Interview with Mr Udaya Rai, Head of Migrant Trade Union (MTU), South Korea
This interview was conducted on February 2014. MTU, established in 2005, is a unique labour union catering to migrant workers. It is affiliated to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. MTU provides counselling to migrant workers facing workplace issues, conducts educational programs on Labour Laws, Korean Language, etc., and campaigns to stop deportation of undocumented workers and for rights of migrant workers. The current chairman of MTU, Mr Udaya Rai, is from Nepal and has been living in Korea for over 8 years. He speaks fluent Korean.
SD:How many migrant workers are there in Korea?
Mr. Rai: As far as I know, there are well over one million immigrants in Korea of whom 700,000 are migrant workers. There are various systems of visa for migrant workers, one of which is the Employment Permit System for 15 Asian countries under which around 250,000 workers are present in Korea.
SD: Where do the migrant workers work in Korea?
Mr. Rai:Migrant workers are almost always employed by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). They are employed largely in the agriculture/ fisheries, manufacturing, waste management, construction, and marine industries.
SD: What is the process for a migrant worker to enter Korea?
Mr. Rai:Under the EPS system, all prospect workers have to enter through government channels. Tests are held in home countries to select eligible applicants and they need to undergo some training, particularly language training, before entering Korea. Here, workers don’t need to pay agents in their home country like they do to get a job into Singapore or other countries. Once inside Korea, in case they want to get a new job, they can pay local employment agencies here to search a job for them. At one go, a worker can stay for 3 years in Korea.
SD: How is the compensation system for migrant workers in Korea?
Mr. Rai:In Korea, migrant workers are covered under the minimum wage scheme which mandates 5,210 Korean Won/ hour. But in the agricultural and fisheries sector, this is problematic because people work dawn to dusk and are still paid only on an eight hour basis. In other sectors, also migrant workers are not properly compensated for overtime work. My estimate is that only 10% of migrant workers get proper pay slips. Some employers provide dormitory accommodation for migrant workers; in other cases, the workers have to arrange for it themselves. In case of injury, the workers are usually covered under insurance but many times, their SME employers send them to small clinics instead of a proper hospital and don’t claim insurance out of fear of increase in premium the next time they apply for coverage. In these cases, the workers end up getting inadequate treatment.
SD: What is the state of the migrant workers in Korea?
Mr. Rai:It’s all good when things are going fine. The thing is that it’s the employer who has all the power. Migrant workers cannot change jobs without the consent of their present employer. In such a case, the only option is to wait till the contract ends. Also in South Korea, migrant workers are not allowed to unionize, strike, or bring in families. Korea has long been a homogenous society and I am not sure if they view migrant workers favorably yet. Migrant workers suffer frequent verbal and occasional physical abuse from their employers and fellow Korean workers.
SD: Is there any support system for migrant workers?
Mr. Rai:Migrant Trade Union always voices their concerns and fights for their rights. We are mainly fighting for three basic labour rights for migrant workers – Right to unionize, Right to bargain and Right to strike. Other than us, many lawyers and lawyer groups offer help to migrant workers. There are also counsellors and religious groups. Many city administrations have set up Migrant Services Centres to help migrant workers in various ways.
SD: Any final comments?
Mr. Rai: Korea has been saying that its EPS system is the best system in the world. But in practice, it’s not working and is heavily in favor of the employer. We need to change the Employment Permit system to a Work Permit System which will allow workers to bring in family members, change jobs, and longer residency.