The UN and Worldwide Human Rights Violations

Human Rights Violations of Migrant Workers in South Korea Vis-a-Vis Other Asian Countries

The UN and Worldwide Human Rights Violations

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United Nations special rapporteur on human rights of immigrants Jorge Bustamante

said that the UN was investigating violations to these rights (Deen 2006). The violations included abusive working conditions, non-payment of wages, arbitrary detentions and illegal deportations. Urgent appeals or letters of allegation on the complaints were sent to the respective governments, which included requests for visits. The letters and requests for visits were sent to the governments of Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Mauritania, South Africa, Canada, the Philippines, the United States and Spain, signifying that the complaints occurred in these countries. The countries send or receive migrants and most of these migrants come from developing nations (Deen).

Complaints and allegations of human rights violations included maltreatment at border controls, deaths from extreme force by police and security teams, summary expulsions, gender violence, forced labor, withholding passports, restricted movement and infringement on the right to association and assembly (Deen 2006). The UN also said that there were 191 million international migrants in the previous year, more than 38 million in the U.S. Or almost 13% of its total population. Of this number, 115 were found in developed countries. One out of five was in the United States. The UN identified the major issue as irregular or unauthorized migration. It reported that the U.S. had 11 to 12 million irregular migrants as compared with South Korea with 140,000; Japan with 221,000; Australia with 60,000; and New Zealand with 20,000 (Deen).

South Korea’s Unresolved Human Rights Concerns

National Security Law, Military Service, Death Penalty

These included the National Security Law, imprisonment of conscientious opponents to military service and the death penalty (HRW 2007). Human rights supporters also cried out against widespread maltreatment of migrant workers and the South Korean government’s reluctance to recognize non-Korean refugees and asylum seekers. Those who expressed pro-North Korea sentiments or performed pro-North Korea activities continued to be arrested under the National Security Law. They criticized the government for the application of this Law, which was used to arrest opponents who expressed their views. The National Human Rights Commission recommended the abolition of this Law in September 2004 to the National Assembly chairman and minister of justice. The Commission grounded its recommendation on the human rights violations inflicted by the Law itself. Adult men were required to render 26 months of military service. In April 2005, the Commission also recommended the abolition of the death penalty and no response had been received. Prostitution is also illegal in South Korea but brothels crowd the areas around U.S. military bases. Sex workers suffer grave abuses. Migrant sex workers suffer more as language and culture barriers make their situation worse. Most of them are illegal aliens who cannot seek help for the abuses to which they are subjected. A law was enacted in September 2004 against those who impose prostitution on their employees. The law worked against traffickers and brother owners but did not protect the sex workers themselves. Many of them were simply driven underground where they became exposed to even more grievous conditions (HRW).

Migrant Workers’ Rights

In August 2003, South Korea passed the Act, which allowed firms to legally employ undocumented workers who have been in the country for less than four years (HRW 2007). But those who had stayed for more than four years were told to leave by the middle of 2003 with a commitment of acceptance from South Korea if they returned with legal work permits after six months. Amnesty International reported in August 2006 that two-thirds of the 360,000 migrant workers in the country were undocumented. These workers were not allowed to organize themselves into trade unions. They suffer from severe human rights violations, such as discrimination, physical and verbal abuse by employers, and limited recourse in the event of violations. Female migrant workers were also said to be subjected to sexual harassment and violence. Those detained were subjected to physical abuse in detention facilities (HRW).

Forced Deportation, Denial of Medical Attention

Asian Human Rights Commission sought intervention for undocumented migrant workers in South Korea, particularly those forcibly deported and denied medical treatment while detained (OMCT 2004). Those denied medical treatment were on a hunger strike against the government’s pursuit of undocumented migrant workers. This rash of violations was viewed as the consequence of the August 2003, sending away migrants who had stayed in South Korea for more than four years. Between November and December that year, at least 3000 of them were deported. Only 10,000 left voluntarily. The rest escaped to the mountains to avoid deportation. Many cases of harassment and arbitrary detention were reported since then. As of March 2004, the government expressed to persist in cracking down migrant workers. A few took their lives in fear of deportation while others perished in accidents in the course of the crackdowns. The law penalizes firms that employ these workers up to three years of imprisonment and a fine equivalent to $17,000. This meant that migrant workers were subjected to terminations because of the law (OMCT).

The Trainee System

South Korea operates the Industrial Trainee System, or ITS, as a common source of cheap and pliable labor (OMCT 2004). It permits the systematic exploitation and abuse of foreign workers. It guarantees only a three-year legal stay in the country and only as trainees, not as legal workers. After this time, they must leave South Korea. In the three years they are allowed to stay as trainees, they have no legal rights or bargaining power. They cannot acquire protection from labor unions or state regulatory bodies as non-legitimate workers. This is their status even if they perform the same or equal tasks as regular employees. As trainees, they are mostly employed in small factories for labor-intensive duties. They perform dirty, perilous and difficult jobs for very low pay, which is around U.S.$350 a month. They also work for long hours and without labor rights. They cannot collect compensation for work-connected accidents or disease. These are among the reasons why trainees abandon their jobs and take the risk of working illegally and losing more rights. Recent statistics say that 80% of all foreign workers in South Korea are illegal migrants (OMCT).

