Long considered the friendlier and less exploitative option for overseas Cambodian migrants, South Korea is now being slammed by Amnesty International for a number of abuses afflicting its migrant-dominated agriculture sector.
The 20,000 foreign workers fuelling South Korea’s farming industry regularly encounter intimidation, violence, excessive working hours, forced labour and no rest days, according to an Amnesty report released yesterday. And because of a “flawed” work permit scheme, the migrants have few options for recourse.
“[South Korea] is clearly intent on creating a very compliant, stable workforce,” said Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific migrant-rights researcher at Amnesty International.
“The system is really loaded against the worker and against complaining or changing jobs.”
Widely perceived as an exemplary exception amid a region notorious for poor migrant labour laws, South Korea’s Employment Permit System eschews private recruiters in favour of government agreed-upon quotas.
Employers struggling to find national workers can hire foreigners through the government-run system from 15 Asian countries, the top senders being Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, according to government immigration statistics.
An estimated 8,800 Cambodian workers were sent to South Korea in 2013, according to Cambodia’s Ministry of Labour.
But while it looks good on paper, “this work scheme directly contributes to human and labour rights violations by severely restricting migrant workers’ ability to change jobs and challenge abusive practices by employers”, says the Amnesty report.
Employees in the agriculture industry are omitted from key labour laws protecting most of the country’s workforce, and, though employers can sack hired hands at any time, migrants who try to change their job or address an abusive situation are often penalised in a way that threatens their immigration status.
Under the permit system, South Korea allows migrant workers to switch jobs a maximum of three times, though any change eliminates the possibility of a coveted, nearly five-year visa extension.
“A complaint about an abusive situation should never count against the worker, but I’ve never come across any cases where the complaint filed doesn’t count against them,” Muico said. “It is only workers who are in a very desperate situation when the abuse has become too awful that they will go to a job centre and try to change their employer.”
The majority of the dozens of migrant farm workers interviewed by Amnesty had racked up debts equivalent to more than two years’ annual salary in their home countries to secure overseas employment, a sum that made them loath to leave South Korea's monthly minimum of $1,158 - over 10 times what could be earned from the same work in Cambodia.
“I used to have a small problem with my employer, but I did not want to make it into a huge problem because I need this job in Korea,” said Roth Mony Muth, a 27-year-old from Svay Rieng. “Every day my employer said I was not working hard enough and blamed me. I apologised and tried to do better until he forgave me.”
Amnesty’s report found that on average, the interviewed migrants worked more than 50 hours over their contracted amounts, none was adequately – if at all – compensated for overtime, and no one was granted annual leave. Few received a single paid day off.
Sometimes the workers also faced violence, including beatings and sexual assault, according to Amnesty.
“One day at work, my back was hurting so much that I sat down for a while … my manager … ordered me to get up and continue working. So I did and began cutting … incorrectly,” said a 25-year-old Cambodian worker interviewed in the report. “The manager’s younger brother … held me by my neck while the manager beat me. They both then punched me all over my body and kicked me.”
Despite the rampant abuses, few file complaints. Labour groups in Cambodia, including Adhoc and the Community Legal Education Center, could recall only a single instance, nearly a decade ago, when a migrant returned with any objections.
Migrant workers who want to file a complaint in South Korea find the burden of proof becomes their responsibility and, if they want a place to sleep and food to eat, they have to continue working for their abusive employers while the case is “investigated”.
“In almost all cases there are no interpreters … so unless the worker is fluent in Korean, it is very difficult to get information about a very complicated legal system,” said Mikyung Ryu, international director of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. “The employers treat their workers like slaves with impunity.”
According to government statistics cited by Amnesty, only 1 per cent of investigated complaints in which the rights of migrant workers were found to be violated resulted in any legal sanction.
“If South Koreans were trapped in a similar cycle of abuse, there would rightly be outraged,” said Muico.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEN DAVID