Korea’s EPS is a huge improvement to the previous labour system, the Industrial Trainee Scheme (ITS) that brought in foreign workers as ‘trainees’. Workers had to pay exorbitant amounts to get these jobs that were mediated by the private sector, which meant it was not merit but ability to pay that decided the fate of job-seekers.
Landing in Korea as a trainees meant they were also vulnerable to exploitation. Employers paid migrants at their discretion and got away with exploiting them. Workers who had paid high fees (sometimes up to Rs 1 million in the case of Nepali workers) would escape abusive employers or overstay their visas as they could not change jobs. The system itself was designed to encourage undocumented workers.
Read also: Diaspora Diaries 2, Nepali Times
In 2003, there was a nationwide crackdown and deportation of workers, migrants protested and demanded the legalisation of undocumented workers for over a year. Activists of the movement were arrested, detained and deported. This united migrant workers and laid a foundation for the formation Migrant Trade Union.
While it was founded in 2005, the registration of MTU with the Ministry of Labour as a legitimate trade union was at first rejected on the grounds that it included illegally employed foreigners who do not have the right to join labour unions. It filed a lawsuit against this decision and it was only ten long years later that Korea’s Supreme Court in 2015 finally ruled in favor of the MTU.
By the time I came to South Korea in 2014, the struggle by my predecessors, including workers from Nepal, was already decades old. I never forget that I am standing on the shoulders of giants who laid the foundation for us to fight the good fight.
Read also: Diaspora Diaries 3, Nepali Times