Migrant workers' rights groups stage rally demanding better treatment

By Lee Hyo-jin Hundreds of migrant workers and local activists marched down the streets of central Seoul, Sunday, staging a rally calling for better working and living conditions and the eradication of discrimination. The event, co-organized by over 20 migrant workers' support groups including the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Social and Labor Affairs Committee of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and Hope Center along with migrant workers, began at 2 p.m. in front of Bosingak Pavilion in Jongno District. Undeterred by freezing temperatures, about 200 foreign workers and members of civic groups gathered, holding placards reading, "Guarantee freedom to switch jobs" and "Stop discrimination in COVID-19 relief funds." According to its organizers, the rally was held to mark International Migrants Day which falls on Dec. 18. But it took place on Sunday as most migrant workers do not get a day off on Saturdays. The organizers also noted that the rally was held with a limited number of attendees, adhering to the government's COVID-19 social distancing measures. Memorial ceremony of deceased Cambodian worker A memorial ceremony was held during the rally to mark the first anniversary of the death of Cambodian migrant worker Nuon Sokkheng. On Dec. 20, 2020, the 31-year-old worker was found dead inside a vinyl greenhouse at a farm in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, where she had been living. The heating system was not working in the facility that day as the region was gripped by a cold spell. Her death shed light on the dire living conditions of foreign workers, prompting civic groups to call on the government to implement measures to ensure basic living standards for the workers in order to prevent further tragedy. In his commemorative speech, Ven. Jimong, head of the Social and Labor Affairs Committee of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, said, "One year has passed since Sokkheng's tragic death in a vinyl greenhouse which occurred during the last few days before she was to return to her home country." After her death, a flight ticket to Cambodia scheduled for Jan. 10 was found in her room, he said. "But due to a lack of effective policies, many migrant workers are still deprived of basic rights to housing and suffer from poor access to healthcare. The central and local governments should come up with comprehensive measures based on the understanding that the Employment Permit System (EPS) is criticized as being modern day slavery." 'We are essential, not disposable' "In Korea, it's hard to find something produced without foreign manpower, ranging from groceries, daily necessities, automobiles, ships and buildings," said Udaya Rai, head of a migrant workers' union under the KCTU, explaining that some 1.2 million foreign nationals are employed in the agricultural, fishery and manufacturing sectors and construction sites. "However, we, migrant workers, are still being treated like disposable goods. We face continuous discrimination, mistreatment, verbal and physical abuse by employers. Also, many workers suffer from excessively long working hours and low pay." The activist called for an overhaul of the EPS program and improvement of the current labor system that has created such working conditions. A female worker who serves as an interpreter at a support center for multicultural families run by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, whose identity was not disclosed, urged the fair payment of wages and improved labor rights. According to the woman, the wage guidelines set by the ministry only state that interpreters and counselors should be paid "over the minimum wage." Due to an absence of specific manuals on pay raises or additional payments, many workers are being paid less than their actual working hours. "The standard wage of an employee with one year of job experience and those who have worked for 10 consecutive years are the same. There are many cases in which interpreters are denied payment for additional working hours and maternity leave," she said. Carlo Oliver, head of Kassama-ko, a migrant workers group based in the Philippines, said, "Our call today is to replace the Employment Permit System into a Working Permit System, provision of humane dormitory residence for all migrants and to ensure them the freedom to switch jobs." The statements were followed by a music performance by Padma, a rock band formed by a Japanese-Korean international couple, who sang a song they wrote themselves called "Free Job Change." The participants then marched through the streets to Cheong Wa Dae, chanting slogans such as "Freedom to change jobs" and "No discrimination."
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