Foreign migrant workers’ movement in Korea


In June 2015, South Korean and a section of international media carried a news report which might have come across as surprising to many. A full bench of the Supreme Court of Korea ruled, on 25th June, that undocumented ‘transnational’ migrant workers can establish and join labor unions. The ruling came 10 years after transnational migrant workers first filed a lawsuit and eight years after they appealed to the Supreme Court, after Seoul District Labor Board rejected an application for registration of an all-migrant trade union – Migrants’ Trade Union (Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon) – formed by transnational migrant workers in April 2005.

This news might have come across as surprising for many because the prevalent wisdom in scholarly circles who study transnational migration of labour as well as in the international labour solidarity movement is that of vulnerability of transnational migrant workers. It is naturally expected that among all categories of workers in the globalised world economy, migrants have negligible or most limited capacity to exercise power to prevent or resist the multiplicity of oppression and exploitation. The underlying assumption is that owing to their vulnerability, social oppression and powerlessness, they cannot self-organize and hence, there is a need for trade unions of the host countries to organize them.

Going by the dominant discourse around transnational migrant workers, this Supreme Court ruling and the existence of a vibrant transnational migrant workers movement in Korea almost appears to be an anomaly. However, the genesis of this movement in Korea lies not just in the subjective conditions but also in the significant changes that occurred in the labour-capital relations and the labour market in Korea of 1990s. This article is an attempt to look at some of these changes that facilitated the emergence of a transnational migrant workers movement (henceforth migrant workers movement) and to provide a broad historical overview of the movement.


Starting from early 1990’s, migrant workers brought into Korea under the ‘Industrial Trainee System’ (ITS) could be employed by the designated firm for 3 years after which the ‘trainee’ was supposed to return to his or her home country. This 3 years rotation was put in place to stop migrants from permanently settling down largely owing to the fear of the ‘racial exclusivity’ of Korea getting diluted.

Under the ITS a ‘trainee’ was not allowed to change workplace, rather they were tied down to the factory that was designated to hire the trainee; upon leaving that factory their visas automatically stood null and void turning them into illegal sojourners. Trainee status of migrant workers ensured that they were outside the purview of any protections and entitlements under the Korean Labor Standards Law.

The Korean State in the interest of Capital instituted ITS with elements of neo-bondage so as to allow the maximum exploitation of the labour power, while denying migrants rights and negotiation power that a native wage worker had. The obvious consequences of this form of wage labour based on confinement and neo-bondage were that migrant workers were subjected to extremely low wages, long working hours without overtime wage, extreme wage delays, high numbers of industrial accident, physical assault by employers and Korean foremen, verbal abuses and sexual harassment.

While bonding of migrant workers to a particular work place was already a legal cornerstone of ITS, it was not a fool proof mechanism to stop ‘trainees’ from running away. Invariably employers used confiscation of passport, delayed wage payment, confinement to dormitories and constant verbal and physical abuses as tools with which to increase their hold on the workers.

Despite the legal proscription against leaving their workplace, and extra-legal techniques deployed by employers; large numbers of ‘trainees’ did manage to run away from the factories. By 2001, out of 384,000 migrant workers around 200,000 had turned into ‘illegal’ sojourners in Korea.

Running away from the workplace automatically made their visas null and void. However, mass exodus of ‘trainees’ from designated workplace didn’t aggravate the labour shortage in the secondary labourmarket as they were re-employed by other SMEs despite their ‘illegal’ status. The slippage from “legal” to “illegal” didn’t prompt them to return to their countries of origin; this was mostly because a large majority ‘trainees’ had to pay a huge sum of money as brokerage fee to enter Korea. Consequently, most of them had to incur debt or had sold ancestral property in their countries of origin, compelling them to continue their sojourn as ‘illegal’ resident with the hope that they will be able to earn enough to return home with a semblance of respectability. Even for those ‘trainees’ who had completed their 3 years term of ‘traineeship’ didn’t return to their countries of origin. The murderously low wage of ‘trainees’ ensured that they could not put aside any savings or send remittances to their families.

Interestingly, ‘trainees’ whose visas become null and void due to the flight from the work place, upon joining another factory doesn’t turn into an “illegal worker” but rather become “undocumented workers”. This is so because technically they have violated the Immigration Control Act and not the Labour Standard Act, in other words it is their immigration status that is illegal and not the work per-se which they perform in the factory. Furthermore, “undocumented workers” are covered by the Labour Standards Laws; but ipso facto they have little or no access to protection underlabour laws out of fear of their employers reporting them to the immigration authorities. So, the condition of these workers remains the same as ‘trainees’ except that they have greater sectoralmobility.

