Inside South Korea's seasonal worker program

Abuse and exploitation: inside South Korea’s seasonal worker program

  • Published on
    June 7, 2024
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  • Category:
    Forced Labor
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South Korea’s seasonal worker scheme has come under fire, with accusations of modern slavery and systemic abuse of migrant workers, primarily from the Philippines. An investigation by Context, the news agency of the Tomas Reuters Foundation, reveals insights.

South Korea’s seasonal worker scheme

The seasonal worker scheme aims to address South Korea’s labor shortages by recruiting foreign workers for low-paid jobs that locals avoid. However, workers face exploitative conditions. Exorbitant broker fees can consume a significant portion of their earnings, leaving them with far less than promised. Brokers often confiscate important documents such as passports and bank books, restricting workers’ freedom and control over their finances. Harsh working conditions are common, with workers enduring long hours, sometimes up to 14 hours a day, in physically demanding roles that differ significantly from their contractual agreements.

“It is like human trafficking in modern day. The brokers treated seasonal workers like slaves, because they kept their passbook, passport and even their foreign resident’s card and salary.” – Ko Gibok, Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea (JCMK)

The lack of central oversight allows brokers to operate with impunity, violating contracts without accountability. Additionally, unexpected deductions for housing, food, and ‘handling’ fees further reduce their take-home pay, adding to their financial burden and frustration.

Stories of exploitation

Context spoke with several seasonal workers, three of which recount their experiences. Juan*, a rice farmer, was promised a high salary but ended up doing grueling labor far from what was agreed. When he complained, he was sent back to the Philippines and had to fight a legal battle to reclaim his collateral. Bianca* endured 14-hour workdays picking strawberries, with brokers controlling her bank book and passport, leaving her unable to access her earnings directly. Mark* paid substantial upfront fees and saw salary deductions to secure his job, none of which were disclosed in his contract.

“I never expected that we had to work harder than a carabao,” said Mark. “If not for the loans I took to get there, I wouldn’t finish my contract. I vowed to never work in farms in South Korea again.” – Mark, ex-seasonal worker

Act now!

Ratifying the 2014 Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention No. 29, 1930, could significantly help South Korea address forced labor issues by strengthening legal frameworks, improving oversight, and providing better protection for migrant workers. Sign our petition to urge South Korea to ratify the 2014 Protocol and protect migrant workers’ rights today!


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