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[LAST IN A TWO-PART SERIES] Farms, fisheries rely on undocumented workers

Feb 25,2019
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Forty-seven-year-old Rai landed in Korea more than four years ago with his wife. According to official documents, they were supposed to watch the 2014 Asian Games that September in Incheon and tour the country before returning to Thailand, their home, 90 days later.

But the first thing they did upon arriving here was visit apartment construction sites looking for illegal work. To this day, Rai and his wife still work at construction sites in Korea, transferring nearly 3 million won ($2,700) back home every month. Over the years they’ve worked in Daegu and Sangju, North Gyeongsang, and Gongju, South Chungcheong.

“It’s really easy for foreigners to come to Korea during an international sports competition, like the PyeongChang Winter Olympics or the Incheon Asian Games,” said Rai, a pseudonym, when a special reporting team from the JoongAng Ilbo met him on Jan. 8 at the Hwaseong Foreign Workers Center in Gyeonggi, a nongovernmental organization that helps foreign workers resolve labor-related issues.

“Once you arrive in Korea,” Rai continued, “you can easily find a job through a broker with just 200,000 to 300,000 won, or ask a friend of yours who arrived first to help you get employed.”

According to statistics from the Ministry of Justice, a total of 351,739 foreigners visited Korea through a visa-free program in February of last year when the country hosted the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in Gangwon, and were allowed to stay up to 90 days to watch the games and shop. But what was meant to spur the domestic economy actually ended up opening the doors for undocumented workers because 11,635 people, about 3.3 percent of the visitors, did not leave the country when their 90-day limit was up.

Sometimes, it’s the athletes who go off the radar. After the 2014 Asian Games, Incheon police announced that seven foreign athletes who entered Korea for the competition had disappeared, including three from Nepal, two from Sri Lanka and one each from Palestine and Bangladesh.

When Cheongju, North Chungcheong, hosted the World Martial Arts Masterships in September 2016, three athletes from Sri Lanka and four from Uzbekistan disappeared, and so did 42 from Pakistan in 2001 when the city hosted a global taekwondo cultural festival. It is unclear what those athletes are up to today, but some who were later caught by local police were found to have paid millions of won to local brokers to find a job here.

Rev. Han Yoon-soo, head of the Hwaseong Foreign Workers Center, estimated Hwaseong is home to over 50,000 foreign workers, some 15,000 of who are probably working illegally. The city is so reliant on them that when rumor spreads local authorities are out on patrol and the foreigners don’t show up for work, their factories and the surrounding shops and restaurants “suffer big time,” Han said.

“It’s impossible to farm without illegal workers because it’s hard to find legal workers in the area willing to work for me,” said a 52-year-old Korean farmer surnamed Park in Yanggu County, Gangwon, who wished to withhold his full name. “There isn’t much work at this time so not many foreigners are in town, but they’ll swarm back in when spring arrives,” Park went on.

Park lives in a rural village within Yanggu that has some 1,300 permanent residents. Last fall, nearly 400 undocumented workers came to work in the fields, including a 39-year-old woman from Thailand. When a JoongAng Ilbo reporter met her last October, she introduced herself as a mother of two: one 10-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son. She used to teach back home, but she made far less than the 1.7 million won a month she made in Yanggu. For every month she worked in Yanggu, she wired 1 million won back to Thailand, used 500,000 won for rent and food and saved the rest.

Fishing villages in Mokpo and Sinan County, South Jeolla, are no different. Korean sailors there say it’s difficult to recruit Koreans due to the strenuous work, not to mention how Koreans ask for double the pay of undocumented workers. For every nine to 12 consecutive days spent out at sea, each Korean worker would require 3 to 4 million won. An undocumented foreign worker only gets 1.5 to 2 million won.

Data from the Justice Ministry showed that 21,171 foreigners were deported from Korea last year, mostly for overstaying their visas or committing a criminal offense. According to local immigration control laws, a Korean national who employs an undocumented worker can face up to three years in jail or 20 million won in fines.

Some local critics say the penalty is too light.

“A lot of business owners who end up serving jail time after getting busted for hiring undocumented workers purposefully make their companies go bankrupt, only to switch the name of the company, hire someone to be the bajisajang [a sinecure, or a position that is the titular head of a company without actually doing the work] and recruit more undocumented workers,” said Seol Dong-hoon, a sociology professor at Chonbuk National University in Jeonju, North Jeolla.

Other pundits cite a lack of manpower to crack down on the issue. As of mid-February, the Justice Ministry had only 257 public officials in charge of tracking down some 350,000 undocumented foreigners expected to be hiding in Korea.

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]