From Ratification to Empowerment: Reflections on the 11th International Migrants Day

16 December 2010

Wol-san Liem
Research Institute for Alternative Workers Movements

This December 18 with be the 11th International Migrants Day. Founded in December 2000, International Migrants Day marks the anniversary of the General Assembly’s adoption of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of the Families (hereafter, the Convention) on December 18, 1990. Around the world, migrant workers and their supporters will use this day to demand changes in national policies, work conditions and social practices that are discriminatory and oppressive towards non-nationals, and call on governments to ratify the Convention, which sets minimum basic standards states must respect.

In the last several decades, recognition of migration as a global phenomenon and the importance of migrant labor to the global economy has increased significantly. Most governments now at least give lip service to the need to protect migrants’ human rights. Nonetheless, only 43 countries, the majority of which are countries of origin, have ratified the Convention. South Korea is among the countries that has not.

If we look at South Korean policies towards migrant workers, this fact is not surprising. The Convention states that, &Migrant workers and members of their families shall be entitled to effective protection by the State against violence physical injury, threats and intimidation, whether by public officials or by private individuals, groups or institutions& (Article 16, clause 2) and that they &shall not be subjected individually or collectively to arbitrary arrest or detention& (Article 16, clause 4). The South Korean government’s sole method for dealing with undocumented migration, however, is to carry out indiscriminate and often violent immigration raids, detain all of those arrested and deport them with out trial. The tragic death of a migrant workers as a result of these policies last month, shows just how brutal they are. On October 29, immigration officers raided a factory in the Gasan district of Seoul during a concentrated immigration crackdown carried out ahead of the G20 Summit. When Trinh Cong Quan, a 35-year-old Vietnamese worker and the father of a 4-month old daughter, found all exits blocked he tried to escape through a second story window. Quan fell and was severely injured. After lying in a coma for several days, he passed away on November 3. Far from taking responsibility, the Seoul Immigration Service simply claimed it had followed legally prescribed procedures and therefore owed nothing to Quan’s bereaved family.

In the area of labor rights, the Convention states that migrant workers shall not be discriminated against with respect to work conditions, remuneration, rest, health and safety measures and termination of the employment relationship (Article 25, clauses 1-3). In contradiction to these principles, the South Korean government’s Employment Permit System, maintains strict restrictions on the freedom to change workplaces and gives the power to employers to terminate labor contracts at will. By exacerbating the unequal relationship between employers and workers, this system enabling a wide range of rights violations, including under and non-payment of wages, forced overtime and lack of respect of health and safety standards.

Ratification of the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers signifies acknowledgement by states of their responsibility to work actively to eradicate this sort of discrimination. Thus, demands for ratification have important symbolic meaning. Ratification, however, does not guaranteed change, only a general acceptance of the need for change. Moreover, the standards prescribed in the Convention are highly limited, given that they represented the lowest common denominator to which the General Assembly could agree. Even more important, therefore, than demands for ratification are the struggles of migrants themselves to gain recognition as workers, as members of society and as the subjects of rights.

Many times the demands made in these self-determined struggles go beyond the rights guaranteed in the Convention. The Convention, for example, guarantees the right to basic education for all migrants (Article 30), but acess to educational institutions equal to that of nationals only to documented migrants (Article 43). In the United States, undocumented migrant youth are demanding more. They have fought for several years for passage of the Dream Act, which would guarantee them the right to attend college, access to financial support for higher education and pathways to legal permanent residence. This fight has not yet been won and the legitimacy of the Act has recently been tarnished by its attachment to the National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2011 and the inclusion of a provision that would require young people who could not go to college to serve in the military to achieve permanent residence. Nonetheless, the Dream Act struggle has empowered undocumented migrant youth as a real political force in American society and made their situation impossible to ignore. It has already given birth to dozens of talented young activists who will lead the fight for migrants rights in the United States well into the future.

In South Korea, migrant workers have been fighting for the right to freedom of association since 2005 through the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Migrants Trade Union (MTU). The Convention only protects the migrants’ rights to freely join trade unions and participate in their activities (Article 26). Since its founding, however, MTU has insisted that migrants have the right not only to join but also to form their own unions, a right which under the South Korean Constitution applies to all workers, regardless of social status. Through their persistent organizing in the face of government repression, the members of MTU have demonstrated that they are in fact the subjects of this right regardless of what the South Korean government says. Their efforts, in conjunction with the efforts of migrant worker in other countries, have led to international recognition. In November 2009, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) issued recommendations to the South Korean government, clearly recognizing the right of migrant workers, documented and undocumented to form and join trade unions of their choosing and calling on the government to immediately recognize MTU’s status as a legal union.

In addition to these unequivocal statements, the ILO and UN recommendations also recognized the South Korean governments’ continued targeting of MTU officers for arrest and deportation under the pretext of immigration law violations as contrary to the principle of freedom of association, and called for an end to such attacks. Despite these recommendations, however, the South Korean government has not stopped its efforts to undermine MTU. Following the arrest and deportation of MTU officers in 2007 and 2008, the Immigration Service is again after the union’s leadership. It has issued a summons to MTU President Michel Catuira, a documented migrant worker, claiming he has not maintained a legitimate employment relationship and has engaging in political activities prohibited under the Immigration Control Law. In the meantime, the East Seoul Branch of the Seoul Regional Ministry of Employment and Labor has cancelled the employment permit granted the President Catuira’s employer clearly seeking to give credibility to the Immigration Service’s charges.

These measures are an obvious effort on to undermine MTU. If President Catuira is found to have violated the Immigration Control Law, he will lose his visa and become immediately deportable. It can only be assumed that this is precisely what the Immigration Services has in mind.

Sadly, the pressure being placed on President Catuira has received very little attention in the wider South Korean labor movement. Perhaps this is because of the general weakness of the movement at present, or perhaps its is because such attacks on MTU’s leadership have become so commonplace. Whatever the reason, the lack of response is unfortunate for several reasons. First, given that MTU is an affiliate of the KCTU Seoul Regional Council and President Michel a KCTU officer, these actions by the government represent an assault on KCTU as a whole and the freedom of association rights of Korean workers in general. Second, as migrant workers make up an increasingly significant part of the South Korean labor force organizing them becomes ever more important if the labor movement is to regain its power and ability of to defend workers wages, conditions and rights. MTU, as a union organizing migrant workers, must therefore be protected. Finally, the attack on President Catuira is representative of the racist nature of the South Korean state, whose policies reproduce the low social and economic status of non-white foreigners. In that racism serves to divide us--to keep us from uniting as workers and common people--it is a structure of oppression that victimizes all of us.

Migrant workers and migrant support organizations will mark International Migrants Day with a protest at Marronnier Park on Sunday, December 19. Labor and social movement actors can show their support for the rights of migrants by coming at in force. As we celebrate the day and call for ratification of the UN Migrants convention, we should also make a strong demand for an end to the attack on President Catuira and the continued violation of migrant workers freedom of association rights. In the long-term. if we are to reverse the entrenchment of racial hierarchy in South Korean society and enable the unity of all workers and common people, migrant and non-migrant activists must use our collective wisdom to find new ways to organize and empower migrant workers as a social and political force.

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