Foreign and local experts, as well as government officials addressed Thursday human rights abuses faced by migrant workers in South Korea’s fishing industry and exchanged suggestions to improve the situation.
Hosted by the National Assembly Human Rights Forum, Advocates for Public Interest Law and International Organization for Migration’s Korea office, scores of human rights lawyers, activists and government officials came together for a regional conference in Seoul on ethical recruitment and policy coordination in the fishing industry.
Kim Jong-chul, a lawyer for APIL, pointed out that migrant fishing crews are more vulnerable to human rights abuses as existing laws focus on protecting Korean fishermen, citing his two-year-long investigation into Korean fishing companies’ alleged exploitation of foreign workers.
Sponsored by the US Department of State, Kim and IOM’s Seoul Office interviewed nearly 100 people from South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines for the joint investigation.
“Problems exist at all levels. During the recruitment process, it costs too much money for foreign workers to get a job as fishing crew and they rack up large debts, which makes it difficult for them to quit work even when they are exploited,” Kim said. “That’s why foreign workers are prone to become victims of human trafficking and forced labor.”
The investigation also found that migrant fishing crews suffer from poor living conditions, long hours of work, discriminatory pay, confiscation of their documents, assault and verbal abuses, among other issues.
“The problem is that there is a law to protect fishermen, but it centers on Korean workers, not foreign workers. Also, the law is often not implemented or monitored,” he said, adding that the legal limbo leaves foreign workers unprotected by either the Labor Standards Act or the Seafarers Act.
In South Korea, migrant workers hired on ships which weigh 20 tons or over in coastal and high seas are subject to the Seafarers Act under the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. Foreign workers on boats weighing less than 20 tons are under the Employment Permit System run by the Labor Ministry.
The two-way system of managing foreign fishermen often leads to relevant ministries’ lack of monitoring on working conditions for foreign workers and relatively lenient punishment on Korean employers failing to abide by labor laws, the lawyer noted.
Amid a rapidly aging population and young people’s reluctance to fill jobs in the agriculture, fishing and farming sectors, South Korea is increasingly relying on migrant workers.
As of the end of the 2015, the number of migrant fishing crew accounted for 41 percent of the total fishing crew in South Korea, with the number having seen a gradual increase from 9,162 in 2010 to 11,815 in 2015.
While Korean deckhands received nearly 4 million won ($3,583) per month, migrant workers doing the same job earned $423 on average, according to government data. Migrant workers paid from 2,000 won to 15,000 won per person to recruitment agencies to find employment on Korean companies’ boats.
Kim Hae-gi, Deputy Director at Seafarer Policy Division under the Fisheries Ministry, admitted that there had been human rights violations against migrant workers on Korean vessels and absence of rules to manage them.
“But assaults and verbal abuses are not solely targeted at migrant workers. Such crimes happen to Korean crew on the boats as well,” he said. “The government conducted a joint investigation and has implemented measures to improve protection for migrant fishermen by setting up a call center, hiring more labor inspectors and toughening punishment.
“The tripartite committee among management, labor and public officials has carried out a probe since 2013 every year to oversee whether measures are properly implemented,” he added.
Max Pottler, Labor Mobility Project Officer at IOM’s Cambodia Office, underscored the importance of ethical and fair process in recruiting fishing workers.
“It is challenging to regulate the fishing industry effectively especially when relationships between workers and employers get more and more complex,” he said. “But the unethical recruitment practices could lead to negative consequences not only for foreign workers but also for employers.”
“(When companies unfairly treat workers,) the workers could be easily linked to criminal smuggling, human trafficking networks. Companies can suffer severe reputational damages,” he said. "It will cost companies additional money at first, but it will eventually translate into more productive workforce.”
Pottler also addressed the need for the Korean government to understand international standards to enforce harmonizing policies and take a common approach to effectively regulate unethical hiring practices in the fishing industry.
The International Labor Organization Private Employment Agencies Convention stipulates a ban on forced labor, child labor and recruitment fees, freedom of association and collective bargaining, adequate process to investigate workers’ complaints. As of 2016, 32 states out of 186 member states have ratified the Convention, with Japan being the only Asian country.
Park Mi-hyung, a director at IOM’s Seoul Office, said in a welcoming speech that it is important for the South Korean government and the countries of migrant fishermen to prepare concrete measures through policy discussions.
“Establishing ethical hiring standards has a positive impact on the protection of migrant workers, and also improves the overall transparency and sustainability of the industry,” she said.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)