A Look At Migrant Worker Conditions In South Korea: Cambodian Worker Found Dead In Frozen Greenhouse

On December 27th, a thirty-year-old Cambodian farm worker was found dead in a greenhouse in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province in sub-zero conditions. This is the latest incident in a series of investigations of human rights violations regarding migrant worker conditions in South Korea. The police investigation revealed the dire conditions in which the workers were living in, being forced to use the vinyl greenhouse without heating as their dormitory. They are currently evaluating the legality and lax management of the vinyl greenhouse the workers worked and slept in. The woman has been working in these conditions for the past 4 years and was due to return to Cambodia on January 10th, the date on which her low-skilled worker’s visa expired.

The police have stated that they “have questioned the owner of the farm and carried out an autopsy’’ which revealed that the worker may have died from an ongoing liver disease. However, the local pastor and president of the local migrant worker rights support center. Kim Dal-sung, raised doubts on whether the woman froze to death during a cold spell that saw temperatures plummet to minus 20 degrees Celsius that night. The woman had even spent the night alone in the greenhouse, while her work colleagues fled and found shelter elsewhere, unable to bear the low temperatures.

Following this incident, a group of migrant worker’s rights activists stated that “Migrant workers have struggled with living conditions where they could not avoid heat waves, heavy rains, and cold weather, and there had also been numerous cases in which migrant workers died in fires in their dorms.’’ They have urged local communities, governments and employers who “do not care about the safety of their workers’’ to take responsibility and action to improve them.

The Cambodian Ambassador in South Korea has revealed that approximately “seven Cambodian migrant workers die per year in South Korea’’ while “hundreds of Thai migrants die every year in the country.’’

South Korea’s problem with migrant worker’s rights is a long-standing issue. Up until 2012, migrant worker contracts didn’t even meet the criteria for the Minimum Age act, with contracts not stating a minimum age or working hours and job descriptions. Since the issue was brought to light in 2012, migrant worker contracts have now generally started stating hours; however, these are usually cut off at 8 working hours per day, even though the workers do about 11-12 hours of work each day. For example, a Cambodian migrant worker revealed that her contract indicated her monthly work hours to be 226 instead of the 308 that she actually worked.

Even if migrant workers in South Korea try to dispute these contracts and leave their employers, the current EPS program makes it almost impossible for them to do so, with workers depending strongly on their employers to prolong and maintain their working visas. The director of the Assan Migrant Workers Centre Woo Sam-Yeol stated that the ways in which migrant workers are tied to their employers are similar to “the conditions of slaves.’’

Some employers even issue alternate contracts alongside the regular working contract, which focus on keeping the workers there despite poor working and living conditions. Some go as far as asking compensation for the administration fees of finding migrant workers, should the worker choose to leave. One such agreement states that “[w]hen a worker leaves the company without a legitimate reason or before a replacement worker is hired, that worker will provide the farmer with 1.5 million won (US$1,360) in compensation.”

Recent data released by South Korea’s Ministry of Employment and Labor showed that roughly 30% of businesses employing migrant workers in South Korea currently do not meet the minimum requirements for living and working conditions. Furthermore, approximately 70% of migrant workers pay a housing fee through their work contract while living in appalling conditions, sometimes in unheated greenhouses and shipping containers.

Following the tragic passing of the Cambodian worker on 27 December, the Ministry of Employment and labor stated that they will no longer issue employment permits to employers offering unsafe housing conditions such as greenhouses and shipping containers.

It is absolutely necessary for the local government and for the Ministry of Employment and Labor to create a system in which migrant worker contracts are stored and monitored. Khun Tharo, the program manager for the Centre for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights stated that the Ministry of Labor should have information such as “what company was it and where did they send her?’’

Lastly, workers need a safe process through which they can report and dispute their current contracts and working conditions without fear of losing their working visa. International human rights organizations play a significant role in offering these vital service where the government won’t, and in advocating the South Korean government, and the Ministry of Employment and Labor, to do better for their migrant workers.

Timea Putnoki