Scholars have pointed out that the category “illegal foreigner” is a profoundly useful and profitable one that effectively serves to create and sustain a legally vulnerable reserve of labour. The Korean State has tacitly allowed “undocumented workers” to remain and work in Korea. This tacit acceptance of “illegality” absolves the State from taking any responsibility of rights and working conditions of migrant workers, it allows the employers to continue with the hyper-exploitation of the labour power of these workers by threatening to report to the immigration authorities. Further, the State perpetuates the fear by levying occasional fines, crackdowns and deportations.

Deportability (and not deportation per-se) becomes central to the legal production of migrant “illegality” by the fact that some are deported so that most others can remain (un-deported) as workers whose migrant status may be rendered “illegal”. One official from the Ministry of Justice as much as admitted this policy in stating that “… the intention of the roundup is not to deport every undocumented worker but to give a warning. Even if we are successful in rounding up only some 10,000, it will certainly give a warning to the remaining 110,000”. It is very clear that the underlying message is that these workers have to be constantly reminded of their deportability so they remain relatively tractable and cheap reserve of labour.


Migrant-1Migrant workers coming into Korea were mostly young and unmarried men and had no past history of being industrial worker in their countries of origin nor did they have any experience of organizing or activism. So they were completely atomized and experienced proletarianization without any common cultural or organizational heritage to draw upon.

Despite occupying an important role in the Korean economy, they were not in a position to collectively resist their exploitation, poor working and living conditions owing to severe structural constraints. However, that didn’t mean that they were completely powerless victims. They did find ways of “everyday acts of resistance” and the primary and easiest way was running away from their position of ‘traineeship’ to find work in other factories as “undocumented workers”. As Jan Breman has argued in a different context, this act of running away certainly constitutes evasive deed of protest “caused by the desire to keep one’s own dignity intact”. It was not just exploitation and hardship; one of the recurring themes that appear in migrant workers’ own narrative is that of inhuman relationship based on abuses and insults with their employers and fellow Korean workers.

Despite structural reasons that constraints migrant worker, the same constraints force them to try and overcome barriers of language, ethnicity, culture and nationality to reach out to other migrant workers by developing “rudimentary networks of mutuality”.

However, developing a culture of mutuality amongst themselves was not enough, collective resistance against the abusive and exploitative work relations in the factories was difficult because they were either constrained by confinement as ‘trainees’ or by their deportability. So without adequate resources of their own, they had to take recourse to Korean Church groups and NGOs.

The initial collective protests by migrant workers were emotional and moral appeals to listen to them. The first significant collective protests by migrant workers in 1994 was by a group of Bangladeshi, Nepali, Filipino and Ethiopian “undocumented workers” who staged a 29-days sit-in demonstration in the headquarters of a prominent civil society organization – the Citizen’s Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ) – an organization that had emerged out of the movement for democracy against the military dictatorship. This was followed by another protest staged in January 1995 by a group of 13 Nepali ‘trainees’ at the Myongdong Cathedral in Seoul,which was the safest refuge and protest site for Korean pro-democracy and labour activists in the 1970s-1980s in their struggle against the military dictatorship.

The choice of CCEJ and Myongdong Cathedral were significant; the protesting migrant workers, to achieve their own purpose, sought to use the reputation and history of the protest sites they choose.

These two protests were significant because, for the first time migrant workers were able to bring forth the stories of their plight in their own words to the Korean society. Many Church affiliated and other NGOs responded to the emotive appeal of the protests, and came together to form the Joint Committee for Migrants Korea (JCMK).

Even though these NGOs have been very successful in highlighting and publicizing about the human rights violations of migrant workers in the factories and in society at large, they have largely failed to produce any substantive critique of the underlying structural reasons for the plight of migrant workers. However, it can’t be denied that despite their narrowness of focus and other limitations, they facilitated the development of political dispositions and collective identity in the years that were to come.


migrant2In the second half of 1990s significant changes were taking place in the labour market as well as in the labour movement in Korea. As a response to 1997 financial crisis, both the State and Capital aggressively moved towards flexibilization of the labour market. Both manufacturing and service industries laid off massive numbers of regular workers and instead started hiring contractual, part-time and home based workers; resulting in a massive increase in the numbers of irregular workers. By 1999, more than half of all employed workers (52%) were irregular workers. Expectedly, female workers were the primary victim of the flexibilization policy due to the “first female lay-off” policy, and irregular workers constituted 69% of the total female labour force compared to 31% of the total male labour force.

