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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"Death of the Korean Dream"

Oh My News has an article (with lots of pictures) about the 8 Thai women workers who are suffering from a form of paralysis called 'multiple neuropathy' due to prolonged unprotected exposure to extremely dangerous solvents while working in a Korean factory. I hope this story is capturing the imagination of the Korean public a bit because they need to care about the sorts of conditions that migrant workers in Korea are having to endure working at the lowest end of the manufacturing industry. This is particularly important after the government's recent crackdown on migrant workers overstaying their visas, which was in full swing when I was last in Korea in late 2003 and sent hundreds of workers scurrying into hiding in the mountains with only box or two of ramyon (instant noodles) for company. There have subsequently been attempts by politicians to smear migrant workers and in particular those who fought the crackdown as terrorists or anti-Korean.

But as this English editorial from Hankyoreh pointed out:

In Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations, and even amongst ethnic Koreans in China, South Korea has for some time now been criticized as an "ugly country" for exploiting foreign laborers just because it has come to enjoy a higher standard of living. Late getting into the act, the Labor Ministry is confusedly scurrying around trying to do something about it, announcing it will engage in a "special inspection" of 367 worksites with similar conditions. This is not, however, something that will be resolved by putting on a "response for show." ... It was only a matter of time for the working conditions of migrant laborers to turn even worse when the government [started its] crude arrest offensive in the name of a "crackdown on illegality." ...
There must be an end to instances where foreigners who come to Korea for work are exploited or worked to death. This latest incident involving the Thai women needs to be the beginning of the end of the "ugly Republic of Korea."

NB: The term 'Korean Dream' is used in the Korean press to refer to the hopes of those who come to Korea seeking to earn money for their families back home - an interesting usage reflecting the importance of the idea of the 'American Dream' among Koreans. There are something like 4 million ethnic Koreans living in the US (don't quote me on that figure).


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