Category Archives: South Korea

[Reportage] Cambodian workers spend lives of indentured servitude on Korean farms

The woman’s face brightened when the strong aroma of the dried fish reached her nose. It had been a while since Peukka (pseudonym) had tasted pollack.

Dried pollack is a popular side dish in Peukka’s home of Cambodia, with a similar flavor profile to Korean jwipo, a seasoned jerky made of filefish. The fish can often be seen dangling above Cambodian marketplaces, strung up on lines. This is the “soul food” that this 45-year-old eats whenever she feels homesick. She’s been in South Korea for eight years now, doing farming work.

I’d met the Cambodian in a shipping container inside a greenhouse in a Seoul suburb. “We have to work even when we’re sick. We can’t take a break when we have a cold. The best thing to do when I’m feeling sick is to have some pollack and some watery rice,” Peukka said, as she flipped over the pollack in a frying pan.

The frying pan didn’t have a handle, so she had to hold it precariously with rolled up toilet paper. The hood above the stove was stained black from the smoke.

Peukka’s pollack had been brought to the farm by a coworker who’d returned from a trip to Cambodia the day before. A Southeast Asian market nearby sells the dried fish, but for three or four times the price back home. She wasn’t about to pay that much. Thanks to her coworker, though, Peukka was finally going to have a decent meal.

As everyone sat down for a Cambodian-style meal, a smile crossed Peukka’s face, as if she were back home. Except for the fact that she and her friends were in a shipping container, not a house, and that the floor was as cold as ice.

Farm workers’ 12-hour day starts at 6 am

When I got to the greenhouse on the evening of Dec. 12, Peukka and seven other Cambodians were crouched down, picking lettuce. They were all wearing hats, with handkerchiefs wrapped around them, dirt-stained padded jackets, and track pants, as if it was their dress code. The eight Cambodians had 80 greenhouses, which measured 10m wide and 100-150m long, in their care, with each worker responsible for 10 greenhouses.

Cucumbers are grown here in the summer, and lettuce or spinach in the winter. Sixty of the greenhouses are owned by an individual who I’m told makes about 200 million won (US$171,332) a year. That profit is produced by the migrant workers on his farm, who work from 6 am until 6 pm, with barely a moment to stretch their aching backs.

The migrant workers on the farm are subject to quasi-servitude. When workers arrive in the country, they’re divvied up between the agriculture and manufacturing sectors: those with a lower Korean language score are sent to the farm, and those with a higher score are sent to the factory. On the farm, migrant workers have to show up for work whenever the boss needs them, even on the weekends. When they finish early in the slack season, the boss sometimes springs extra work on them, such as getting the greenhouses ready for cold weather.

Migrant workers don’t dare defy their boss’s orders, even when they’re unfair. Their nonprofessional work visas have a default period of three years, which can be extended for a year and 10 months. If they want to come back to Korea, they have to pass a special Korean language test and be recognized as “diligent workers.” That recognition is only available to workers who have stayed at the same workplace for their entire sojourn. When migrant workers are seeking another stay in the country, their boss’s word is all that counts.

Many labor laws don’t apply to Agro-livestock workers

Peukka and her coworkers each make 1.7 million won (US$1,457) a month, though the owner of the farm deducts a monthly 250,000 won (US$214.24) in rent for their “dormitory.” As of July 2019, resident aliens are required to enroll in the national health insurance program, which, for the Cambodians, means paying a monthly premium of 112,850 won (US$96.71). As of last year, Koreans working 40 hours a week for the minimum wage were pulling in 1,745,000 won (US$1,495) a month. Since these Cambodians are working for 11-12 hours a day and six days a week, they ought to be making much more, but they occupy a legal loophole. When it comes to agro-livestock workers, Korea’s Labor Standards Act exempts farmers from the typical requirements for work hours, break time, and days off – almost as if they were being punished for getting a low score on the Korean language test.

