South Korea: Government facilitating trafficking and abuse of migrant labour

The South Korean government must end the exploitation and widespread use of forced labour of migrant agricultural workers, Amnesty International said, as it published a new report that reveals how the country’s farming industry is rife with abuse.

Bitter Harvest exposes South Korea’s Employment Permit System (EPS) and how that system directly contributes to the serious exploitation of migrant agricultural workers. The government-run work scheme is designed to provide migrant labour to enterprises that struggle to hire a sufficient number of national workers. It is a system which is heavily loaded in favour of employers, leaving migrants trapped and vulnerable to abuse.

There are approximately 20,000 migrant agricultural workers in South Korea, with many arriving from Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam under the EPS migrant workers scheme. The majority take on huge debts equivalent to two years’ salary in their home country to get a job in South Korea.

Significant numbers of migrant agricultural workers have been trafficked for exploitation and forced labour. Incidents of contractual deception were recorded in all the cases Amnesty investigated. The report shows that migrants are compelled to work in conditions that they did not agree to, under threat of punishment, which amounts to forced labour.

Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific Migrant Rights Researcher at Amnesty International, said:

“The Korean authorities have effectively cornered the migrant workers into abusive conditions by turning a blind eye to the blatantly exploitative work practices and letting the perpetrators off scot-free.

 “It is inexcusable to force migrants to work excessive hours and to deny them adequate food, shelter and rest.

“Many farm owners appear to treat migrants as a commodity, to be traded at a whim, having little or no regard for the migrants’ well-being or rights.

“For many migrants saddled with huge debts, staying with an abusive boss appears the only option.”

While an EPS employer can terminate a migrant’s contract without having to justify the decision, migrants who want to leave their job must obtain a release form signed by their employer, without which they risk being reported to the immigration authorities by their employer as “runaways”, subjecting them to arrest and deportation. Changing jobs can severely jeopardize a migrant’s chance of being able to extend their employment in South Korea after their initial contract– potentially denying a migrant worker additional years of work in the country.  

The report sheds light on how migrants are also forced to live in squalid accommodation, often with no toilet facilities. The food provided by their employers is insufficient and of poor quality. One Vietnamese man told Amnesty that his boss told him to drink from a tank of water that was dirty and full of pesticide.

Many migrants face destitution in the winter months. Despite signing three-year continuous labour contracts, employers only paid for the days worked during the harvest seasons.

When migrants did seek help from the authorities to address unfair treatment, they were actively discouraged from pursuing a complaint. Often they were told to go back to their employer and apologise or to ask them to sign a release form.


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