[Interview] Festival shows reality of migrant labor “Earthians”

Posted on : 2014-11-14 16:33 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Foreign migrant laborers are often exploited as slaves by South Korean laws and their bosses

From Nov. 8 to Nov. 10, the 8th Migrant World Film Festival took place at Arirang Cine Media Center. On the final day of the festival, a special exhibition for migrant laborers in the South Korean agricultural and livestock industries was held, showing six documentaries ranging from 2 to 18 minutes in length.

After the screening, five of the migrant workers who appeared in the documentaries came on stage and to tell their stories. As they talked, the hands of the man recording them on his camera began to tremble.

The man behind the camera is Kim Yi-chan, 49, head of Earthians’ Station. Earthians’ Station is a shelter for migrant workers around Ansan in Gyeonggi Province which provides classes in video production and other skills.

Kim set up the shelter at the end of 2009. “Migrant workers aren’t citizens or permanent residents, right? I didn’t want to call them foreigners, either. That’s why I called them ’earthians,’ and since they aren’t staying here forever, I called this shelter a ‘station,’” he said. The documentaries in the special exhibition were all produced by Earthians’ Station.

Kim was the first to tell the world what it’s really like to be a migrant worker in the South Korean agriculture and livestock industries.

Migrants from Cambodia and other countries had to work for more than 12 hours a day at farms, in violation of their contracts. Sexual harassment was commonplace, and the workers were “rented” to other farms just like modern-day slaves.

After hearing about the stories of the people who came to South Korea as industrial trainees, Kim began meeting them. He even learned Cambodian and explained their legal options. As his name became more widely known, laborers began to seek help, calling and visiting the shelter one after the other.

In 2011, there was a surge in the number of female workers without a place to sleep who visited the shelter. Currently, around 70 male and female migrant workers who have nowhere to go are staying at two divided houses around 70 square meters in size.

Kim graduated with a law degree from Seoul National University, but he didn’t take the bar exam. “I didn’t want my life to be some cog in the machine separating those who have power from those who don’t. I wanted to be able to express my own ideas,” he said.

Throughout his time at university, he took classes in night school. He spent time with the workers who studied under him. He was popular at the night school, where people knew him as the guy who played the guitar.

For a while, Kim worked as a producer at a cable broadcaster. During his four years there, he directed more than 50 stand-alone programs. But he resigned “because it wasn’t interesting” and started making documentaries, the work that he had always wanted to do.

His 2000 documentary “Democracy Uprising,” which tells the stories of Burmese living and working in South Korea, won an award at the Seoul Independent Film Festival that year. “Going Together,” a 2003 documentary that depicted the strike of migrant laborers working at a furniture factory, was also reviewed favorably.

“I wanted to know about the lives of these strangers living in a strange land. I wanted to get to know them and to learn more about the world, to come to understand it,” Kim said.

But Kim’s transformation from director to advocate for migrant laborers came when the Ansan Migrant Community Service Center, which was established at the end of the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003-2008), started offering classes in video production.

Earthians’ Station is in need of a new home. Kim’s dream is to turn it into a community living center. On Nov. 16 from 5 to 7 pm, an event will be held at Jakdang Cafe (4 Damunhwa 1-gil, Ansan) to raise funds for finding a new home for the shelter.

“Before we put vegetables on the table, we need to know how they got to us. The employment permit system needs to be fixed and Article 63 of the Labor Standards Act needs to be abolished,” Kim said.

Article 63 is the part of the law that defines “exceptional workers,” who are excluded from the protection of the Labor Standards Act in regard to working hours, break time, and vacation days.

By Park Mi-hyang, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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