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Human Rights Series 4th: Interview with Dea Hwan An, the head of the Korea Migration Foundation

최종 수정일: 2023년 11월 27일

Interviewed and reported by Sung Jae Ahn

September 10, 2023

The place did not at all seem managed or supervised under the eyes of public security. With broken chunks of concrete haphazardly scattered around and crude metal structures mimicking the function of walls, the pathway looked more like a temporary shortcut built for the convenience of construction workers. The way leads to a rusty marketplace, bustling with people but not enough to cover the passage of time. Squeezed in between miscellaneous stores was the hardly noticeable entrance of the Korea Migration Foundation, a “government-sponsored” organization that aids foreign workers who report to have received unjust treatment from their employers.

Inside of the building did not look any better; even without the strange smell, I could just tell that the place was not made through proper construction measures, but rather coarsely repaired and remodeled with whatever came to hand. My intention of visiting the Korea Migration Foundation was to interview Mr. Dea Hwan An, the head of the organization, who has devoted 25 years to defending the human rights of foreign workers in South Korea since 1998. I wanted to hear the vivid testimony of those who are drowning in the crevice of bitter reality.

Question 1: What is the core problem of unregistered foreign workers living in Korea?

Foreign workers join the Korean economy through the Employment Permit System that is operated by the Ministry of Employment and Labor, but the system operates very much in favor of Korean employers. This means foreign workers are not able to properly demand working conditionimprovements and are often mistreated by their employers. Furthermore, with no one to over look how they are treated, foreign workers encounter the hard rocks of society’s irrationalities: not receiving wages properly is cute compared to fraudulent contracts, getting beaten up, and being sexually assaulted. Even if they report to a local police station, they are only met with the reply that there is no evidence—the reporter himself should prepare the evidence, which is an unrealistic solution. If the situation deteriorates down to an unbearable level, foreign workers resort to one of the two choices: they leave the workplace after getting permission from their employer (yes, foreign workers are only allowed to quit when given permission from their employer. This is because they are given work visas under the Employment Permit System that is operated by the Ministry of Employment and Labor, which, as mentioned before, is extremely tilted towards Korean employers), or quit without permission and become illegal immigrants, a state subject to immediate arrest upon discovery. If they are arrested, they are sent back to their home country, which does not at all consider the fact that they barely came to Korea to earn money.

Question 2 : How many non-registered foreign workers are present in South Korea and why do they choose to stay instead of going back to their home country?

According to the Oct. 2022 statistics report from the Ministry of Justice, the number of foreigners living in Korea is 2.3 million. Illegal immigrants take up 18% of that count, which corresponds to 410k people and double the number of those in 2014; this number is still rapidly increasing and is expected to jump even higher in the future.

Why is that so? Well, it’s because the typical salary foreign workers can earn from their home country is way below the minimum wage of Korea, meaning work in Korea is very profitable even if criminally underpaid. From employers’ point of view, non-registered foreign workers and their low salary below the legal minimum wage are essential to maintain their business profitable.

Question 3 : What is the main business of the Korea Migration Foundation?

All companies are greedy, and they aim to maximize profits. Since it is difficult to lower the price of materials used for manufacturing their products, firms often resort to reducing the pay of their workers, especially those who are easily replaceable and have little economic and political influence. Low-skilled workers perfectly satisfy that criteria: they exist in abundance, which, by the laws of supply and demand, lower the price of their work in the labor market; they are also likely to raise little to no controversy about mistreatment, since their voices are small and the places they can appeal are limited. This system is embedded deeply in the economics of whatever country, and in Korea, that class of low-skilled workers just happened to be foreigners. This system would take an immense amount of time to be rebuilt and have its root of the cause removed. In conclusion, the only real solution we currently have is to provide after-care to compensate for the lacking conditions foreign workers encounter.

The Korea Migration Foundation, therefore, acts as a refuge for foreign workers, at least to the extent that it can embrace: if someone seeks help with legal action against their employer, Mr. Dea Hwan An collects and documents evidence to proceed with everything that requires specialized knowledge; if someone has nowhere to go and seeks physical refuge, they are allowed to sleep in a space in the office specifically rearranged for such people; the Foundation also teaches foreign workers Korean, which could give significant convenience both at work and in daily life issues.

You can donate to the Korea Migration Foundation and support foreign workers in Korea.

If you wish to, please fill in the form below.

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