Race and Class in South Korea

National Migrant Workers’ Day of Struggle Against EPS New Rule on Job Change

That admittedly convoluted title was Sunday’s demonstration outside Seoul Station in central Seoul. Being a migrant worker myself – or rather, a tourist who wants to be a migrant worker – I felt a pragmatic desire to take part. Some demonstrations I go on are ‘in solidarity’, but here it was also in my direct, personal interest.

(Of course, all demonstrations are in my personal interest, in that the liberation of all the oppressed is in my direct personal interest: I’d do far better off in a socialist society than scrabbling to making a living now. But you know what I mean.)

The rally was organised by the Migrant Trade Union of Korea, a fledging trade union set up specifically to defend the thousands of workers from across Asia that migrate to Korea. For their troubles, the MTU leadership often get deported. Today, the main issue is the Employment Permit System (EPS): in Korea, you get a work permit for a particular job, not a job class or length of time. This means that if your employer fires you, you’re deported. It also means you need the permission of your employer to change jobs.

At a meeting on Thursday, I heard a story from a hospital worker who sees migrants in the emergency room: their lungs are ruined from breathing in metal dust (due to lack of proper safety equipment), often after only a few months on the job. Or they have acute, rather than chronic injuries, and yet they ask for medicine to be able to continue working. In short, these are the wretched of the earth, desperate for work and with no legal protections.

This also means that they’re unlikely to demonstrate, as they can be fired on a pretence. So I was impressed by the rally numbers: the organisers said 1000 people attended over the course of the afternoon. I learned later this was the largest migrant rally in five years; the previous one was sparked by a dormitory fire that killed 10 migrants. I was happy this was a demand for rights and not a commemoration of a tragedy.

You’ll note the pictures of the backs of people’s heads. That’s deliberate, I figure migrant workers have enough trouble already without being identified online. And it’s a good cover for my lack of photo-journalism skills.

This was my first demonstration in Korea, and I was struck by a number of improvements over Canadian rallies. There were dozens of speakers that all had to take the mic, like in Canada. But we got to sit down and organisers handed out foam mats and water bottles. In Canada you just stand until your legs hurt or you get hungry. True, sitting cross-legged is a painful art I’m still mastering: Koreans learn it from birth so it’s easy for them, and of course they all have perfect posture whereas I’m practically bent double. But I managed two hours on my foam mat before my hamstrings decided they’d had enough and I had to hobble around for a while.

Everyone was friendly, if a little guarded – again, naturally enough, going without fundamental rights doesn’t encourage you to trust strangers. The Koreans I met were friendly and asked where I was from. During one chant I held my “No to EPS” sign up for the cameras and felt pretty proud of myself, until a Korean woman beside me gently pointed out that I was holding it upside down. And it was in English, so I really had no excuse.

The rally had a festive atmosphere. The lead MC not only led chants, he sang. There were  impassioned speeches but also skits and dancers. I believe that’s the Korean-American translator breaking it down on the left:

We marched through deserted downtown streets to Myongdong, the central shopping area. Anyone who’s ever marched in a Toronto rally to Dundas Square would find it familiar, except there were 10 times as many curious onlookers. Given Korean history I was expecting a heavy police presence with all sorts of body armour and vans, but if the riot cops were around they stayed out of sight. We stopped outside Myongdong Cathedral, which provided sanctuary to pro-democracy protestors in the 1980s and 90s – before a conservative bishop took over and stopped that sort of thing. Small clusters of Korean cops, in uniform and plain-clothed, watched us but didn’t interfere. And not to make fun of a state apparatus with a reputation for brutality, but it’s hard to take a plain-clothed cop seriously when he’s in designer jeans and sneakers. Even the older, hard-boiled ‘protester-watch’ cops looked more like ajeossi annoyed that their evening soju session had been interrupted. No beer guts, moustaches or jack boots that form the basis for Canadian police identity.

The red flag of All Together, the Korean branch of the International Socialist Tendency:

Another pleasant aspect of the demonstration: it was entirely bilingual. The translator translated with vigour: she was an activist too, not simply brought in for the event. Here she is summarising a speech (note to my socialist friends back in America: if you come visit, you’ll even know what’s going on at the protest rallies.)

The signs were in English. The chants were in English. The catchy ‘migrant labour theme song’ – “We are labour, we are labour” was in English. I realised this was less from Korean ubiquitous politeness, and more because the migrants were from Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal – English was everyone’s second language.

That said, I was continually impressed at how good the Korean skills of the foreign workers were. I’d never heard anyone from Bangladesh speak Korean, much less work a crowd in Korean:

Or, in my case, a first language, which was the cause of a major complaint: I was the only white person attending. That probably means I was the only ESL teacher attending too (well, member of the ESL reserve army of labour). There are, of course, people-of-colour ESL teachers. But they don’t speak English with noticeable accents, and that’s all I heard. Of course, that’s a product of racist Korean visa regulations, which stipulate that to teach ESL, you have to be a native resident of six, white-majority countries. So, while the Filipino woman who told me where to get a “We Demand Labor Rights” button spoke perfect English, she had the wrong passport to be an ESL worker.

