An unassuming man with a shy smile, Udaya Rai does not have the conventional look of an agent of social change. But when the plight of migrant workers in South Korea comes up, his eyes brim with passion and his words take on fierce determination.
“South Korea must accept foreign workers as equal partners, or it shouldn’t bring them into the country in the first place. Don’t bring us and we won’t say one word. We will even leave if they tell us to. But why criticise us as job stealers after saying we are necessary and bringing us here?”
Rai, a 45-year-old Nepalese national, is president of the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union (MTU), the most visible organisation in South Korea to dedicate itself to upholding migrant workers’ rights.
The MTU under Rai’s leadership won a major victory in June when the Supreme Court of Korea rejected the argument of the Ministry of Labour, which had refused for ten years to recognise the MTU as a legal trade union.
Formerly a farmer in Nepal’s eastern Khotang District, Rai did not have a straightforward journey to the top of the MTU. In coming to South Korea, he had no professional skills but was motivated, like many migrants, to escape the poverty in his home country and make money. “I had no special job and only helped with work at home,” he told Equal Times.
Yet he made his way to South Korea in 2003 under the Industrial Trainee System (ITS), established by the South Korean government to fill vacancies in so-called ‘3D’ industries — dirty, difficult, or dangerous — such as manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and catering. He then found out that being a migrant worker in South Korea was no easy matter.
“In South Korea you work far longer than in Nepal, but things must be done much more quickly and work itself is much more difficult,” he said. Rai was contracted to work 11 hours, six days a week, at a factory near Seoul but was frequently forced to perform overtime without compensation and endured abuse.
Criticised even by some domestic media outlets as a form of “modern slavery”, the ITS, in place between November 1993 and the end of 2006, admitted unskilled workers from south, south-east and central Asia as well as China to work for labour-intensive but low-paying small- to medium-sized domestic enterprises in jobs shunned by South Korean workers.
But by classifying foreign workers as ‘trainees’, the system opened up the possibility of myriad injustices including below-minimum wage salaries, the inability to claim protections extended to domestic workers or to change jobs, and, in the worst cases, confiscation of passports and bank accounts by businesses.
The ITS initially accepted 20,000 workers but that number grew to 145,500 by November 2002. And reports of its abuses became correspondingly numerous, prompting many rights organisations including the Korea Human Rights Commission to call for the abolition of the ITS in 2002 citing “utilisation of migrant workers as low-cost labour” and “serious human rights violations”.
Rai stayed three years as entitled by his visa and returned to Nepal. But in 2007 he met his wife, a South Korean national, and returned to Seoul on a marriage visa, known as F-6. In South Korea for a second time, Rai slowly drifted toward the MTU and advocacy for fellow migrant workers.
“Working conditions were of course bad and there was still a lot of discrimination, so I thought: ‘This isn’t good, this should be changed’. I joined the MTU through a friend interested in unionising.”
He became active at the MTU in late 2009 and quickly rose through the ranks to head the MTU’s Seoul branch in 2012.
Founded on 3 May 2005 with just 91 members, the MTU has not had an easy existence. When the union tried to register itself with the government shortly after inception, the Ministry of Labour declined the request, saying some of its members were illegally in the country and thus rendered the union itself illegal.
This refusal led to a 10-year court battle which ended only on 25 June with a Supreme Court ruling. “Even when a worker is a foreigner without the permission to work, it cannot be said that he or she does not fall within the definition of worker in accordance with the Trade Unions Act,” the majority opinion read. “Therefore, a foreign worker without the permission to seek employment can form or join a labour union”.
During that 10-year period the South Korean government expelled six MTU leaders. The last to be barred from the country was Michel Catuira, from the Philippines, who was first ordered by the Korea Immigration Service to leave the country alleging that his activism as president of the MTU attested to a “false employment relation” between him and his registered place of work.
Although the judicial system stayed that order pending an appeal, the government refused Catuira re-entry into South Korea regardless after he took a brief trip back home in March 2012, saying that he was under the “suspicion of undermining South Korea’s national interest”.
Rai then stepped up to fill Catuira’s shoes. In the aftermath of Catuira’s expulsion Rai was appointed the MTU’s interim chief of an emergency response committee and officially became, in October 2014, the union president, a post he still retains even as he now works inside the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) as director of the migrant labour division.
Unlike his predecessors at the MTU, Rai is free to work toward the cause he believes in thanks to his Korean wife and F-6 visa, and he does not hesitate to acknowledge this fact. “That’s the only thing that protects me. Otherwise I would be gone already,” he told Equal Times. “The government is watching, and one can become a target”.
Despite the Supreme Court’s June ruling, the Ministry of Labour refused to register the MTU for two months on the grounds that the union’s bylaw expressed political aims, namely the opposition to expulsion of unregistered migrant workers and to the current government system for managing migrant labour.
The MTU ended up revising its bylaw to remove the contents the ministry deemed unacceptable, but was finally able to register itself as a legal union on 20 August.
That victory fills Rai with a measure of satisfaction, but says his work is far from over.
Statistics Korea notes that in 2014 some 852,000 foreigners toiled away in this country of 50 million, not including an undocumented migrant workforce estimated at more than 200,000.
At present, the MTU, however, has only some 1,100 members. Meanwhile, reports of both verbal and physical abuse against migrant workers by South Korean employers persist, as does the biggest wage gap between foreign and native-born workers amongst Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
When asked what more needs to be done, Rai does not hesitate to list his goals: improving the current Employment Permit System (EPS), introduced in 2004 with the aim of replacing the antiquated ITS, so that migrant workers have the freedom to choose their places of work; and permitting migrant workers to live in South Korea for five years to allow for a chance at permanent residency. The EPS currently limits a migrant worker to a stay of up to four years and ten months precisely to preclude this possibility.
As for his own prospects in South Korea after more than a decade in the country, Rai is rueful. “I don’t suffer any consequence now from my activism but if it continues, they probably won’t grant me permanent residency. There is a condition that one has to be ‘proper in conduct’. They will likely oppose my permanent residency on such grounds”.
It is not only the South Korean government that opposes migrant worker rights; the subject of immigration and ethnic diversity elicits a hostile reaction from a broad stretch of the South Korean public, including many who identify as progressive.
After decades of self-perception as an ethnically homogeneous nation, the majority of South Koreans are slow to accept migrant workers as equals deserving of a place in this country.
But given the country’s demographic shift, South Korea does not have much choice but to accord migrant workers with greater respect and freedom as Rai demands. With a birthrate that is too low for replenishing the population and few natives who are willing to work in blue-collar jobs, it may be Rai and the MTU that will ultimately have the upper hand.
“It’s not the time for South Korea to act proud. Foreign women need to come and have children, and factories do not run without foreign workers. What good does national pride do?”