Shuttering all foreign worker support centers, S. Korea leaves migrants to fend for themselves

Posted on : 2023-11-21 17:23 KST Modified on : 2023-11-21 17:24 KST
The Korean government has slashed the entire budget for migrant worker support centers for next year, closing down an important resource for the increasing number of foreigners working in the country
Two migrant workers from Myanmar speak with an assistant at the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, on Nov. 12. (Lee Jun-hee/The Hankyoreh)
Two migrant workers from Myanmar speak with an assistant at the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, on Nov. 12. (Lee Jun-hee/The Hankyoreh)

Islam, a 31-year-old Bangladeshi migrant worker who came to South Korea in April, arrived for work at a furniture factory in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, one day in early September. Yet upon his arrival, his boss once again declined to give him any work. For three months, Islam’s boss had refused to assign him work or pay his wages, all without any particular explanation.

This is a common tactic used by Korean bosses to keep migrant workers in line. Struggling to make ends meet, Islam begged for work, but his boss pushed him to the ground and beat him.

If Islam hadn’t sought the help of a foreign worker support center, he would most likely have become an “illegal” immigrant. In reality, many workers in South Korea end up undocumented under similar circumstances: After experiencing harassment by employers or fellow Korean employees, they flee their workplaces, which results in them losing their documented status.

Under current laws in Korea, migrant workers cannot change workplaces without their employer granting permission. Thanks to the foreign worker support center, Islam was able to file a police report about his assault and find different opportunities for work.

Migrant workers receive help or wait to be helped at the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, on Nov. 12. (Lee Jun-hee/The Hankyoreh)
Migrant workers receive help or wait to be helped at the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, on Nov. 12. (Lee Jun-hee/The Hankyoreh)

When the Hankyoreh visited the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers on Nov. 12 it was packed with foreign workers seeking assistance, despite it only being 10 am.

The Uijeongbu center is the only such foreign worker support center in northern Gyeonggi Province. Migrant workers come from Uijeongbu, Dongducheon and Pocheon, as well as from other districts in Gyeonggi Province and neighboring Gangwon Province.

From January through October 2023 alone, the center has conducted 30,767 consultations. However, the center will close next year as a result of the government cutting the entire 7.18 billion won (US$5.58 million) budget for foreign worker support centers like it nationwide.

Despite shuttering all centers dedicated to ensuring the rights of foreign workers, the government is planning to increase the number of foreigners working in South Korea to 120,000 in 2024.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor has said that regional employment and labor offices would conduct counseling and education directly, but those in the field say this is “completely unrealistic.”

“Migrant workers find it difficult to leave their workplaces on weekdays, so most of them come for counseling on Sundays. I find it hard to believe that government offices, which are closed on weekends, will be able to handle them all,” said Kim Tae-il, who serves as head of the Uijeongbu center’s education team.

Migrant workers pose for a photo at their graduation ceremony on June 11 for a Korean and IT class offered by the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province. The Uijeongbu center alone sees about 1,000 students in its Korean classes per year. (courtesy of the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers)
Migrant workers pose for a photo at their graduation ceremony on June 11 for a Korean and IT class offered by the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province. The Uijeongbu center alone sees about 1,000 students in its Korean classes per year. (courtesy of the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers)

Another problem that the closure of these centers poses is the collapse of the networks formed by the centers and migrant workers. For most migrant workers, their relationship with the Korean government is incredibly one-sided, with the government’s main job being to crack down and deport them. That will make it difficult for those in need to voluntarily visit offices run by the government to seek help.

The support centers, on the other hand, are staffed by people who have been interacting with migrants in the community for over a decade and have built up trust. At the Uijeongbu center the Hankyoreh visited, not only did many migrants seek consultations about employment and visa issues, but also personal issues such as day-to-day life and family matters.

This network connects Korean society with the migrant community. Migrant workers who have spent years going to the support centers naturally take on leadership roles in their respective communities. They teach the “newcomers” from their countries the rules to follow in Korea and help them resolve their problems above board and according to the law with the help of the support centers.

“If this network disappears, brokers who want money will take over, and crime will increase,” said Lee Sang-gu, the director of the Uijeongbu center.

Yang Mo-min, a counselor at the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers speaks with a migrant from Bangladesh on Nov. 12. (Lee Jun-hee/The Hankyoreh)
Yang Mo-min, a counselor at the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers speaks with a migrant from Bangladesh on Nov. 12. (Lee Jun-hee/The Hankyoreh)

Yang Mo-min, a 50-year-old naturalized citizen from Bangladesh who works as a counselor at the Uijeongbu center, showed the Hankyoreh his counseling records with Islam. It showed 21 sessions (13 in person and eight over the phone) over the span of two months.

“I don't know if government agencies care about these people as much as the support center does,” Yang said with a sad smile. In front of the consultation desk where Yang sits, migrant workers have signed a petition that reads, “We oppose the closure of the center.”

By Lee Jun-hee, staff reporter

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

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