“All the vegetables that are served on our table come from the hands of migrant workers. In rural areas of Gyeonggi Province, the only people you see on Sunday are migrant workers. Most of them come here to work when they’re full of youth and energy, in their twenties 20s and 30s, only to be replaced, like a used-up battery, after less than five years,” said Kim Dal-seong, a pastor involved in helping migrant workers.

According to the Ministry of Justice, there were some 28,000 migrant laborers like Peukka employed on Korean farms in 2018.

Cooped up and shivering in a cramped, prefabricated structure

The “dormitory” is a shipping container, made of prefabricated sandwich panels, measuring barely 49.6 square meters and located inside a greenhouse. All eight of the Cambodians – five women and three men – are housed here. The container is divided into three rooms, each measuring about 16.5 square meters, with two or three workers sharing each room. Living in this fire trap of a dormitory forces the workers to constantly stay close to the crops: it’s attached to one side of the farm, so that the workers can be sent to the greenhouses at any time. Next to the entrance are stacks of work gloves and hundreds of boxes for pimpinella, spinach, lettuce, and Swiss chard.

Growing up in Southeast Asia left these Cambodians vulnerable to the cold winters of northern Gyeonggi Province, but the only heating in the prefabricated building is a space heater, and the floor is frigid. Hot showers aren’t an option, and even the cold water is frequently interrupted. The workers use groundwater for washing and cooking (but not drinking), even though it’s liable to contain the chemicals that are sprayed on the crops. Other than the recently purchased pollack, there’s nothing to eat in the dormitory fridge. In one corner of the kitchen is a heap of banana and tangerine peels, the remains of snacks the workers ate to take the edge off their hunger.

While these Cambodians have come all the way to Korea with the hope of making some money and living a better life, their diet here is even worse than back in Cambodia. Because of their constant work and the poorly furnished kitchen, it’s impossible to have regular meals. “Since I like cooking, I would make three side dishes to go with rice back in Cambodia. But in Korea, I only make a single side dish, even on my birthday. Work is so exhausting that I don’t have any time to fix much to eat,” said Sseomnang, 30, who works with Peukka.

All day long, Korean television channels run “meokbang” (a neologism that combines the Korean words for “eat” and “broadcast”) programs that focus on people going to down on tasty dishes, but Peukka and the other workers would be lucky to go out for barbecue once a year. Getting up early in the morning means they have to skip breakfast. Their 30-minute lunch break doesn’t give them enough time to cook anything other than instant noodles. “There are about 30 Southeast Asian supermarkets around here, but our best-selling product is ramen noodles,” said a Korean who’s been running one of those supermarkets for a decade.

Even at night, when hungry bellies are waiting to be filled, the workers’ meal consists of a single side dish and a heaping bowl of rice. The day I visited, though, the workers had a treat: the pollack delivery meant they had two side dishes, instead of one. While Peukka was grilling the pollack and preparing a Cambodian curry dish called chakeudao, the water from the faucet kept cutting out. She heated the seasoning on the greased pan and then tossed in Cambodian-style fish sauce and chopped chicken. Some diced red peppers and lotdi, a Thai seasoning, brought the chakeudao to perfection.

“Dinner’s ready!” Peukka said, banging on a panel wall. That brought over her coworkers, who were chattering together in Khmer.

Still planting trees for the future

Within 20 minutes, the big bowls of rice were emptied. During their short meal, the Cambodians’ faces came alive, as they shared stories about their families back home. Peukka came to Korea after her husband passed away; today, she supports her parents and her younger siblings. She uses the money earned in Korea to buy land in Cambodia and plant tropical fruit trees. While she’s tending someone else’s land in Korea, her family members are tending her land back home.

Sseomnang has been in Korea for four years now. Whenever sickness brings him down, the thought of his parents and child back at home help him stay strong. Two years ago, he married a Cambodian woman who works at another farm. His parents are taking care of their eight-month-old child in Cambodia.

“We miss our child, but we want to keep earning money in Korea for our future,” he said. Even though Sseomnang is crouched down in a cold room in the container building, for a moment, his face seems to be caressed by a gentle breeze from back home, Kampot, Cambodia.

