In South Korea, Asian migrant staff face exploitation at work, in absence of labour legislation safety
Activists and staff say migrant staff in Pocheon work 10 to fifteen hours a day, with solely two Saturdays off per 30 days. They earn round US$ 1,300-1,600 per 30 days, effectively beneath the authorized minimal wage their contracts are supposed to make sure.
By Kim Tong-Hyung
“It’s a world of lawlessness,” Rev Kim Dal-sung muttered over the telephone as he drove his tiny KIA over slender filth paths zigzagging by way of greenhouses made from plastic sheets and tubes.
Within the bleak panorama of lifeless blue and gray in Pocheon, a city close to South Korea’s ultra-modern capital, a whole bunch of migrant staff from throughout Asia toil in harsh situations, unprotected by labour legal guidelines whereas doing the toughest, lowest-paid farm work most Koreans keep away from.
The loss of life of a 31-year-old Cambodian lady employee at one of many farms in December has revived decades-long criticism over South Korean exploitation of a number of the poorest, most weak individuals in Asia. Officers have promised reforms, however it’s unclear what is going to change.
Greater than two months after Sokkheng’s loss of life, South Korea this week introduced plans to enhance situations for migrant farmworkers, together with increasing well being care entry. Daunted by opposition from farmers, officers selected to not ban utilizing transport containers as shelter.
On a cold February afternoon, teams of staff carrying bandanas and conical hats appeared and disappeared amongst a whole bunch of translucent tunnel-shaped greenhouses — every about 100 yards lengthy — harvesting spinach, lettuce and different winter greens and stacking them excessive in bins.
Kim, a pastor and outspoken advocate for migrant staff’ rights, is an unwelcome customer on the farms in Pocheon, particularly after the Cambodian lady, Nuon Sokkheng, was discovered useless on 20 December 2020 inside a poorly heated, squalid shelter at one of many farms.
Her loss of life, and people of many others, spotlight the customarily merciless situations dealing with migrant staff who’ve little recourse towards their bosses.
“Farm homeowners listed here are like absolute monarchs ruling over migrant staff,” Kim mentioned. “Some say they need to kill me.”
There are round 20,000 Asian migrant staff legally engaged on South Korean farms, principally from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Nepal. They had been introduced in beneath its Employment Allow System. To maintain out undocumented immigrants, it makes it extraordinarily troublesome for staff to go away their employers, even when they’re grossly overworked or abused.
One Korean farmer watched, scowling with arms on his hips, then acquired on a tractor and commenced trailing visiting reporters to forestall his overseas staff from speaking to them.
One other shouted and waved her hand furiously as she approached, stopping an interview with two Cambodian staff who went again right into a transport container.
South Korean farmers, too, are struggling. The trade is in decline, damage by many years of labour shortages and growing overseas competitors. They get by importing labour to work lengthy hours for low pay.
“Who’re you to return right here?” the girl farm proprietor fumed. “Do you even know what farming is basically like?”
Activists and staff say migrant staff in Pocheon work 10-15 hours a day, with solely two Saturdays off per 30 days. They earn round US$ 1,300 – 1,600 per 30 days, effectively beneath the authorized minimal wage their contracts are supposed to make sure.
Rising earlier than dawn, they crouch or bend for hours as they work their means by way of the massive plastic tunnels at every farm, planting, weeding, selecting and thinning crops.
The employees usually are crammed in transport containers or flimsy, poorly ventilated huts, just like the one the place Sokkheng died.
Activists who interviewed her coworkers say she got here to Pocheon in 2016 and died simply weeks earlier than she was on account of return to Cambodia to spend time together with her household. Sokkheng appeared to don’t have any apparent well being issues, however an post-mortem confirmed she died from issues from cirrhosis, possible worsened by the tough situations she lived and labored in, the activists say.
She died throughout a bitter chilly snap, when temperatures fell to minus 18 levels celsius. The shelter’s heating system was defective, and others residing there went to stick with buddies to flee the chilly. Sokkheng refused to go, they instructed activists.
A Nepalese farm employee, who requested that his title not be used as a result of he feared reprisals from his employer, mentioned he was contemplating operating away to search out manufacturing unit work as an undocumented migrant after 5 years of working for a farmer who he mentioned was abusive and infrequently violent.
“Not less than I’ll get extra days off,” mentioned the employee, who slipped out to a espresso store outdoors the farm one night for an interview.
“It’s simply an excessive quantity of labor (every day). You don’t get lavatory breaks. You don’t even have time to drink water,” mentioned the Nepalese man. He complained of excruciating again and shoulder ache, likening the state of affairs to slavery.
Simply 10% of the 200,000 migrant staff dropped at South Korea beneath its Employment Allow System, or EPS, work on farms. About eight in 10 EPS staff toil in factories, whereas the remainder work in development, fisheries and repair trade jobs.
The Labour Ministry instructed a lawmaker in October that 90-114 EPS staff died annually from 2017 to 2019.
Ven Linsaro, a Cambodian Buddhist monk based mostly in South Korea, helps with funerals and sending cremated stays to grieving households in Cambodia. He mentioned he knew of at the least 19 Cambodian staff who died in 2020. To date in 2021, one farm employee and one employee have been discovered useless of their shelters.
“Most of them are of their 20s and 30s…Lots of them simply died of their sleep,” mentioned Linsaro. He wonders if severe diseases are going undetected due to staff’ lack of medical entry.
The Employment Allow System was launched in 2004, to switch a Nineteen Nineties industrial trainee system infamous for exposing migrant staff to horrific working situations. It was meant to afford migrant staff the identical fundamental authorized rights as Koreans. However critics say the present system is much more exploitative and traps staff right into a type of servitude.
Migrant farm staff are extra weak than manufacturing unit staff since guidelines about working hours, breaks and time without work don’t apply to agriculture. The nation’s Labour Requirements Act doesn’t apply in any respect to workplaces with 4 or much less staff, which is typical of many farms.
Choi Jung Kyu, a human rights lawyer, says staff at these farms are just about unprotected towards unjust firings or wage theft, uncompensated for office accidents and have scant entry to well being care. They usually should pay US$ 90 – 270 a month to remain in depressing makeshift dormitories that usually are simply transport containers geared up with propane tanks for cooking. Such momentary constructions often solely have moveable bathrooms.
“The federal government ought to completely cease letting farms with lower than 5 staff use the EPS,” mentioned Choi.
Three Cambodian staff who had been interviewed at a Pocheon farm however didn’t need to be named complained concerning the gruelling work, South Korea’s bitterly chilly winter and harassment by their employer, who calls them “canine.”
They mentioned they persevere as a result of the wages are higher than in Cambodia, giving them an opportunity to flee poverty.
“I’ll take care of no matter hardship is thrown at me right here,” mentioned one, who helps pay for educating his three siblings. He goals about shopping for a farm and a cow when he returns house.
Farmers insist they’re barely getting by, too.
“Our farming communities are badly aged,” mentioned Shin Hyun-yoo, chief of a farmers’ affiliation in Gyeonggi Province, the place Pocheon is positioned. “Many will collapse if it turns into more durable to rent overseas staff.”
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