been there since 2008. To repay their debts, the two men worked more than 10 hours a day but were hardly ever given a wage.
Perhaps miraculously, Kim managed at one point to send a letter to his mother in Seoul last month with the address of the farm attached. Upon receiving the correspondence, she immediately turned to the police for help, and the authorities were able to trace her son’s whereabouts.
Seo Je-gong, a police officer in the missing persons unit at the Guro Police Precinct, headed to the island, where he found Kim and arrested Hong.
The police believe the island residents and the owners of other salt farms colluded with Hong to keep the workers on the island.
Kim claimed that he had tried to escape on several occasions, but he failed. “Sometimes people in the village alerted the owner when I tried to run away,” he said during the investigation. When caught, Hong threatened him, he said, intimidating him and hurling slurs.
A shop owner who lived on the island with Hong allegedly alerted him when the two men tried to run away, according to the police. However, when asked about the situation, the shop owner told the JoongAng Ilbo that he “only persuaded them to go back, rather than calling Hong.”
In an intensive investigation conducted yesterday on Sinui Island, in which about 20 salt pond workers were interviewed, authorities uncovered two cases in which laborers had been delayed in receiving their wages or not received payments altogether.
In the first instance, a worker had not been paid at all since 2008. The amount owed to him stood at an estimated 50 million won.
BY CHOI KYUNG-HO and KIM BONG-MOON [firstname.lastname@example.org]