Written by: Bae Ji-hyun
Source: Hankyoreh
Published on 25 January 2020


Making illegal [sic] Thais legal in S. Korea

BANGKOK: The government needs to tackle the issue of unscrupulous recruitment agents if it hopes to curb the number of phi noi, or “little ghosts”, in South Korea, in reference to Thai immigrant labourers.

According to the Bangkok Post, the Thai government was looking into the possibility of increasing the quota under the Employment Permit System and providing courses, such as language proficiency, to upgrade the skills of Thai labourers to work in South Korea.

Employment Department director-general Suchat Pornchaiwiseskul said they were working with their South Korean counterparts to turn these phi noi into legal workers.

“The government is struggling to deal with illegal migrant labourers returning to Thailand after the South Korean government grants them amnesty.

“These illegal migrants will not be blacklisted and will be allowed to return to work in South Korea again, thanks to a memorandum of understanding between Thai and South Korean governments.”

About 150,000 Thai migrants are working in South Korea, of whom 70,000 hold work permits. The Labour Ministry expects more than 60,000 Thai illegal labourers will return to the country by the end of June.

South Korea is becoming a preferred destination for Thai blue collar workers because of the attractive salary, while South Korean employers also prefer Thai workers in some popular businesses, such as Thai massage outlets and factories.

Apart from trying to improve the skills of Thai labourers and seeking a bigger quota of jobs they can legally perform, the Labour Ministry is struggling to find a way to deal with recruitment agents.

These agents are a major factor that led to the rise of the phi noi.

Chulalongkorn University’s East Asian Studies Institute researcher Samarn Laodamrongchai said phi noi migrants cannot get jobs by themselves and get assistance from Thai and South Korean agencies, which lure them to work by promising high salaries.

Recruitment agencies charge each worker about US$6,000 for travel and job arrangements.

“Some workers get a loan from a local agent just to travel to work in South Korea. Working in foreign countries is not a matter of money for these villagers. It is also a question of pride for families as those workers return home with a lot of money,” said a recruitment agent in Udon Thani province.

Some workers might take two years to pass training and language courses, so they use recruitment agencies to get jobs for them.

One legal Thai worker who obtained a legal job under the EPS system told the Bangkok Post that the increasing number of phi noi reflects the labour shortage problem in South Korea.

“Migrant workers attract business owners because of their low wages. Small- and medium-sized enterprise owners are likely to hire these kind of workers.”

He said massage and spa businesses were growing and tied to the sex industry, as some women provided sexual services with a massage.

“The problem is those who do not consent are eventually forced to do so,” he said.

Thai embassy in Seoul labour attaché Pinyuda Chamchansri said the South Korean government launched a scheme to reduce the number of Thai migrants by allowing them to return home legally before June 30.

“For those who want to come back legally, the government gives them an opportunity to clear their criminal records.

“However, if they are caught again they will be fined according to how long they have violated the law during their stay.”

Source: New Strait Times
Published on 3 January 2020

Thais sought for jobs abroad

The Labour Ministry has set a target to formally send 100,000 Thai labourers abroad this year to prevent them from travelling overseas to seek employment illegally, said Labour Minister MR Chatu Mongol Sonakul.

The minister said the ministry will recruit an initial batch of 70 workers, to be sent to work in casinos and hotels in Macau, China.

According to him, the ministry is aiming to send 34,100 workers to Taiwan, 12,200 to South Korea, 7,300 to Japan, 5,000 to Israel and other countries this year.

“Working with these countries is important not only because they are popular among Thai workers due to the pay and living conditions they offer, but also because these countries have developed labour markets and training systems,” said the minister.

“These will help Thai workers improve their efficiency. Their model will benefit our workers — turning them from unskilled labourers into professional, skilled migrants.”

Suchat Pornchaiwiseskul, director-general of the Department of Employment, said the ministry has been approached by Macau-based Sands China Limited, which is looking to hire 70 workers to work in its hotel and gaming businesses for about 40,000 baht a month.

