Museum promises better working conditions for foreign performers

By Suk Gee-hyun
  • Published : Feb 13, 2014 - 20:16
  • Updated : Feb 13, 2014 - 20:16
Workers at the Africa Museum of Original Art in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, show their dorms to reporters on Thursday. (Yonhap)

A controversial African museum promised on Thursday to improve wages and working conditions for their artists, according to the Democratic Party’s Euljiro Committee.

The move comes two days after local media reported that African performers at the Africa Museum of Original Art in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, are working under problematic, abusive conditions.

“The museum didn’t even guarantee the basic human rights of the workers. They were basically treated like slaves,” Cho Young-min, an Euljiro Committee member who mediated the agreement, told The Korea Herald.

“They were living in a dire environment. It was definitely not a proper place for a human to live,” Cho said.

According to the agreement, the museum will provide “livable” dorms, guarantee social insurance and give outstanding payments. The organization will also help workers who already quit safely return to their countries.

The officials said the museum is subjected to pay an additional 2 million won in compensation to each worker as well.

Upon the talks, the museum returned workers’ passports, flight tickets and installment deposit bankbooks, which had been confiscated to prevent workers from quitting.

After getting back his belongings, Amidu, a 32-year-old artist from Burkina Faso, said, “Before, I felt like I was in prison, but I now feel like I’ve been freed. I’ve found the real Amidu.”

The issue came into the spotlight on Tuesday, with media reports revealing the underpaid workers’ quarters: A shabby, moldy flophouse with four people sleeping in one room.

Records show that the 12 workers in the museum were each given 2,600 won for daily food expenses and were paid only about 600,000 won ($563) a month.

About half of their wages were automatically put into an installment savings account, leaving them with 300,000 won for monthly living expenses. The Euljiro Committee said the workers should have been paid at least 1.26 million won, based on the minimum wage of 5,210 won per hour.

The museum’s director Park Sang-soon, had denied the suspected wrongdoings and explained that the workers are being paid 1.1 million won a month for doing a 40-minute performance three times a day.

The news immediately sparked public outrage, with some holding an online signature campaign, demanding the museum to admit its mistreatment of the workers and pay them above minimum wage.

“The government needs to track down all public organizations that hire foreign workers and take necessary measures to improve their treatment,” a Twitter user wrote on Tuesday.

The museum was established in 2006 and is currently operated by Saenuri Party Secretary-General Hong Moon-jong. The museum authorities flew to African countries to hire performers, whom they promised a house with Internet access. Currently, there are four artists from Zimbabwe and eight workers from Burkina Faso.

“Though Hong avoided legal responsibility due to the recent agreement, he will be left with political (and moral) responsibility (as a lawmaker),” said an official from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the two major umbrella labor unions.

According to the committee, the museum was given 99.95 million won from the provincial and city governments over the past three years.

By Suk Gee-hyun (