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Korea: Migrant seafarers lament 'being treated like dogs, cows'

Migrant seafarers lament 'being treated like dogs, cows'
Ko Dong-hwan June 7, 2018

Activists gathered in front of South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Jongno-gu, Seoul, May 29, demanding the government prosecute the captain and family members for abusing two Vietnamese seafarers for months. Advocates for Public Interest Law lawyer Kim Jong-chul is fifth from left. / Yonhap
A migrant workers' rights activist has lambasted the South Korean government for ignoring migrant seafarers' working environment, fraught with abuse, revealing part of a poem shared by the Vietnamese sailors who refer to themselves as "dogs and cows."

Kim Jong-chul, a lawyer from Seoul-based Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL), spoke out for the victims in front of Cheong Wa Dae, the presidential office in Jongno-gu, Seoul, on May 29. Joined by members from Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and activist groups like Migrants Act, Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea and Green Party Korea, the press conference berated the Ministry of Justice's lax labor laws that have left migrant seafarers open to verbal abuse and physical and sexual harassment.

Kim cited a poem verbally spread among Vietnamese seafarers in Korea that reflects their psychological distress under harsh working environments. He said he heard it from Vietnamese sailors two years ago. Here is a word-to-word translation of the lyrics that all Vietnamese fishermen know, whatever vessel they are working on:

Neon signs are my sunlight and waves my friends / Once the work starts, we work 18 hours nonstop / Now, I understand Korea / They like those with sleight of hands, who can work fast / Slow hands are called "ssiballom" (explicit Korean slang referring to those who would deny their ancestors) / They order even when we eat / Don't eat but swallow / No matter how fast we eat / We cannot satisfy the speed they want / Korea, I will never dream of coming here again / Although I may make a thousand golds / Because you will be a widow and your children bastards / They don't give us a bonus / Just a little something for living like a cow and dog tomorrow

"I thought about what the Vietnamese seafarers had possibly expected about working in Korea," Kim said during the conference, referring to two migrants who suffered abuse from a captain and his family members on ships based in Seogwipo, Jeju Island, for more than six months in 2017-18.

Earlier in the week a video clip released by APIL shows victim being left in the ocean after allegedly being thrown off a ship. The clip was filmed in March by the other Vietnamese on board the ship.

"They probably have spent a tremendous amount of time and money coming here to make their fortune," Kim said. "But what awaited them here were labor abuse and human rights violation. As verbally abusing the Vietnamese, the Koreans allegedly threatened them with knives and other dangerous objects, sexually molested them, and even threw them off the ship in the middle of ocean."

Kim said the Vietnamese were victims of "forced labor." They could not escape the ships because the captain threatened to report them to the immigration office and have them deported for abandoning their occupation without approval from their boss.

The Vietnamese sailors had petitioned the immigration office on Jeju Island to change their workplace but the authority needed the captain's agreement ― which he refused.

"The reason why such forced labor has been possible in Korea is because the Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Ministry of Justice have been silent," Kim said. "Korea's labor laws don't state maximum working hours for seafarers, which is preposterous in the 21st century. It makes them slaves, not laborers, and, through that legal loophole, ship captains have been given a pardon for abusing the migrants as long as they wish."

In October 2017 in Geneva, the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights affirmed unionized voices from 74 Korean human rights groups, including the APIL, which called for fairer treatment of workers, including migrants.

In its concluding observations, the U.N. advised the Korean government, among others, to abolish the restriction preventing migrant workers from changing workplaces and to protect labor rights for fishery workers. Cultural diversity must be preserved at workplaces through pertinent measures countering biases against migrants, the final statement said.

The Tuesday conference demanded that the captain and his accomplices be prosecuted with severity "equivalent to all the inhumane treatment they (the Vietnamese) encountered" and allow the victims to seek a different workplace promptly.

Earlier this week, Seogwipo police held the captain while they investigated the alleged offences, allowing the Vietnamese to leave the ship.

Following the Tuesday's conference, a similar protest was held in front of the Jeju Employment and Welfare Center the next day.

The Korea Coast Guard said Thursday it would survey about 83,000 industry entities nationwide ― from fishing vessels to fish farms ― to check for human rights violations, including those involving foreign workers. The crackdown will last until the end of June.?

The coast guard said the investigation, using phone interviews, questionnaires and in-person interviews, would be led by government agencies handling foreign workers, including the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and the Ministry of Employment and Labor.