Posted by: scottishboomerang | January 19, 2008

Foreigner, Indentured.

The distance between expatriate and migrant is one measured in terms of social class. Psychologically, we draw a distinction between them: the former invariably invokes images of panama hats and sipping expensive drinks on exquisitely manicured clubhouse lawns, the latter nightmarish, fevered visions of riding clandestine trucks across porous borders  to get to the land flowing with honeymilk promise. You are an expat if you are white, educated,  middle class, hail from a developed country, and (if working) engaged in professional or white collar work. You are a migrant if you are brown, undereducated, working class, are a citizen of a developing country and do the dirty, difficult, and dangerous manual jobs no-one in your host country wants to do.  Regardless of the realities of life of living and working outside ones country are about by the laws and intuitions of our host countries which pertain to Immigration law. The Law, however,  draws remarkably little distinction between expatriate and migrant. All foreigners are neatly divided into those who need visas to live and work in their host country and those who do not.  Expatriates and migrants invariably fall under the first category. Legally, there’s no difference. Socially, there’s all the difference in the world.

Which brings us to this funny old place, South Korea, which actually has rather a lot of foreigners living and working long term here.  Many are married to Koreans, still more are guest workers on fixed-term one year renewable contracts, filling gaps in the labour market or at the behest of foreign corporations investing directly in the Korean economy. By far the largest cohort of foreigners are the legion of English language instructors – 30,000 strong – engaged in ELT and an related fields and university lecturers.  There is however, a world of difference between foreigners who come here attached to diplomatic missions or large foreign enterprises investing directly in South Korea, and the rest. In fact, we could probably better describe your average ESL instructor as a white-collar migrant worker. Certainly, their experiences here more closely resemble other migrant groups than they do those of the well-heeled corporate ex-pat: they are subjected to lying recruiters and dodgy employers, they experience abuse, non or late payment of wages, and they don’t – in corporate terms – earn that much money.
The difference is that between these white-collar migrants and blue-collar migrants, is that the earn a little more and and come with ex-pat expectations. They feel – by virtue of the fact that they hail from developed countries and therefore have less to loose – more comfortable about complaining openly or seeking redress. Perhaps some of the exasperation felt by corporate ex-pats towards the ubiquitous “moaning English teacher” is down to a failure to understand that migrant workers get a different deal when working in foreign countries. Unfortunately, Korea probably has one of the worse records for treatment of migrant workers in the developed world.
Why is the experience of legal migrant workers so negative in Korea? A number of solutions to the problems of white-collar migrants have been touted recently in the Korean English language press implying that it is the foreigner‘s lack of cross-cultural management skills which lead him into trouble with his Korean employers. Raphael Sabio, thinking of the teaching profession only, called for the compulsory cultural training of incoming English teachers. He was thinking like an ex-pat, not a migrant worker. Had he considered himself lumped in with the plant workers from Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, perhaps he would have arrived at a different set of suggestions. While undoubtedly important, qualified instructors teach in nearly every country in the world, yet only in Korea is so much made of their “poor” culture skills.
Cultural awareness is without doubt important. Far more important though, are having effective administrative and legal frameworks for managing guest workers, a strong enforcement of civil law, clear contracts, and most importantly, the employer should never have too much power over the individual.  Employers are interested primarily in their profit margins, not in the human rights of those they employ. One of the functions of employment law in most Anglophone countries is to keep industry standards high by making it financially viable for employers to treat their employees well (or financially suicidal if they don’t). This concept remains underdeveloped in Korea. 
In 2006 Amnesty International reported many of the abuses that white-collar migrants complain about, squared or cubed in severity for those foreign workers who, employed legally, experience appalling treatment at the hands of employers and recruiters in Korea.  They mention one case where a three months of non-payment of wages was  deemed insufficient to allow a Chinese migrant worker to leave her job and seek employment elsewhere on the peninsula. Unable to return home, and unable to leave her abusive employer, and abandoned by Korean justice system, she committed suicide by throwing herself under a train. The experience of being unable to leave your abusive, unethical employer and having to fight for your wages is a nigh-universal one here. The difference between migrants from rich countries and migrants from poor ones is that the latter have everything to loose if their sojourn here doesn’t work out.  
