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[ASEAN ISSUE #31] Bridging Divides to Build a Cohesive Community

Bridging Divides to Build a Cohesive Community

Won Ok-kum (Nguyen Ngoc Cam)

 

Won Ok-kum (Nguyen Ngoc Cam), President of the Migrant Community Center "Dong Haeng," is a human rights activist who has dedicated herself to promoting the rights of multicultural families and migrant workers in Korea for 15 years, after she married her Korean husband in 1996 and moved to Korea a year later. She also was a proportional representative candidate in the 2020 general election.

 

 

The year of the pandemic has passed and a new year has begun. People around the world suffered, some more some less, as COVID-19 waged its sudden attack on humanity. The virus which first broke out in China rapidly swept across Asia and Europe, and then to all corners of the globe, including the Americas, Africa, and Oceania, until there was no place left untouched. Even at this moment, more than half a million people are infected everyday and thousands lying in their deathbeds. While the virus is taking toll on the lives of the people, the lockdowns and measures to contain the spread of the virus are takin toll on the livelihoods of the people-with jobs lost and incomes reduced, the economic suffering too has become an existential threat.

 

Korea, owing to the swift response by the government, the high level of awareness and participation by the people, and a strong sense of community, succeeded in keeping the numbers of infections and death low. However, even if Korea fared relatively well, this does not mean that the people suffered any less. Moreover, even if Korea succeeds in containing the virus, the global scale of the pandemic prevents the problem from being resolved. Indeed, COVID-19 has reminded us how inextricably interconnected today’s world is and that no individual, single society or nation can be free from the global threats or overcome this challenge by itself.

 

Foreigners living in Korea have also suffered from the effects of COVID-19. As a matter of fact, their sufferings are greater because in many cases they are not yet fully integrated into the Korean society. In case of migrant workers, many lost their jobs or were forced to go on unpaid leave. Others had to suffer from overdue wages which meant that their families back home waiting for the remittances also had to suffer from income loss. Moreover, they could not even return home because many of their home countries closed borders to limit the number of overseas arrivals. During the first wave of COVID-19 in Korea, foreigners working and living in Korea were excluded from government support programs and were even unable to purchase face-masks which were rationed. The barriers that foreigners had felt in Korea appeared more rigid and powerful in the face of the pandemic.

 

Nevertheless, it is a given fact that Korea is transforming into a multi-culture society. Over 4% of Korea’s population is made up of migrants from other countries. 4% percent may seem trivial, but to put this into context, it is equivalent to the population of Daegu-city, the country’s fourth-largest city. And within that 4% is about 500,000 migrants from 10 ASEAN Member States. People-to-people exchanges and connections have been an important part of ASEAN-Korea relations with the 500,000 ASEAN national playing a key role in bringing the two regions closer together. In this context, meaningful policies vis-a-vis foreigners and migrants have become important for the well-being of the entire Korean society.

 

Now, not all communities embrace foreigners. In Korea, too, there are those who are engrained with a tendency to ostracize immigrants. Some of them argue that the government cannot afford to support foreign residents when its hands are already full taking care of its own nationals. Others complain about “reverse discrimination” against Korean nationals. It seems that deep inside the minds of these people, they are unable to accept foreign migrants as part of our society living together in Korea. But, whether people accept it or not, foreign residents are already a part of our society and our concern. Supporting migrants and embracing them as members of our society is more than simply helping a minority group, but an impetus for Korea to become a mature society. Such is the significance of the need to contemplate a policy to support the migrant community.

 

First, supportive measures for migrants, especially those from ASEAN countries, are essential in terms of ensuring universal human rights. The rights of all residents, native or migrant, living together as a community in Korea must be universally protected. ASEAN migrant workers are susceptible to industrial accidents, as they are more likely to work in hazardous conditions, in what is often known as 3D (dirty, difficult, and dangerous) jobs. Substandard living and working environments have yielded regrettable outcomes, as evidenced by the recent heartbreaking death of a migrant agricultural worker, who suffered in a employer-provided shoddy housing that lacked proper heating. The root cause of such tragedies lies in the Employment Permit System (EPS). This system, particularly the mandate that prohibits the migrant workforce from freely changing workplaces, has in some ways forcibly tied the hands of these workers. This is an issue that must be addressed, as it infringes on the most basic of human rights, the right to freedom.