At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking white privilege explains the lack of whitey at the demo: Korea opens its arms to white Canadian and Americans with BAs, while condemning workers from neighbouring countries to the ‘3Ds’: dirty, dangerous and degrading work. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story: ESL teachers get exploited too. They can have their wages delayed, or get deported because a private school boss doesn’t like them. I mentioned before that there’s at least one ESL teacher in prison for working without a visa. Non-white ESL teachers face discrimination and occasionally overt racism. And the astonishing anger on the Korean job boards at eslcafe.com often stems from poor working conditions. In short, ESL teachers also have a reason to demonstrate against Korean labour laws – but they weren’t there. Why?

Technically correct but a little confusing: the right to change a job freely, without the employer’s permission.

Condemning people for a lack of political consciousness is a tiresome exercise. Yes, I left Toronto partly because of my frustration with Canadian apathy, how everyone is so earnestly liberal that radical social change just seems impolite. How, when the real face of the state is revealed, like at the 2010 G20 protests, people’s first response is “This can’t be happening in Canada”, and they sing the national anthem to the cops as if that’s going to stop them. I’m not blaming the products of that culture – the 20-something Canadians who come to Korea to get a job and have a good time – for not attending rallies. But the contradictions remain: ESL teachers are exploited too.

Not to the same extent: obviously, foreigners from the Global North don’t suffer the same level of racism and exploitation as those from the Global South. But the concept of a ‘privileged’ worker draws on a sectoral analysis of the working class, rather than, well, a class one, that sees the fundamental divide between labour and capital rather than the tiny gradations of privilege at the bottom. It ignores the yawning chasm between even the most well-paid worker and the Buffetts and Putins of this world. So rather than saying, “ESL teachers in Korea make good money so they’re all apolitical”, I’d rather say, “ESL teachers in Korea get exploited by the same laws as all migrant workers, and the repeal of the laws that exploit the most marginalized workers would benefit us all.” It’s why I chanted “Up up, labour rights!” and “Down, down, Labour Ministry” yesterday, and my personal favourite, “Achieve – labour rights!” It sounded like “Cheap – labour rights!” Which still worked.

The silver lining to the lack of masses of ESL teachers was the radicalism of the speakers and demonstrators. Socialism may be a dirty word in Korea, but at least people know it. And judging by the crowd, they know it all over Asia. Here are two quotes I randomly tapped down from speakers:

“If all workers can unite, the government will bend before us because our demands are just.”

“Let us unite and struggle together.”

I don’t remember the last time I heard that from a Canadian rally. I’ve never heard this from a Canadian rally – and this guy’s a pastor! From the Philippines:

I know capital exploits labour and that workers have to organise collective resistance. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you know it too. But ‘me and my friends’ is a limited pool of respondents, and for a real explanation of Canadian and American apathy we have to look at the complete erasure of the Left over the past decades. The desire for radical change, when it does appear, mostly gets expressed through lifestyle choices, conspiratorial politics or mental illness. Other countries have Left movements that were never entirely wiped out or co-opted (no tribute to the imperialists, who tried pretty hard.) I don’t think workers in the Global North are ‘bought off’ or actively complicit with imperialism, but maybe there’s something to living in such a wealthy society that you’ve fought for a small piece of, and not wanting to lose it. Canada and the U.S. had vibrant, militant working class movements that have been repressed, co-opted, or had their base chipped away by the corrosive fear implanted by neoliberalism. 30 years of surviving individually, knowing that your life prospects are going to be worse than your parents’, does little to inspire confidence. Fear is a great de-motivator.

Then there’s the practical consideration: no one’s bothered to organise the ESL teachers. Someone needs to organise a collective response to their working conditions, which is a difficult task when teachers are so spread out. Perhaps it’s time the MTU started a branch that met in a foreigner’s bar?

Finally, the Korean organised Left wasn’t that visible. The militant NGO People’s Solidarity for Social Progress had banners, and All Together brought out big numbers. But the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, while they sent their President, didn’t mobilize any of their members. This is apparently one of the problems of the Korean Left: it’s nationalist, focused on reunification alone, which means that while it pays lip-service and makes donations, it won’t get actively involved in migrant rights’ struggles. I’d love to be corrected on this point, but if true it’s a serious problem. It lets the ruling class divide workers along national/ethnic lines, using migrant workers as a threat to the jobs of Koreans, and using Korean chauvinism as a threat to the stability of migrant workers.

Despite these concerns, I was seriously impressed at the enthusiasm and political knowledge of these workers. The music group, which made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in finesse, explained that they can only practice after work. I’ve done factory labour, it doesn’t make you want to play an instrument. The fact that these people can work and then fight for their dignity is incredibly inspiring.

Myongdong, premier shopping area north of the river, briefly filled with demonstrators instead of shoppers:


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