Korean immigration law binds the migrant worker – regardless of nationality –  to a single employer, and in doing so gives that employer enormous power over the individual. For the well-heeled expat in Korea there is no problem. Her contract is robust, signed in her home jurisdiction, is drafted to global industry standards and subject to the rather more rigorous employment laws of their countries in origin, and their superiors are foreign. She works with – rather than for – indigenous companies. Where disputes arise, they are dealt with in the country of origin.( I cannot imagine, even for a second, a foreign corporate manager seeking redress for non-payment of wages at the local labour board). Not so with the migrant worker, who must often deal with employers who do not have strong ethics, poorly drafted, unconscionable contracts, and poor working conditions. Korean civil law is notoriously weak, leaving little room for redress through the courts for contractual breaches.
International Treaties do exist to promote good labour practices, especially as the global workforce becomes ever more mobile. Korea is signatory to several International Labour Organisation Treaties, and also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other instruments which could, in theory, protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of everyone on the peninsula, Korean and foreign.  One could question, however, whether South Korea is truly taking its responsibilities under international law seriously, even as a Korean has ascended to the lofty position of UN Sectary General, or intended for foreigners to enjoy the same protection of their fundamental rights as Korean citizens do.
 The fundamental rights of freedom of movement (if we leave our jobs, we loose our visa status)  and association (migrant workers – pointedly – do not have the right to form trade unions or to negotiated collectively) seem to be reserved for Korean nationals, and there was no intention of extending these rights to guest workers. Fundamental rights, though, are recognised under international law to apply to everyone. Though not commonly acknowledged,  making visas dependent on the employer is arguably a form of indentured, bonded labour, widely recognised as a human rights abuse and certainly something which Korean nationals are not subjected to when they seek employment in the UK, US, or other developed nations.
Without knowing, when a Korean enterprise employs a foreigner they are engaging in an international business activity, and that foreigner will judge Korea on the basis of their experiences with Korean companies. Every unethical act committed by a Korean employer against a foreign worker tarnishes the international image of the country, and for this reason alone the State should seriously reconsider the visa issuance practices. Making a migrant’s visa countrywide, as it is in neighbouring Japan, and permitting foreigners mobility is a relatively cheep and simple move which will effect sweeping, positive changes over the long term, as it means that migrant workers can leave bad employers and invest their skills with good ones. Among other things, it will have the effect of encouraging employers to clean up their acts, and reward ethical business practices.
Aside from serving business interests in the long run, freedom of movement and association are fundamental rights which are upheld in most liberal democracies can only reflect well on Korea as it moves towards a service-driven, globally focused economy, and increases its stake in the international arena.
Until then, we are all indentured.  The difference is the length of the chain that binds us.
This article first appeared in The Korea Herald.


  1. […] Original post by TEFL – International Guide to Teaching English as a Foreign Language […]

  2. The authour of the article doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal workers. I understand that about two thirds of the blue colour migrant workers in Korea, for whom she is mostly concerned about, are illegal. The emphasis on human rights for illegal workers will only encourage more illegal workers in the host country.

  3. Thank you for your comment. This article concerns itself purely with legal migrant workers and their treatment under Korean immigration law, which makes them, effectively, indentured labour.

    I do not believe that improving human rights in any country will lead to more people breaking the law, rather, when a country complies with international human rights law and labour organisation treaties, the rule of law everywhere becomes more respected. There is no evidence to support the idea that recognising human rights or the rule of law in general will promote illegal labour.

    This article deals with white collar and blue collar migrants who are legally employed in Korea. Generally speaking, if you are an illegal worker, you are free to leave your job and work for someone else. Many English Teachers, for example, do this. Some have reported to me that their pay, conditions, and treatment by their employers were infinately better than when they were tied to one employer with all the power.

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