South Korea accused of modern slavery with seasonal worker scheme

A Context probe into a migrant worker scheme between the Philippines and South Korea has unearthed systemic abuse and widespread worker disquiet. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom
investigation

A Context probe into a migrant worker scheme between the Philippines and South Korea has unearthed systemic abuse and widespread worker disquiet. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom

What’s the context?

South Korea needs workers, Filipinos need jobs - but a Context probe shows their migrant labour scheme is rife with abuse

  • Philippines sends workers to South Korea under sister-city deals
  • Informal brokers blamed for pay and welfare abuses
  • 'It is like human trafficking in modern day'
  • Calls grow for change - yet schemes persist

MANILA - Vulnerable, low-paid Filipinos have been exploited, tricked and abused under a migrant worker scheme launched by South Korea to plug its severe labour shortage, an investigation by Context has found.

Under the scheme - which also recruits workers from Nepal, Vietnam, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, Uzbekistan and Thailand - farmers and fishermen relocate to South Korea for five to eight months of work with the promise of big wages to take home.

But Context has talked to a dozen ex-workers who say the programme falls far short of its pledges - many say they returned empty handed, others risked losing land to the brokers who arranged their temporary contracts with South Korean farm states.

They said brokers had charged excessive fees for their placements in what turned out to be back-breaking manual jobs, controlled their movements by confiscating their passports and documents, and cheated them out of their promised wages.

"This clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of seasonal workers to human trafficking and forced labor," said Ko Gibok of the Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea (JCMK), a coalition of groups working to improve migrant rights.

Ko called the programme a new form of modern slavery.

"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."

The South Korean government refused requests for comment. 

The Philippine government said the scheme operated in at least 45 local governments and that it had no jurisdiction or insight into local practice.

The country has a total of 1,600 local government units that can enter into deals with their South Korean counterparts.

This hands-off stance by central government means it is hard to tally the numbers of workers affected or track the abuses racked up under an informal job brokerage system.

Seeking to regulate the system and stamp out further abuse, the central government in March announced plans to channel all migrant workers through a bilateral agreement with Seoul.

No bilateral agreement on the seasonal farm workers programme has yet been reached.

Empty promises?

More than 3,500 Filipinos have been recruited under the scheme since 2022, when South Korea launched so-called sister city agreements that twin local Filipino governments with richer ones in the East Asian country.

Context talked to a dozen farmers who had joined up, some of whom are now pursuing court action in Manila after failing to win justice from local governments or the brokers who oversaw their contracts.

The workers were drawn to the scheme by the promise of earning up to five times what they can make at home.

For South Korea, the migrants plug a chronic labour shortfall exacerbated by an aging and shrinking population, with foreign workers taking on low-paid jobs that many locals shun.

Context analysed the documents of 12 former Filipino seasonal workers - papers that revealed systemic contract violations in unregulated local government schemes, with deals often struck by independent brokers who operate without central oversight.

Among the workers' most common complaints: welfare violations, exorbitant broker fees, harsh working conditions, diluted pay and a lack of any redress or grievance mechanisms.   

Many also said they were too afraid to file complaints or speak out for fear of being shut out of future job prospects.

Here are the stories of three former migrant workers, all of whose names have been changed to protect their identities.  

Juan

In some states, applicants were asked to sign over land as collateral to secure their work contracts in South Korea. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom

In some states, applicants were asked to sign over land as collateral to secure their work contracts in South Korea. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom

In some states, applicants were asked to sign over land as collateral to secure their work contracts in South Korea. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom

Rice farmer Juan is typical of the victims interviewed by Context over a four-month investigation.

Enticed by the prospect of a hefty salary, Juan staked his family's two-hectare (five-acre) farm in the Philippines for a chance to work a season in South Korea, only to face hard labour when abroad then a legal battle for his assets once back home.

The work was brokered last July by his town - General Mamerto Natividad, 120 km (75 miles) north of Manila -  which contracted the 42-year-old for a five-month stint abroad.

He was promised a monthly salary of 43,000 Philippine pesos ($752), more than double his usual takings.

But when he arrived in Hwasun, at the foot of South Korea, Juan was not assigned farm work, as contracted, but forced to work as a mountain grass cutter, a gruelling job only doable after hiking two hours through peak summer heat.

Juan said the entire employment process - from his hiring at  home to dropoff at post - was handled by three people whom he called brokers, a married Filipino couple and lone Korean man.

A week into his new job, Juan and two fellow Filipino workers complained to the brokers, expecting to be redeployed.

