18 December 2009
Protect migrant workers in South Korea

ProtestSouth Korea was one of the first Asian countries to guarantee the rights of migrant workers - but today migrant workers in the country are exposed to abusive work conditions including discrimination, verbal and physical abuse.

Around 500,000 low-skilled migrant workers are employed in South Korea in manufacturing, construction, agriculture and other industries.

They are required to work long hours, night shifts, many without overtime pay, and often have their wages withheld. On average, they are paid less than South Korean workers in similar jobs and are at greater risk of industrial accidents, with inadequate medical treatment or compensation.

Women migrant workers are particularly at risk of exploitation. Many are sexually assaulted or harassed by management staff or their co-workers and some female workers have been trafficked by their employers.

The South Korean government announced in September 2008 that they are going to “harshly deal with illegal foreigners” and reduce them by half by 2012.

This has meant a dramatic increase in immigration raids of workplaces, on the streets, near public transportation hubs, in markets and in the private homes of migrant workers.  There was a 50 per cent increase in the number of arrests of irregular migrant workers from 2007 to 2008.

From January to May 2009, more than 11,000 irregular migrant workers were arrested and detained and more than 11,000 others were deported.

Amnesty International has reported instances of arbitrary arrest, collective expulsions and violations of law enforcement procedures when carrying out these crackdowns.

The mass crackdowns have put pressure on detention facilities, contributing to problems of overcrowding, poor living conditions and delayed access to medical treatment.

Some irregular migrant workers are held in former office spaces that have been remodelled as detention centres. These facilities are wholly inappropriate, as they were not designed to detain and house people. They have poor ventilation – some with no external windows – and lack outdoor recreational space.

Image caption: International Migrants' Day protest in front of Seoul Station, South Korea, 13 December 2009.

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