“Those who are interests can inquire about application procedures from the department’s recruitment office. Applications are accepted until the end of the month,” he said.

Mr Suchat said interested Thai nationals can apply through the department’s website to save time and money.

According to him, the department’s new website will benefit both employees and employer, as they can access a wide range of information about working abroad, from entry and re-entry requirements for employees working abroad to permit application information for employees.

“The website has been designed to make it easy for people to follow our labour laws in the most convenient way. It responds to many needs and people can receive services no matter where or when, which is important for migrant workers staying far away from a brick-and-mortar office,” he said.

Source: Bangkok Post
Published on 3 January 2020

Korea, Thailand sign MOU to curb flow of illegal migrant workers

The justice ministry will work with Thailand’s labor ministry to prevent the flow of unregistered migrant workers to Korea, according to an agreement signed between the two ministries on the sidelines of the ASEAN-Korea Commemorative Summit, Monday.

The memorandum of understanding ― the result of a year of working-level negotiations ― was signed amid the recent rise in unregistered Thai workers here. According to immigration office data from July, 40 percent of 37,889 undocumented foreign residents living in Korea were Thai nationals. Illegal migrants make up around 15 percent of the foreign community in Korea.

“The two countries were of mutual understanding that the rise in illegally staying Thai people in Korea could harm friendly initiatives between the two countries, such as the mutual 90-day visa waiver policy (for Korean and Thai citizens),” the justice ministry said in a press statement.

Through the new agreement, Korean immigration authorities will have access to the Thai ministry’s information on Thai people suspected of working illegally in Korea. Likewise, the justice ministry will share its information on unregistered Thai migrants it is aware of. Regular working-level talks will be held between the two ministries once a year.

As one solution to the rise in unregistered workers, the Korean ministry also proposed an expansion of the five-month seasonal workers program, overseen by the Korean government to supply farm laborers to the emptying countryside during peak harvest season.

Written by Lee Suh-yoon
Source: Korea Times
Published on 27 November 2019

Foreign ministry calls on South Korea to take on more Cambodian migrant workers

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn on Monday requested the government of the Republic of Korea to receive more Cambodian migrant workers.

The request was made at a bilateral meeting with South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha during the Asean-Republic of Korea Commemorative Summit in Busan.

Along with the request, the ministry announced on Facebook on Tuesday that both parties had signed documents on economic, trade and cultural relations, as well as demining aid in Cambodia.

Sokhonn also thanked Korea for providing opportunities to Cambodian migrant workers and boosting quotas to receive them.

He expects that the meeting would further improve relations between the two countries.

“Cambodian workers who come to work in the Republic of Korea not only receive high income to support their families but also gain competitive skills that they can apply once they return to Cambodia,” Sokhonn said.

Speaking about the Kingdom’s migrant workers, Kang said: “The Republic of Korea has excellent working conditions and has high support for the rights and wellbeing of the workers.

“Cambodian migrant workers who had been working in South Korea have contributed to the economic development of our country,” she said.

Although Kang had acknowledged the contributions of Cambodian migrant workers, she has yet to reply to Sokhonn’s request.

The ministry’s spokesman Koy Kuong could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, but Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour told The Post on Tuesday that Prime Minister Hun Sen aims to increase the number of migrant workers to South Korea.

“We are grateful to Korea for hearing the request of Samdech Techo [Hun Sen]. The working conditions in South Korea are good. The work encourages highly technical skills and knowledge,” he said.

As of October, there had been 55,000 Cambodians working in South Korea, generating more than $500 million a year in remittances, Heng Sour said.

In September, Cambodia had a higher number of migrant workers in South Korea compared to 15 other countries. This encouraged the government to keep sending about 6,000 migrant workers a year.

The executive director of the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (Central) Moeun Tola told The Post previously that as well as sending a large number of migrant workers abroad, the Kingdom also needs to create more jobs to encourage workers to remain in Cambodia.

Written by Long Kimmarita
Source: Phonm Penh Post
Published on 26 November 2019

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