However, irregular workers had reacted rather swiftly to the situation by attempting to form their own unions. By the end of 1990s several new forms of unionization by irregular workers were attempted. Despite hostility from regular workers, on many occasions, irregular workers were able to form their own independent unions at the firm level. At least five new regional “ultra-firm level” unions also came up with the intention of organizing irregular workers. These general unions set up area based branches where the number of workers in each of the small firms was too small to be organized under an individual enterprise union. Another significant form that developed was the formation of general unions to particularly organize female irregular workers, such as Seoul Women’s Trade Union, Korean Women’s Trade Union and Equality Trade Union. The task that these Women’s unions set out with was to organize and support women workers’ struggle against sexual harassment and deterioration of working conditions by offering union education, conducting collective bargaining and providing legal advice.

While labour market was being flexibilized and new forms of union activism were developing, union consciousness was also slowly creeping into the minds of a small group of vanguard “undocumented migrant” workers. This group of vanguard migrant workers was closely associated with JCMK, but soon felt that the Human Rights centric NGO led movement was incapable of representing migrant workers interests. Around September 2000, this small group of undocumented migrant workers formed an organization called Struggle Network for Migrants’ Rights and Freedom of Migration (SN for MRF).

The final straw of difference was drawn when the Korean Government announced their plans to gradually phase out ITS with newly proposed Employment Permit System (EPS); consultations were held in 1999 between Korean representatives of JCMK, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Labour, but migrant representation was left out.

Gradually, the activities and members of SN for MRF increased with some help from Korean workers. One of the first Korean unions to come in solidarity with SN for MRF was the Korean Telecommunication Irregular Workers’ Union. 8 months after the formation of SN for MRF, one of the women only general trade union – Equality Trade Union (ETU) – approached SN and suggested that SN become a branch of the general union.

In May, 2001 ETU – Migrant Branch was formally launched in a ceremony held at Yonsei University in Seoul and given affiliate status by Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). The founding slogan of ETU-MB was “Migrants and Koreans alike, workers have to fight for labour rights”.

The formation of the ETU Migrant Branch was very significant moment for the migrant workers movement. It was indicative of the fact that a section of migrant workers were becoming class conscious. It also presented the mainstream Korean labour movement with a challenge which was rapidly losing ground as far as irregular workers, by demonstrating that despite challenges posed by the very nature of SMEs, segmentation among workers (nationality, language, ethnicity etc in case of migrant workers), severe repression from the Korean State, the migrants were by no mean unorganizable.

Significant as it was, still ETU-MB could not conduct usual union activities like wage negotiation and collective bargaining, owing largely to State repression and undocumented status of its members and leaders. ETU-MB has had only one instance when it was able to make a third party intervention in a factory. In July 2003, one Bangladeshi worker went to hospital for stitches on his face as a result of an assault by a Korean foreman. 38 workers in the factory went on a strike after consulting the ETU-MB. The ETU-MB acted as mediators between the workers and the management, and the factory agreed to pay for all the injured workers’ medical treatment and sick pay for two days. Despite the fact that it was essentially an action by the Bangladeshi workers, the incident encouraged the Filipino workers in the factory to join the ETU-MB.

It would also be naïve to expect a trade union like ETU-MB to conduct traditional union activities like wage negotiation and collective bargaining at that embryonic stage. As has been stated earlier, denial of labour rights, low wages, poor working conditions were all symptomatic of deeper underlying problems like “confinement” under ‘traineeship’ and “deportability” which were consciously created by State policies targeted at migrant workers. So expectedly most political expressions of ETU-MB were externalized from the workplace.


South Korea Foreign Workers Protest

Members of the alliance of migrant workers in South Korea stage a rally to demand work permission in Seoul, Sunday. Aug. 19, 2007. About 300 foreign and South Korean workers denounced the South Korean government’s crackdown aimed at deporting foreign workers who had overstayed their visas. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The first large scale political action conducted by ETU-MB was on 7th April 2002, when they organized a rally against the Government’s proposal of voluntary registration of undocumented migrant workers just before the FIFA World Cup.

More than a thousand migrant workers marched on the streets of downtown Seoul. Indisputably, it was the first time ever that so many migrant workers from different countries of origin came together for a collective political action.