The original intent of the System was to help Korean firms with subsidiaries or operations abroad bring in foreign employees to upgrade the skills of the employees of these firms (OMCT 2004). When small manufacturing firms (APMRN 2009) encountered labor shortage, the government resorted to the System to ease the shortage . But faulty implementation created problems. The trainees’ wages were lower than those of undocumented foreign workers. Foreign trainees felt disappointed in gaining skills and knowledge through training because they were substituted for laborers. Escaping foreign trainees were more easily caught than escaping foreign workers. Trainees were charged exorbitant fees by foreign recruiting agencies. And the System created diplomatic problems with countries sending foreign trainees (APMRN).

Treatment of Foreign Workers in Other Asian Countries

Of the 10 ASEAN member-countries, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were the hardest-hit by the recent economic crisis (Wickramasakera 2000). Of the three, Indonesia has been a major labor-sending country, which suffered drastic and sharp declines in GDP grown, business and capital outflows. These naturally resulted in a rise in local unemployment and layoffs, which affect migrant workers in these countries. The economic crisis in the region immediately reduced overall demand for labor. This shock was most felt in the construction sector, which absorbed most foreign workers. Besides direct job losses, decline or loss of wages and other benefits were incurred by those who remained. They were treated as disposable items for the jobs of local workers (Wickramasakera).


Malaysia and Thailand have the largest numbers of irregular workers among ASEAN countries (Wickramasakera 2000). Regular and irregular migration in these countries is believed to evolve from certain root causes. These are restrictive immigration policies in receiving countries, acute poverty and unemployment in sending countries and the resulting pressure to emigrate, political suppression and armed conflict, and malpractices of private recruiting agencies (Wickramasakera).

A recent study revealed that a large number of young foreign migrant workers in Thailand endure many forms of exploitation (Human Trafficking 2006). These ranged from the non-payment of, or low, salaries; extremely long working hours; forced labor and trafficking. More than half of all the surveyed domestic workers and one in five migrant adolescents working in fishing boats said they were not allowed to leave their places of work or forced to work as “virtual slaves.”

The employers subjected the young migrants to physical assault, forced labor, denial of the freedom of movement, verbal abuse and assigning children to perform hazardous tasks. A high 82% of migrant domestic workers and 45% of migrant workers in fishing boats said they worked for more than 12 hours a day and without the benefit of leave. The study interviewed approximately 1,000 migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia who were aged 26 and below. They worked in agriculture, fishing and fish processing and small-scale manufacturing firms in Thailand. Thailand is also a major destination for cross-border trafficked women and children in the Mekong region. Records showed that more than 1 million migrant workers registered in the government (Human Trafficking).

The study also said that these said sectors rely on and need cheap labor in order to achieve or maintain a competitive edge in their respective industries (Human Trafficking 2006). Migrant workers filled the demand. Local Thai workers would not want to work for below-minimum wages. More than 40% of foreign domestic workers in Thailand were paid only Bt 1,000 or less a month. Less or close to nine out of 10 at 89% received Bt3,000 or less. More than half of all interviewed employers in the mentioned industries believed that their migrant employees should not be allowed to leave the work premises during working hours without permission. A Cambodian domestic helper reported that she worked for her employer for two years all day but could not go to bed until 2 in the morning, got up at 5:00 in the morning and never got paid. Her employer also slapped, hit or pinched her. A fishing boat teenage worker said he and his workmates worked all day and night without stopping. They had not been physically beaten but were scared of being thrown out of the boat and beaten with heavy hooks like other crew members (Human Trafficking).


Malaysian newspapers reported that more than 15 million foreign nationals entered the country in 2004 and only more than 9 million left that year (Hector et al. 2004). This meant that more than 5 million or 38% overstayed. Analysts believed that migrant workers could account for 30% of Malaysia’s current workforce. They welcomed this because Malaysian businesses could benefit from cheaper labor from workers for their lower-paid sectors of construction, agriculture and services. Countries providing cheap labor include the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and India (Hector et al.).

For their contributions to the Malaysian economy, many migrant workers suffer extreme difficulties (Hector et al. 2004). According to Amnesty International, they worked under substandard conditions, had no access to basic services and faced risks of physical and sexual abuse. They contended with weak or anomalous recruitment regulations and had limited legal protection. They were also opened to exploitation by recruitment agencies and employers. Undocumented migrant workers suffered even more. The government persists in tracking them down while recruiting other migrant workers to replace them. In all the stages of the process, employers, the police, immigration officials and unscrupulous recruitment agencies violate these workers’ basic rights. The crackdowns are a syndicated, multi-agency initiative, called Ops Nyah Bersepadu II. Launched in February 2000, the initiative managed to deport 200,000 undocumented migrant workers. One agency, Ops Sayang, hunted down sex workers. “Ops Pintu” was assigned to undocumented foreign domestic workers. The “Ops Mahir” agency tracked down undocumented migrant workers in their places of work. In implementing the crackdowns, the police used bulldozers to destroy the migrant workers’ makeshift homes. In 2004, a citizens’ volunteer corps, called Rela, was authorize to arrest undocumented workers. It could also search travel documents, arrest, detain and enter premises and hiding places (Hector et al.).

