Power of workers working together
When I was studying for the competitive Korean language test for migrant workers while in Nepal, I never imagined that I would one day be working as a labour activist here in South Korea.
My sole intention to migrate overseas was to work and earn just like the 8,000 or so other Nepalis who join Korea’s Employment Permit Scheme (EPS) every year. But my initial experience in the country was not pleasant.
On my very first day, even before I started work, I was scolded by my employer. I later realised that it was just a psychological tactic to show me who was boss. I was verbally, and sometimes even physically, abused.
He would stand behind me and push me to do things quicker. After enduring this for some time, I sought help from the Nepal Embassy, labour counselors and work centres set up to help migrant workers like me.
Read also: Diaspora Diaries 1, Nepali Times
I was unable to change my job because my employer would not give me the mandatory release paper. One of the agencies I approached did not want to take a secret audio recording as evidence of abuse, saying it needed video proof.
Finally, I reached out to Korea’s Migrant Trade Union (MTU) which served a warning to the employer, and even threatened a demonstration in front of his office if he did not give me my release paper. He obliged – and I had just witnessed the power of a workers’ union. Before long I had become an office bearer of the MTU.
Korea’s EPS is a huge improvement to the previous labour system, the Industrial Trainee Scheme (ITS) that brought in foreign workers as ‘trainees’. Workers had to pay exorbitant amounts to get these jobs that were mediated by the private sector, which meant it was not merit but ability to pay that decided the fate of job-seekers.
Landing in Korea as a trainees meant they were also vulnerable to exploitation. Employers paid migrants at their discretion and got away with exploiting them. Workers who had paid high fees (sometimes up to Rs 1 million in the case of Nepali workers) would escape abusive employers or overstay their visas as they could not change jobs. The system itself was designed to encourage undocumented workers.
Read also: Diaspora Diaries 2, Nepali Times
In 2003, there was a nationwide crackdown and deportation of workers, migrants protested and demanded the legalisation of undocumented workers for over a year. Activists of the movement were arrested, detained and deported. This united migrant workers and laid a foundation for the formation Migrant Trade Union.
While it was founded in 2005, the registration of MTU with the Ministry of Labour as a legitimate trade union was at first rejected on the grounds that it included illegally employed foreigners who do not have the right to join labour unions. It filed a lawsuit against this decision and it was only ten long years later that Korea’s Supreme Court in 2015 finally ruled in favor of the MTU.
By the time I came to South Korea in 2014, the struggle by my predecessors, including workers from Nepal, was already decades old. I never forget that I am standing on the shoulders of giants who laid the foundation for us to fight the good fight.
Read also: Diaspora Diaries 3, Nepali Times
And for us, the good fight is primarily for a Work Permit System (WPS) in lieu of the EPS. The EPS is indeed significantly better than the ITS, as workers are hired based on a limit and all workers can recuperate the standard recruitment fee within a month of employment. But although the system allows workers to change jobs up to three times legally, it requires permission from the employer which gives them disproportionate power.
The WPS would allow workers to change jobs without employer consent and give more power to workers. Many workers continue with jobs they do not like because of the fear of repercussions – recruitment fees may not be a big investment for Korean jobs like elsewhere in the Gulf or Malaysia, but workers invest an immense amount of time, money and effort to pass the language exam to qualify for the EPS.
Aside from our fight for WPS, we continue to shine the light on key migrant issues. Most recently, we demonstrated in front of the office of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol calling for the elimination of discrimination via a comprehensive law and for introduction of the Worker Permit System.
Read also: Diaspora Diaries 4, Nepali Times
During Covid-19, we advocated for worker rights to ensure the visa extension of current workers and against discriminatory testing requirement for foreigners and locals that was recalled soon after its announcement.
Similarly, the Korean government has passed a decision that it is illegal for employers to place workers especially in the agriculture sector in ‘containers’ (temporary accommodations such as perforated plastic houses, warehouses). But the ban has still not been enshrined in the law which is what we are fighting for so employers can actually be held accountable.
We look at other countries where Nepalis are working, and realise how much more privileged we are in Korea to have a recognised trade union as migrant workers. In many countries, unions for foreign workers are banned.
We are also fortunate to have the backing of the powerful Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and others which amplify our voice, and also provide us with resources to continue our work as membership fees alone are not sufficient for the work we do. South Korea has a lot to offer for foreign workers, and the lives of migrant workers and their families back home do get transformed dramatically by the money we send home. But there is always room for improvement.
Read also: The Qatar job mirage, Nepali Times
Changes can be achieved if we continue to fight for them. Sometimes they are immediate, and at other times they take longer. But as long as we keep at it, reform is possible. When we look back and see how far we have come from where our predecessors in Korea started, there is much to be optimistic about.
In 1995, 13 Nepalis wrapped themselves in chains and protested at the Myeondong Cathedral for over a week. They referred to themselves as ‘Nepalis job trainees sold to Korean soil’ and protested with signs against physical abuse by employers. There was no Nepali Embassy in Seoul at that time so the ambassador from Japan had to be brought in to resolve the situation.
The preceding year in 1994, there were nine undocumented Nepali workers who escaped abusive employers. They had paid exorbitant recruitment fees, were heavily in debt, and faced unpaid salaries and abuse. They escaped and prepared for protests with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions since there were no unions for migrants back then.
Such scattered protests by migrant workers including Nepalis have taken place in South Korea. Many foreign workers got deported in the process, but did not let this fear dissuade them from the struggle. Their efforts lay the strong foundation for the Korean Migrant Trade Union that has provided an important platform for us to fight freely for positive, durable reforms for foreign workers here.
Collective bargaining is a privilege we can enjoy because of the sacrifice and vision of our predecessors. We are simply continuing their struggle.
Madhusudhan Ojha is the General Secretary of Korea’s Migrant Trade Union (MTU).
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