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For more than 10 years, South Korea has relied on foreign workers, most of them from poor Asian countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam, to fill production lines and work "3D" jobs -- those considered so difficult, dirty, and dangerous that affluent Koreans won't do them anymore.
Implemented in the early 1990s, the "industrial training program" aimed to allow factories to bring in low-paid foreign trainees who could stay for three years. The thinking was that the factories could compete better by paying low wages and that workers would gain skills they could use when they returned to their homelands. But many of them don't leave Korea and instead seek new, better-paying jobs as illegal immigrants.
HUNTING DOWN ALIENS. As a result, Korea has more than 190,000 foreign workers and their families living there illegally, forming a new underclass that can't claim its labor rights. Korea, once called the Hermit Kingdom, has never welcomed outsiders despite its dependence on them. The government has maintained highly restrictive visa policies while often looking the other way when the immigrants stayed on illegally.
Nonetheless, the government recently intensified its search for illegal migrant workers, making their situation more precarious -- and emboldening many small-business owners to take advantage of the workers' precarious status.
In mid-June, Yang Hae Woo, director of the Korean Migrant Workers Human Rights Center, and BusinessWeek Seoul Bureau Chief Moon Ihlwan discussed key issues regarding guest workers. Following are edited excerpts of the interview:
Q: In May, the government released a plan to end by 2007 the so-called industrial trainee system, which has been a target of criticism for Korea's policy toward foreign workers. Will this move ease problems facing the guest workers?
A: It is an important step in the sense that the government has begun to address chronic problems regarding guest workers. But it by no means spells an end to their suffering. The industrial trainee program has been abused to recruit foreign workers with cheap wages. They are not trainees but cheap laborers. So it's good that the program will end, but the bigger problem of handling illegal workers remains unresolved.
Q: In 2003, Seoul announced a new policy of introducing three-year work permits to foreign workers -- not just "trainees." Wasn't that supposed to help improve the status of foreign workers?
A: Basically, the government doesn't want to allow foreign workers to stay long-term, unless they are high-tech engineers. The policymakers want them to provide cheap labor for three years and leave, with new guest workers replacing them. That won't work. Most guest workers simply can't afford to start a new life back at home. It is deplorable that there's virtually no credible system to protect basic rights for the foreign workers.
Q: What should Korea do to resolve this issue?
A: We will have to find a way to allow foreigners to work in Korea under decent legal frameworks. Korea needs them. And, so instead of trying to take advantage of their poverty, we must protect their basic human rights while they work here. I think the first step should be to grant everybody working beyond their legal stay an amnesty and then start finding a longer-term solution.
Korean companies also prefer hiring those illegally staying in Korea as they already speak the language and could be cheaper. The government must also remove such poisonous clauses in the new work-permit policy as the one requiring foreign workers to obtain approval from their employers if they want to change jobs.
Q: The government has been stepping up efforts to clamp down on illegal migrant workers since last year. Why do you think the move is not really lowering the number of illegal workers in Korea?
A: The large number of undocumented workers is the fault of the government's shortsighted immigration policy. Many foreign workers were made illegal aliens because policies focused simply on meeting short-term employment needs. Most of the illegal foreign workers are former industrial trainees who were paid less and treated like second-class citizens. They deserted their designated workplaces for higher pay and better working conditions.
The government has failed to win trust from foreign workers who fear that it might be impossible for them to return to Korea once they agree to leave the country. If Immigration uses heavy-handed measures to expel undocumented foreign workers, they will go underground. This creates more abuses and mistreatment, because those staying illegally can't report their cases to police in fear of being deported, even if they were beaten or raped.
Q: You are heading an alliance of 15 rights groups lobbying for better conditions for foreign workers. What are your goals?
A: We are campaigning for legal changes aimed at introducing friendlier immigration policies and a new improved work-permit program for foreign workers. We believe immigrant workers seeking to live in Korea should be given a chance to obtain permanent residence status here.
Q: Many Koreans are proud that their nation has remained one of the world's most ethnically homogeneous populations. Do you think they could accept the migrants as permanent residents?
A: I know it is a very emotional issue in Korea, and I don't expect a sudden immigration policy change in the near future. But there have been gradual changes, guaranteeing foreign workers the same legal treatment as their local counterparts, at least on paper.
Workers' rights such as minimum-wage protection and accident and medical insurance have been extended to foreign workers legally working in Korea. There are also signs that the blind, national approach of the past is changing.
Recent surveys show that 70% of Korean respondents agree that foreign workers should have the same rights as their local counterparts. That's a big improvement from only 35% in 2002. I'm optimistic that Koreans could accept giving permanent resident status to foreign workers in a decade or so. EDITED BY Edited by Rose Brady