"We thought they would hear our complaints and help us find a new employer," Juan told Context.

Instead, he said the female broker told them to pack their bags and be at the airport the following day.

"The brokers forced us to go back to the Philippines and told the local government that we wanted to go home. But that's not true," said Juan.

"They also refused to return our collateral."

The family had signed over land as collateral to secure the overseas work contract and say the brokers tried to keep that land when Juan returned early. He said it took a four-month fight and 180,000 pesos in legal fees to win back the plot.

Bianca

Filipino farm workers complained about the lack of grievance mechanisms and said brokers kept their bank books and passports. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom

Filipino farm workers complained about the lack of grievance mechanisms and said brokers kept their bank books and passports. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom

Filipino farm workers complained about the lack of grievance mechanisms and said brokers kept their bank books and passports. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom

Bianca - who spent five months picking strawberries in South Korea - said she had to work 14-hour days and that brokers kept her bank book and passport for her entire stay.

"We cannot hold or see our salaries. The brokers only sent our families in the Philippines 15,000 pesos a month in the form of cheques," said the ex-seasonal farm worker.

She left for South Korea in 2022 on a promise of 35,000 pesos a month, but said she was then charged 20,000 a month for housing, food and 'handling', so ended up with the same as a minimum-wage earner would have netted back home.

She said none of these expenses or charges were mentioned in her work contract but she felt too scared to file a complaint.

Context saw an unsigned copy of Bianca's contract, which did not mention any such charges.

"We are new in this job and we had no idea how much seasonal farm workers there are usually paid," said Bianca.

"It was my dream to go to South Korea. I didn't know that the job there would be hard - 14 hours. It was hard to endure."

Last year, the Department of Migrant Workers, the government arm set up to protect Filipinos working overseas, received 150 complaints related to illegal recruitment, labour practice and welfare under the seasonal farm workers program.

The DMW said it was looking into all of them, as well as investigating 66 brokers for wrongdoing.

Since 2022, the DMW said it had identified five workers who had suffered physical abuse, another five who needed medical attention while away on work, and four deaths of Filipino seasonal workers seconded to South Korea.

There is no data that tallies the total number of complaints filed through all the relevant agencies and offices.

Mark

Some former workers who spoke with Context were asked to pay hefty fees through salary deductions. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom

Some former workers who spoke with Context were asked to pay hefty fees through salary deductions. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom

Some former workers who spoke with Context were asked to pay hefty fees through salary deductions. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Marian Hukom

While the government knows that 3,500 Filipinos have signed up for seasonal work under the sister-city scheme, it has no data on how many others have signed up via unregulated brokers.

"And the brokers, of course, they are in it for business," said Tatcee Macabuag of the Migrant Forum in Asia, a regional NGO for the protection of migrant workers.

This informal setup led to contracts that "were not rights-based" and opened up "opportunities for abuse", she said.

In Laguna, an agricultural province about 90 km (55 miles) south-east of Manila, former farm workers recruited in the towns of Paete and Pangil said they were asked to pay 60,000 pesos as a "processing" fee to land a job.

Yet there was no mention of any fee in the contract that Mark signed in April 2023, which Context has examined.

The 42-year-old statistical researcher said his broker demanded 12,000 pesos in cash up front then took two salary deductions of 24,000 pesos each while he was abroad.

He also said he had to pay more than 30,000 pesos for his flights, visa, travel insurance and fees.

Mark should have earned about 60,000 pesos per month - five times his usual salary.

In fact, he earned half that, working on a 20-hectare (50-acre) potato farm in the northeastern province of Gangwon in South Korea.

The work was harsh; the pay was poor, he said.

"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."   

Change afoot?

In January, the DMW told local governments to stop sending farm workers to South Korea until the rules were rewritten to deliver workers a fair deal: decent wages and working conditions as well as guaranteeing the migrants access to medical care.

So far, those rules have not been rewritten - so the old deals persist.

The DMW did however implement an interim measure under which local governments must ensure that contracts include "provisions for fair and equal treatment of Filipino seasonal workers".

But Ko - of the Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea - said there had been "no policy change" and several local governments still used Korean brokers.

So the scheme continues - as do the complaints.

"We cannot provide jobs for our people ... but we should at least protect their rights," said Macabuag of the Migrant Forum in Asia. "The ideal would be for us to have a really good economy where people don't have to leave."

($1 = 57.2100 Philippine pesos)

(Written by Mariejo Ramos and edited by Lyndsay Griffiths.)

This article was updated on Saturday 8th, June 2024 at 14:10 GMT to correct the name of Ko Gibok. 


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