As a consequence of these operations, prisons soon overflowed with migrant workers (Hector et al. 2004). According to the Deputy Home Minister, more than 25% of jail inmates were foreigners in 2003. The following year, there were more foreign prisoners than Malaysians. Some of them remained in detention even after the end of their prison terms. Immigration detention centers also continue to accept more migrants and, in the process, increase the incidence of abuses and the overall poor conditions of the centers. And in addition to imprisonment and deportation, migrants are subjected to corporal punishment such as mandatory caning and whipping (Hector et al.).



This country’s 160,000 migrant domestic workers are mostly women (Jones 2008).

Ironically, Singapore’s labor laws still do not extend key protection to domestic workers. The situation, thus, opens the workers to exploitation. Most of them come from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. They leave their families and countries in search of more profitable sources of income for themselves and their loved ones. One in six Singapore families hires a domestic worker through several but inadequately monitored recruitment agencies. A 2005 report by Human Rights Watch described the working conditions of domestic workers in Singapore. Between 1999 and 2005, 147 migrant domestic workers died of work-related accidents or suicide. They fell or jumped from residential buildings. Research revealed that these workers experienced poor working conditions, anxiety over debts to recruiting agencies, social isolation and prolonged confinement. They work 13-19 hours a day all seven days a week. They are not allowed to leave their place of work. They typically earn less than half of what local workers earn for the same functions. They are forced to give up their pay for the first 4 to 10 months to repay their recruiting agency. Sometimes, their agent or employer manipulates details of the work agreement so that migrant workers are held up as forced labor (Jones).


The largest group of migrant workers in this country comes from Vietnam (Mekong

Migration Network 2005). They have lived as a large community for many generations in this country. Temporary and long-term migrants enter Cambodia as well. Many of these long-term migrants run small businesses and hire new Vietnamese migrant workers as craftsmen. Others work as fishermen and hired laborers, including sex workers. These workers contend with discrimination, language barriers, unsanitary living and working conditions, limited health care access, lack of legal documentation, deportation and corrupt police and border authorities (Mekong Migration Network).

Because of poverty, debt, the lack of land, jobs and economic opportunities drive Cambodians to seek a better life in other countries (Mekong Migration Network 2005). Within Cambodia, life is rural areas has proved unsustainable. People in these areas migrate to the urban areas or abroad in order to survive. They find no better alternatives to migration. Yet Cambodia does not have adequate migration policies. Its main policy document is outdated and provides only for the recruitment and interaction with licensed recruitment agencies. It has no or does not have sufficient labor attaches in its embassies in receiving countries to help its migrant workers (Mekong Migrant Network).

Why Irregular Migration is Undesirable

Unscrupulous foreign job recruits provide migrant workers a false picture of how it is to enter and work in another country (Wickramasekera 2000). These workers are thus not aware that an irregular status opens them to various rights abuses and exploitation. They may be paid the lowest wages. They may be blackmailed by the local mafia, labor brokers, and criminal elements. The receiving country will not feel obliged to treat them with decency because of their irregular status. On the whole, migrant workers of irregular status have no legal safeguards for health and lives, cannot join unions or bargain, ask for fair wages, seek compensation for illness or injury and have no security of employment (Wickaramasekera). #


APMRN. 2009. Issues paper from the republic of South Korea. Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific. Asia Pacific Migration Research Network: United Nations Educational,

Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved on November 18, 2009 from

Deen, Thalif. 2006. UN probes abuse of migrant workers worldwide. Asian Tribune:

World Institute for Asian Studies. Retrieved on November 18, 2009 from

Hector, Charles et al. 2004. Malaysia. Asian Migrant Yearbook: Asian Migrant Centre.

Retrieved on November 18, 2009 from

Human Rights Watch. 2007. South Korea — country summary. The Refugee Law

Reader. Retrieved on November 18, 2009 from

Human Trafficking. 2006. Human rights violations of migrant workers in Thailand. Academy for Educational Development. Retrieved on November 18, 2009 from

Jones, Rochelle.2008. Migrant domestic workers in Singapore. AWID Women’s Rights:

Association for Women’s Rights in Development. Retrieved on November 18, 2009

from Workers-in-Singapore

Mekong Migration Network. 2005. Cambodia. Asian Migrant Yearbook: Asian Migrant

Centre. Retrieved on November 18, 2009 from

OMCT. 2004. South Korea forced deportation and denial of medical attention for migrant workers. Organization Mondiale Centre la Torture. Retrieved on November

18, 2009 from

Wickramasekera, Piyasiri. 2000. Asian labor migration issues and challenges in an era of globalization. International Migration Programme: International Labor

Organization. Retrieved on November 18, 2009 from

Human Trafficking. Human Rights Violations of Migrant Workers in Thailand (Academy for Educational Development, 2006), (accessed November 18, 2009). Director for the study was Elaine Pearson who made the description.

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