Bolstered by the 7th April rally, in the same month, ETU-MB planned another mass rally of ‘trainees’ and “undocumented migrant workers” which was met with severe police repression. In protest Kabiruddin, Bidyut (both are Bangladeshi and were leaders of ETU-MB) along with Ms. Yi-Yoon Joo, the chairwoman of ETU, went on a sit-in demonstration which lasted for 77 days.

In late 2002, the “Employment Permit System” bill was passed by the Korean Parliament and it was to be implemented in July 2004. The Government announced that it will start cracking down on “undocumented migrant workers” who fail to abide by the “voluntary registration” offer of 2002, from 17th November 2003 onwards. As a result there were 10 suicides by these workers between November 2003 and February 2004.

Considering the gravity of the situation, ETU-MB decided to go on yet another sit- in demonstration in Myongdong Cathedral from October 2003 which was to last for a year. This sit-in demonstration was supportedby KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) and and handful of other organization. But the sit-in demonstration was met with increasing repression, their rallies were attacked by police and leaders of ETU-MB were targeted for arrest and deportation using stun guns. The Emergency Struggle Team Chief of ETU-MB, Samar Thapa, was arrested and deported in February, while other “undocumented workers” who were rounded up and lodged in Hwa-sung Migrant Detention Center started a mass hunger strike inside the detention centre.

During the sit-in demonstration, ETU-MB had decided to hold weekly rallies to increase pressure on the Government. In the opening rally, 1000 migrant workers were joined by 3500 Korean irregular workers. Samar Thapa addressed the rally and asserted that there should be coordinated activities by Korean and migrant workers to struggle for their legitimate rights. It was a significant event as for the first time migrant workers and Korean workers had joined and marched together.

A section of migrant workers were clearly going beyond the language of just victimhood and were increasingly speaking the language of class and asserted that working class shouldn’t remain segmented as migrant workers and Korean workers. A public statement issued by ETU-MB and endorsed by KCTU put it this way:

“As the anti-workers attacks intensify, it is most timely for migrants of different nationalities to stand side by side with Korean workers. Though two way efforts should be made in order for both the Korean workers and migrant workers to establish a class based solidarity and struggle. Korean workers and Migrant workers as one class should and will strongly wield unity, and cooperation that will lead to deeper solidarity on issues common to all the working class. Migrants and Workers of All Nationalities, Unite!”

However, as the year long sit-in demonstration wore on, the tonality of ETU-MB’s public statements became increasingly that of desperation and resignation; and more and more it started drawing from personal accounts of being oppressed.

The gradual fizzling out of the year long sit-in demonstration led to serious introspection among both the Korean leadership of ETU-MB and a section of migrant workers who were resolute to carry on the migrant workers movement that they had launch with lots of sacrifice and hardship. In April 2005, 91 migrant workers with the backing of KCTU went ahead to form a migrant only union – Migrants’ Trade Union (Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon).

The migrant movement in Korea that reached to a new phase of radicalism by middle of 2000s has been possible to a larger extent due to the emergence of the alliance between irregular workers and migrant workers in Korea in the early 2000s.

Here it is important to understand that the alliance or the unity amongst these two sections of workers had a different meaning for themselves; the irregular workers of Korea found a new strategic ally that can then dent the State and Capital more deeply than before because of, on one hand, the specific and strategic location of the migrant workers in the Korean economy and, on the other hand, migrant workers also found an ally that broke their complete isolation and gave them more space in Korean labour politics. What makes this realization of mutuality possible needs more detailed study on the interaction between these two sections of workers. Nevertheless, the similar experiences of poor working conditions, vulnerability and utter marginalization of these two sections, though in different ways, by the State and Capital, provide some explanation.

The germination of this organic solidarity, also compelled the progressive trade union centre – KCTU, to not only support this alliance but also to start working amongst them through the formation of a separate Department of Precarious Workers within KCTU. It was this alliance that also brought about some ideological reconsiderations and deliberations in the then existing understanding of the KCTU. Together, all these, in various ways, had given rise to the processes that brought about the emergence of new labour subjectivities in Korea at large.


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Bonojit Hussain Written by:

Bonojit Hussain is an independent researcher, and an activist associated with New Socialist Initiative (NSI). Since late 1990’s he has been associated with various movements working on issues related to informal sector workers’ rights, university democratization, communalism, racism etc. He was a Research Professor at SungKongHoe University, Seoul. Concurrently, he was also a Program Officer at the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA), Seoul. Currently, he is an Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA) fellow.

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