S Korean Migrant Workers Demonstrate

Posted by under Labour Watch on 5 January 2004

Undocumented migrant workers protest in S Korea against attempts to detain those of them trying to organise.

SEOUL, Dec. 31 -- A demonstration by over a 100 members and supporters of South Korea's only migrant worker trade union Dec. 31 at the Mok-dong Immigration Office in eastern Seoul turned into pandemonium after immigration officers charged the protesters seeking to detain them, according to union officials.

The Equality Trade Union Migrants Branch (ETU-MB) branch said the protest was in response to a Justice Ministry statement earlier in the day that officials would detain all the branch's members.

Over 90 ETU-MB unionists and their supporters have been camped out at a central Seoul church compound since Nov. 15 to call for an end to the crackdown on undocumented foreign workers, a stop to deportations and the legalization of all migrant workers in the country. "As the demonstration was wrapping up, approximately 40 immigration officers rushed the demonstrators, targeting ETU-MB leaders," said one Canadian observer, who asked not to be identified.

"In the chaos that ensued, the migrant workers fled into a nearby street and eventually managed to board their bus, while union supporters, mainly student activists, fought the officers off." Only two Korean supporters were arrested and later released, she said. Meanwhile, South Korean government officials announced the same day that at a policy coordination meeting it was decided a grace period of two weeks until Jan. 15 would be given to induce roughly 100,000 illegal aliens to voluntarily leave the country, according to a report from Yonhap News Agency. Those that do, provided they were not in the country more than four years, would be able to return six months later via certain government-instituted programs.

This new grace period follows one in the first two weeks of November. South Korea had originally given illegal foreign workers who have been in South Korea less than four years until Oct. 31 to register with the authorities or voluntarily exit the country. All those here four years or longer had to leave the country. Since then the government has conducted two monthly 10-day intensive sweeps for illegal workers. The crackdown is to continue into the new year. The grace periods, deadlines and crackdown are part of government measures to put into effect a new Employment Permit System (EPS) for procuring and managing migrant workers, mainly for so-called "3D" (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs at small- and medium-sized manufacturers. The EPS, introduced in legislation passed mid-summer, was originally intended to replace the much-disdained, by both migrant workers and employers, Industrial Training System (ITS). They will now run alongside each other. The demands of the ETU-MB sit-in struggle, now in its 47th day, at Myeongdong Cathedral are for the for abolishment of the ITS, the establishment of a five-year work permit system, the freedom to choose their place of work, the release of all migrant workers being held in detention centers, and the guarantee of the three basic labor rights stipulated by the South Korean Constitution: the rights of organization, collective bargaining and collective action. Myeongdong Cathedral has historically been a refuge for labor, political and civic activists, as the police have not usually entered the compound. As opposed to the ITS and the EPS what the ETU-MB is calling for is a five-year work permit system wherein migrant workers will be granted full labor rights, including the right to change employers, in accordance with stipulations for the treatment of migrant workers by the International Labor Organization and the United Nations, of which South Korea is a member.

The were approximately 120,000 remaining undocumented migrant workers who did not or were not able to register with the authorities, and if deported, will have to be replaced by workers, who in four years' time will also become illegal when they exceed the time limit of the EPS, causing the government, migrant workers and Korean society to face the same problems they face today, according to the ETU-MB's chief, Samar Thapa of Nepal. The problems are cyclic, he said. The ETU-MB, formed in 2001, is the only nationwide migrant labor union in the world, and has been keeping the public informed of its activities through itswebsite migrant.nodong.net

According to government figures, of the over 300,000 undocumented workers that were in the country when the figure peaked this year, some 27,000 have left and 184,000 have been legalized under the EPS legislation.

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