 

Migrant workers from seven of the 10 ASEAN member countries (except Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore) enter Korea through the EPS. These migrant workers contribute to the continuous advancement of Korea’s industries by making up for the severe shortage of manpower in certain fields, and play their part in the economic development of their respective countries. Providing a safe working environment and protecting the workers' rights are necessary, not just for these migrant workers. Better working environments and conditions benefit domestic workers as well, and will help contain unemployment rates. Moreover, it will support Korea become a country that champions human rights issues.

 

Second, Korea faces an aging and declining population. Record-low birth rates are already a grim reality. The nation's fertility rate stood at a record 0.9 in the first half of 2020, the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). According to Statistics Korea, the nation's total population, even with the addition of migrant workers, will start to decline from 2028. Migrant workers have become more essential to maintain and propel the nation. However, if Korea only accepts migrant workers to meet the nation's needs without an appropriate safety net, the issue may cause a rift and conflict in society. We need to set a clear vision for the country, together with in-depth planning and implementation of policy to accept migrant workers as members of the community, and to foster a society in which we can prosper together. We also need to spare no effort to convince those who are unaccepting of migrant workers.

 

Third, support for migrant residents will help enrich and diversify Korean society, allowing for a more open community. A country can no longer survive on its own in today’s interconnected world. An insular stance can only lead to self-isolation in a world so inextricably intertwined. Korea’s popular music, movies, drama, and cuisine are trending all over the world. Many countries are teaching Korean as a second foreign language. Korean culture needs to offer diversity to maintain such global enthusiasm, and ASEAN migrant workers can play a pivotal role. An increase in the number of ASEAN workers has naturally introduced ASEAN cultures to Korean society, which will, in turn, help Korean culture widen its reach on the world stage. ASEAN member countries have diverse cultures and historical backgrounds and yet share empathy and fellowship with Korea as part of Asia, which can allow the migrant community to serve as channels for Korea's cultural diversity.

 

A multitude of ASEAN people with varied backgrounds currently reside in Korea. Marriage migrants, migrant workers, students, businesspeople, and artists from ASEAN member countries are working and studying hard in Korea, participating in numerous communal activities, and characterized by their field of work and home countries. As mentioned earlier, ASEAN communities contribute to the economic advancement and cultural diversity of Korea as well as their home countries. Many migrant residents manage to fulfill their dreams. Many others, however, suffer anguish during their stays. The anti-discrimination bill is still bogged down at the National Assembly. The Severe Accident Corporate Punishment Act had been also held up for years by partisan conflicts of interest, until the bill was passed recently. However, the new law is still fails to protect many migrant workers as it exempts businesses with 50 or fewer employees, where most migrant workers work.

 

There is no such thing as a perfect country, and Korea is no exception. It may not be the country of my birth, but nevertheless, I am proud of the country of my choice, the Republic of Korea. In my years living here, I have seen that, when faced with a problem, its people continually strive to change and correct it rather than sweeping the issues under the rug. Although it may seem that Korean society is rowdy with conflict, it remains healthy and vibrant. The same goes for the issue of migrant residents. Migrant workers may have been neglected in the preliminary stages of the pandemic. However, civic groups and organizations raised their voices, which led to numerous local governments heeding their call and including aid for the migrant communities. There are still those who direct hate speech at multiculturalism and migrant communities. But, the majority hold supportive and healthy views that drown out the limited minority spouting offensive rhetoric. I anticipate that this nation will accept migrants as part of its own community and that laws, systems, and policies will improve in time.

 

It is not easy for migrants to settle down in any society. There are clear differences in the cultures of native residents and migrants. There are differences in language, the color of their skin, and culture, and of course, economic differences as well. Nevertheless, when such “differences” and “contrasts” overcome discrimination, they transform into a power called “diversity.” Accepting each other’s differences and not discriminating against them, respecting Korea’s culture and history reaching back thousands of years, embracing the diversity of migrants are challenges that face Korean society as well as the migrant community.

 

I hope that the new year will bring us one step closer to building a community where Koreans and ASEAN migrants can thrive together, with a shared vision of a “people-centered community of peace and prosperity.”

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