"At the vegetable farm, I regularly worked from six am to midnight with only an hour lunch break. The employer got angry anytime we took a break to stretch our body [...] When I complained to the job center, the caseworker just called my boss and accepted at face value the promise he made to her. She did not follow up, so nothing changed." These are the words of CF, a Cambodian migrant laborer in South Korea, speaking to Amnesty International (AI) in Gyeonggi Province in February 2013.
CF is one of 28 migrant agricultural workers interviewed by the human rights group across the country for its report "Bitter Harvest," which focuses on the working conditions of migrants in the East Asian nation's farming industry. The 87-page document, released on October 20, examines a range of issues including incidents of contractual deception, intimidation, trafficking, violence, squalid accommodation, excessive working hours with no weekly rest days and unpaid overtime.
AI: 'A stain on the country'
The paper found that, on average, the interviewees worked more than 10 hours a day, 28 days a month, which was usually 50 hours more per month than stated in their contracts. 23 of the migrant laborers reportedly never received any payment for working longer than their contracted hours and none were given any paid annual leave.
"The exploitation of migrant farm workers in South Korea is a stain on the country. The authorities have created a shameful system that allows trafficking for exploitation and forced labor to flourish," said Norma Kang Muico, AI's Asia-Pacific Migrant Rights Researcher.
The rights group argues that South Korea's 10-year-old Employment Permit System (EPS) - a government-run work scheme designed to provide migrant labor to small and medium-sized enterprises which struggle to hire a sufficient number of national workers - has increased the migrant workers' risk of exploitation.
The EPS "directly contributes to human and labor rights violations by severely restricting migrant workers' ability to change jobs and challenge abusive practices by employers," said AI, adding that workers in the farming sector are excluded from key legal protections afforded to most of the country's workforce.
There are approximately 20,000 migrant agricultural workers in South Korea, with many arriving from Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam under the EPS. Some take on huge debts equivalent to two years' salary in their home country to get a job in the East Asian nation.
Lack of legal protection
Hae Yeon Choo, assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto Mississagua agrees that the key issue lies with the limitations of the EPS. "The EPS is a 'guestworker' system, under which migrants do not have a possibility to settle permanently in South Korea, and have to leave once their labor contracts expire."
But while the EPS is widely regarded as an improvement of South Korea's previous migrant labor system - as it acknowledges labor rights of migrant workers in all sectors - it also constrains workers' freedom to choose the workplace. "Migrant workers are bound by the labor contract and the visa stipulations to a particular employer, and while they can change the workplace up to three times, they need an authorization from the employer to do so," said Choo.
The migration expert explains that while there are exceptions to this rule, for example in the case of abuse, lack of payment, the closure of the workplace, it is not easy to prove exploitation, especially for migrant workers who often lack the Korean language proficiency and knowledge of the law.
Moreover, in the agricultural sector, where the workplaces are more dispersed geographically, and workers work in smaller units and in various locations, the condition for collective mobilization is less favorable, so support from the long-standing co-ethnic migrant community is less likely to come by, Choo added.
'There is little concern'
The AI report also claims that when the interviewees sought help from the authorities, they were actively discouraged from taking the issues forward and were often told to go back to their employers and apologize or to ask them to sign a release form. "The Korean authorities have effectively cornered the migrant workers into abusive conditions by turning a blind eye to the blatantly exploitative work practices and letting the perpetrators off scot-free," said AI researcher Kang Muico.
In the eyes of both the employers and the government, these workers are there to play a temporary role in the economy and not much else, John Skrentny, a migration expert and Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, told DW. "There is little discussion or concern for their rights, and little conception of them as fully human, as people with hopes, dreams and emotional needs."
Skrentny also points to the fact that South Koreans refer to them as "foreign workers" and not "immigrants," an aspect important to understand why low-skilled migrants are only allowed in on short-term visas and can never bring their family members to South Korea. "The government is interested in keeping family members out because, among other things, children's public schooling can add costs to the government, and this, as well as other social disruptions that diversity might bring, are to be avoided," said the migration expert.
Many migrants in South Korea are also frequently afraid to complain of poor treatment because they don't want to lose their jobs or the opportunity to renew their visa, Skrentny added. In many if not most cases, their families are dependent on remittances. "There is frequently the hope that things will improve, and that the workers can earn money to send children to school and give them a better life. It is this hope that leads so many to be tricked and deceived regarding conditions of employment in the first place," said the analyst.
'Difficult to be optimistic'
In light of this development, both Amnesty International and migration advocacy groups have made several recommendations to the South Korean government which include reforming the EPS into a labor permit system, so that migrant workers have the freedom to change workplace, and extending the rights of all workers in respect to work hours, daily breaks and weekly paid rest days.
However, many including Skrentny and Choo remain concerned. They argue that while the EPS, at least on paper provides more rights for the workers, and periodically, the government has opened doors wider for migrants by allowing the employment permits to last longer, there is still a long way to go before these workers are treated as equals.
"The overall labor and social rights in South Korea for both migrant and local workers have been eroded under the current conservative government, and it is difficult to be optimistic about the reform of the EPS and the recognition of a Migrant Trade Union, which I think are key to guarantee the labor and human rights of migrant workers," said Choo.