South Korea: End rampant abuse of migrant farm workers

The South Korean government must end the exploitation and widespread use of forced labour of migrant agricultural workers, Amnesty International said, as it published a new report that reveals how the country’s farming industry is rife with abuse. 

Bitter Harvest exposes the true face of South Korea’s Employment Permit System (EPS) that directly contributes to the serious exploitation of migrant agricultural workers. The government-run work scheme is designed to provide migrant labour to small and medium-sized enterprises that struggle to hire a sufficient number of national workers.

“The exploitation of migrant farm workers in South Korea is a stain on the country. The authorities have created a shameful system that allows trafficking for exploitation and forced labour to flourish,” said Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific Migrant Rights Researcher at Amnesty International. 

“If South Koreans were trapped in a similar cycle of abuse, there would rightly be outrage.”

There are approximately 20,000 migrant agricultural workers in South Korea, with many arriving from Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam under the EPS migrant workers scheme. The majority take on huge debts equivalent to two years’ salary in their home country to get a job in South Korea.

Significant numbers of migrant agricultural workers have been trafficked for exploitation and forced labour. Incidents of contractual deception were recorded in all the cases Amnesty International investigated. The report shows that migrants are compelled to work in conditions that they did not agree to, under threat of some form of punishment, which amounts to forced labour. 

The report, based on interviews with migrant agricultural workers across South Korea, documents a range of exploitation. This includes intimidation and violence, squalid accommodation, excessive working hours, no weekly rest days and unpaid overtime.

The EPS is heavily loaded in favour of employers, leaving migrants trapped and vulnerable to abuse. Agricultural workers, of which many are migrant workers, are excluded from key legal protections afforded to most of the country’s workforce.

While an EPS employer can terminate a migrant’s contract without having to justify the decision, migrants who want to leave their job must obtain a release form signed by their employer, without which they risk being reported to the immigration authorities by their employer as “runaways”, subjecting them to arrest and deportation. Changing jobs can severely jeopardize a migrant’s chance of being able to extend their employment in South Korea after their initial contract– potentially denying a migrant worker additional years of work in the country.  

“The EPS leaves migrant workers at the mercy of unscrupulous employers who take advantage of the system’s severe restrictions on migrants’ ability to change jobs. For many migrants saddled with huge debts, staying with an abusive boss appears the only option,” said Norma Kang Muico.

A 26-year-old Vietnamese woman described how her employer tried to use the system to control her after she complained to a government-run job centre about unpaid wages: “My boss told me that he will never release me and will use me for three years and not allow me to extend my contract.”

Abusive conditions

Amnesty International found cases of migrant workers who were physically attacked by their employers. One Cambodian man recalled how he had sat down in a field because his back was hurting so much only to be beaten by his supervisor: “The manager became furious and grabbed me by the collar. The manager’s younger brother held me by the neck while the manager beat me. They both then punched me all over my body and kicked me.”

The report sheds light on how migrants are also forced to live in squalid accommodation, often with no toilet facilities. The food provided by their employers is insufficient and of poor quality. One Vietnamese man told Amnesty International how his boss told him to drink from a tank of water that was dirty and full of pesticide. 

Many migrants face destitution in the winter months. Despite signing three-year continuous labour contracts, employers only paid for the days worked during the harvest seasons.

Migrants interviewed by Amnesty International also complained of excessive working hours with no guarantee of a break or rest days. Most typically worked between 250–364 hours a month averaging more than 10 hours a day. Such hours exceeded those stipulated in their contracts but nearly all the migrants interviewed did not receive overtime payments. Those that complained risked being dismissed by their employers. 

“Farming is hard physical labour. It is inexcusable to force migrants to work excessive hours and to deny them adequate food, shelter and rest,” said Norma Kang Muico. 

Migrants also had to carry out their work despite inadequate protection from harmful pesticides.  Many of the migrants Amnesty International interviewed expressed concern about the harmful effect of frequent use of pesticide on their health.

Another man from Cambodia told Amnesty International: “I had to spray pesticide on the fields every day during a two-month period, which gave me a headache.  I wasn’t trained on how to do it properly and safely – my employer just told me to do it. He only gave me a cloth mask, which didn’t protect me at all…  the pesticide still entered my mouth and nose.”

Although illegal under the terms of the EPS, Amnesty International found that employers frequently subcontracted workers to other farms. Half of the migrants interviewed had been illegally subcontracted and said they had little choice but to accept as they risked losing their job if they did not go.

“Many farm owners appear to treat migrants as a commodity, to be traded at a whim, having little or no regard for the migrants’ well-being or rights,” said Norma Kang Muico.

Government complicity

The research found that when migrants did seek help from the authorities to address unfair treatment, they were actively discouraged from taking the issues forward. Often they were told to go back to their employers and apologize or to ask them to sign a release form. 

Employers responsible for exploiting migrant agricultural workers, including through trafficking and forced labour, rarely face any sanctions. This is because the EPS discourages migrants from changing jobs and labour officials from filing complaints. 

“The Korean authorities have effectively cornered the migrant workers into abusive conditions by turning a blind eye to the blatantly exploitative work practices and letting the perpetrators off scot-free,” said Norma Kang Muico.

Amnesty International urges the South Korean government to: 

Ratify International Labour Organization Convention No. 29 on Forced or Compulsory Labour and the UN Trafficking Protocol;Extend the rights in respect to work hours, daily breaks and weekly paid rest days to all workers, including migrant workers, irrespective of which sector they work in; Where EPS workers have filed a complaint against their employer, they must be free to take up another job while their case is being investigated;Permit all EPS workers to change jobs without having to obtain a release form from their employer;  Remove all restrictions on the number of job changes allowed to EPS workers.