Migrant workers treated as 'disposable labour' in South Korea

Visiting booth at Hwaseong detention centre, South Korea, November 2008.

Visiting booth at Hwaseong detention centre, South Korea, November 2008.

© Amnesty International


21 October 2009

Many migrant workers in South Korea are beaten, trafficked for sexual exploitation and denied their wages for long periods despite the introduction of rules to protect their rights, said Amnesty International in a report issued on Wednesday.   

In the 98-page report, Disposable Labour: Rights of migrants workers in South Korea, Amnesty International documented how migrant workers often work with heavy machinery and dangerous chemicals without sufficient training or protective equipment and are at greater risk of industrial accidents, including fatalities, and receive less pay compared to South Korean workers.   

“Migrant workers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation largely because they cannot change jobs without their employer’s permission,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Programme Director. “Work conditions are sometimes so bad that they run away and consequently, lose their regular status and are then subject to arrest and deportation.”

South Korea was one of the first Asian countries to legally recognise the rights of migrant workers and granted them the same status as Korean workers with equal labour rights, pay and benefits.

However, five years on from the implementation of the Employment Permit System (EPS) that was meant to better protect the rights of migrant workers; many continue to face hardships and abuse.   

In September 2008, there were an estimated 220,000 irregular migrant workers in the country.

The government of South Korea pledged to half this number by 2012, launching a massive and sometimes violent crackdown on migrant workers. Immigration officers and the police are accused of sometimes using excessive force against migrant workers and operating outside the law.

“Disposable Labour” documents how the South Korean government has not sufficiently monitored workplaces, with high numbers of accidents, inadequate medical treatment and compensation, and unfair dismissals.   

Amnesty International interviewed migrant workers who described how their employers forced them to work long hours and night shifts, without overtime pay, and often had their wages withheld by their employers.

“Despite the advances of the EPS system, the cycle of abuse and mistreatment continues as thousands of migrant  workers find themselves at the mercy of employers and the authorities who mistreat them knowing their victims have few legal rights and are unable to access justice or seek compensation for the abuse,” said Roseann Rife.

Amnesty International research shows that women are at particular risk of abuse.  Several female workers recruited as singers in US military camp towns have been trafficked into sexual exploitation, including the sex industry, by their employers and managers.
Amnesty International spoke to trafficked women who said they had no choice but to remain in their jobs because they were in debt to their employer and did not know where to turn to for help.  If the women ran away, they risked losing their legal status and being subject to deportation.

“These women are double victims, first they are trafficked and then they become “illegal” migrants under South Korean law when they attempt to escape from their exploitative situation,” said Roseann Rife.

Amnesty International calls on the government of South Korea:
  • to ensure that employers respect, protect and promote the rights of migrant workers through rigorous labour inspections so that the workplace is safe, training is provided and migrant workers are paid fairly and on time;
  • to protect and promote the rights of all female migrant workers and stamp out sexual harassment and sexual exploitation; 
  • to allow irregular migrant workers to remain in South Korea while accessing justice and seeking compensation for abuses by employees; 
  • to ensure that during immigration raids, immigration authorities adhere to South Korean law requiring them to identify themselves, present a warrant, caution and inform migrant workers of their rights, and provide those under their custody prompt medical treatment when needed or requested.

South Korea: Disposable labour: Rights of migrant workers in South Korea

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Index Number: ASA 25/001/2009
Date Published: 21 October 2009
Categories: South Korea

With the implementation of the Employment Permit System (EPS) in August 2004, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) became one of the first Asian countries to legally recognise the rights of migrant workers. Now five years into the EPS work scheme, migrant workers continue to be at risk of human rights abuses and many of the exploitative practices that existed under the previous Industrial Trainee System still persist under the EPS. In this report Amnesty International identifies areas of concern such as recruitment, health and safety, detention and working conditions.


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