As Workforce Ages, South Korea Increasingly Depends On Migrant Labor : NPR

A Cambodian migrant worker stands in front of the greenhouse where she grows vegetables in Miryang, South Korea. Anthony Kuhn / NPR hide caption

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Anthony Kuhn / NPR

A Cambodian migrant worker stands in front of the greenhouse where she grows vegetables in Miryang, South Korea.

Anthony Kuhn / NPR

South Korean labor rights activist Kim Yi-chan’s Bus is not difficult to spot as it is on the country roads of. moves Miryang City at the southern end of the Korean peninsula.

It is the only one with a banner in Korean and Khmer that reads “Migrant Agricultural Workers’ Human Rights Bus” as it travels through the narrow streets between farming villages and long rows of greenhouses.

The Khmer target Cambodian migrants whom Kim recently helped. The South Korean youth in this area are no longer interested in tillage.

Cambodia is the second largest source of migrant workers in South Korea after China. More than 32,500 Cambodians are in the country on a non-professional work visa and mainly do manual labor on farms and in factories and fisheries. There are around 222,500 such visa holders in South Korea.

The country is currently allowing migrants to fill the labor shortage, but may soon have to allow increased immigration to add to the aging and shrinking population.

Kim stops at farms and picks up migrants who are not satisfied with their working conditions. He helps them find new jobs on other farms, highlighting the conditions they face, including unpaid overtime, makeshift housing and no work breaks. Some also complain about a lack of privacy and unwanted physical contact by employers.

Kim says violating migrant workers’ rights is difficult to change because South Korea’s immigration system is stacked against it.

“Working conditions are bad and employers are breaking the law, but they still manage to hold onto their workers,” he says. “The workers are biting the bullet and staying because they are warned and threatened that if they leave, they can become illegal immigrants.”

The issue of migrant workers’ rights goes well beyond agriculture. The country’s population began to grow shrink for the first time last year, and the prospect of an aging society looms over South Korea’s future.

Cambodian farm workers and South Korean labor rights activists in Miryang, South Korea, protest against unfair working conditions with a banner that reads “We are not village slaves”. Anthony Kuhn / NPR hide caption

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Anthony Kuhn / NPR

Cambodian farm workers and South Korean labor rights activists in Miryang, South Korea, protest against unfair working conditions with a banner that reads “We are not village slaves”.

Anthony Kuhn / NPR

Chung Ki-seon, a migration expert at Seoul National University, says South Korea is accepting migrants because it needs to expand its workforce in agriculture, fishing, construction and manufacturing rather than to address demographic imbalances.

She predicts that the situation will change in the next decade as the country reaches a turning point that requires political change.

“The approximate age of the [Korean] The people who work in the fields now are over 70, “she says.” And when they are 75 or older, it becomes difficult for them to stay in their careers. “

But it is very difficult for migrants who work in South Korea to become citizens. Chung says the government knows that public opinion is against allowing mass immigration. In 2018, a Report on the ideal future level of immigration found that 42% of South Koreans were in favor of keeping current levels, while 32% were in favor of a decrease. Only 19% were in favor of an increase.

Korea has long viewed itself as a homogeneous culture, not as an immigrant nation or a multicultural society. In 2019, easy 3.4% of the population was strange. But demographics leave the government no choice but to allow more immigration, argues Chung, despite not calling its policies that.

“Although we call it a ‘foreigners’ policy, it has all the ingredients of an immigration policy,” says Chung. “The policy on foreigners includes measures for the integration and recognition of immigrants as members of society, either as citizens or as permanent residents.”

The pandemic has cut the influx of thousands of legally employed migrant workers from Southeast Asia and countries like Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Chung said 5,000 new seasonal workers should come into the country last year to work 90 days or less. But none of them could enter.

As a result, says Chung, “the farms are largely dependent on illegal immigrants, who cover 80 to 90 percent of this shortage.” There are more than 392,000 undocumented people in the country.

The pandemic is raising South Koreans’ awareness of the harsh conditions for migrants who toil on their farms, says Chung.

Last December that case a Cambodian migrant woman who died in a greenhouse she lived in focused on the problem. In response, the authorities no longer issued work permits to employers who had housed their workers in greenhouses and other improvised housing.

But the practice continues. Kim, the activist, stops to pick up a Cambodian migrant who is still living in a greenhouse covered with vinyl sheeting. Khen Srey Nuon lived in the greenhouse before the new rule was enacted. Her employer claims he offered her alternative accommodation, but she refused. Even so, she sounds unhappy about her life situation.

Crates of strawberries and peppers, which she harvests and packs, stand in front of a makeshift bedroom. Her bathroom and kitchen are in separate sheds outside.

Labor rights activists help a Cambodian farm worker move her belongings from her home in Miryang, South Korea The activists help migrants who complain of bad treatment find new jobs. Anthony Kuhn / NPR hide caption

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Anthony Kuhn / NPR

Labor rights activists help a Cambodian farm worker move her belongings from her home in Miryang, South Korea The activists help migrants who complain of bad treatment find new jobs.

Anthony Kuhn / NPR

“The water here freezes in winter,” she says. “My room is usually freezing too. It’s hard to live in. My employer gives me drinking water, but it’s not that clean, so I have to buy my own.”

On another farm, Cambodian migrant Kuong Srey tells Leab Kim that her employer is cheating on her by asking her to work for her relatives and friends, which is not specified in her employment contract.

“I work hard and it hurts, but I get paid very little,” she complains. “I also worked for my employer’s son and friends, and for others whose names I don’t even know.”

But according to the employers, working for relatives is part of everyday life in family businesses. They accuse union activists, including Kim, of stirring up trouble and undermining supposedly harmonious relationships between migrants and their employers.

“When the labor authorities came to inspect the workers, they didn’t say they were doing unpaid work,” said Yoon Sang-jin, who represents a group of local farmers who employ migrant workers. “But they are teaming up with these activists to take advantage of the farmers’ difficulties and profit themselves. We have not harmed them.”

NPR’s Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

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