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Sunday, June 13, 2004

ZNet | Asia | The Last Public Space?

ZNet | Asia | The Last Public Space?

Apparently the government has posted undercover immigration cops outside of the public baths," a friend with the Equality Trade Union - Migrants' Branch (ETU-MB) informed me over the phone from South Korea yesterday.

The ETU-MB recently celebrated the 200th day of their sit-in in front of Seoul's Myong Dong Cathedral. Though their numbers have dwindled in recent months, morale seems firm as the ETU-MB is planning more campaigns for the months ahead. The crackdown against migrant workers that started last October has cooled during the recent elections in South Korea, and some migrant activists have gone underground in order to work and organize in migrant communities throughout the country.

Which is not to say that the government is intending to accept demands for a fair working visa for undocumented migrants. Instead the government seems to have adopted a business as usual strategy, ignoring abuses against migrant workers in the factories and targeting migrant workers in public space, whether it be at protests, soccer games, or public baths.

The effect of such a strategy is to exclude migrants de facto from what radical geographer Don Mitchell calls a space of representation. A space of representation is a public space in which migrants are free to carry out protests, celebrate their culture, or attend sporting and other public events in which they can mix and mingle with the Korean population. In other words, a space of representation is a space in which they can be seen and heard.

Instead, excluding migrant workers from public space makes it easier for the government and dominant interests to represent them how they see fit. For example, Katherine Moon, Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, reports that throughout the nineties migrant workers were represented in the press as unwelcome strangers. In a 1997 essay, Moon states that even ethnic Korean Chinese - who were initially welcomed by the Seoul shinmun with the "call of hyoruk" (literally, blood shared family) - later had their welcome soured and were often represented as peddlers and criminals.

In response, early efforts on behalf of migrant workers by civil society groups highlighted the fact that migrant workers perform many of the 3 D jobs (Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult) left vacant in the midst of South Korea's construction and information technology boom. Many of these migrant workers came under the government's old industrial trainee system which exploited migrants by considering them "trainees" rather than employees; in reality, migrants were working long hours for low wages under poor conditions often combined with emotional and physical abuse from employers, so many fled their primary place of employment in search of better working conditions and fair pay. Most have remained in stable jobs until today, as the government seeks to normalize its labour migration policies by expelling those workers whom have been in the country for over three years, most of whom are well trained employees and fluent Korean speakers, including some whom have started families and call Korea their home.

The government has made it clear that it intends to punish these workers as well as migrant organizers who protest the government or try to have labour law applied to their grievances. For example, since the early nineties the government has followed a trend of deporting vocal migrants following successful protests and court actions, often resorting to illegal police raids and abductions to make their point.

In the last 200 days this practice has intensified around the ETU-MB as several of their central organizers, including Samar Thapa and Khademul Islam Bidduth, were targeted and illegally deported to their home countries. At a solidarity rally in early January, Immigration officers used stun guns to capture Kul Bahadur Yakha and Enamul Haq, Nepali and Bangladeshi ETU-MB members, by knocking them unconscious and dragging them into an awaiting bus and then driving recklessly off, injuring protestors and a priest in the process. Numerous other rank and file ETU-MB supporters were also arrested in past months, many of whom were held and engaged in hunger strikes in Seoul's Hwasong Detention Center, during which hunger strikers were separated into overcrowded cells and frequently denied medical attention.

During months of immigration crackdowns migrant workers often resorted to hiding in homes, factories, and hills in order to evade the immigration police. What was startling about the crackdown was that most of the captures occurred in public space, as if the government wanted to send a message to migrant workers that they were to work but to not be seen, not even at a public bath. As one immigration official, Lim Chae Lim, said,"The intention of the roundup is not to deport every undocumented migrant worker in the country but to give a warning to the rest. Even if we are successful in rounding up only some 10,000 (undocumented foreign workers), it will certainly give a warning to the remaining 110,000."

Over the last few months the ETU-MB has managed to survive and to counter the government's representations of migrant workers, bringing public awareness to their plight. Even though this particular moment may have migrants working underground and hesitant to protest, efforts are being made to make sure this temporary end to public space is also a beginning. With the help of South Korea's social movements, the ETU-MB is slowly regaining its voice, speaking at solidarity rallies and maintaining their presence at Seoul's Myong Dong Cathedral, perhaps the last public space that migrants have access to as it is the symbolic center of freedom and dissent in South Korea, site of the struggles against military dictatorship that both key social movements and the new left-liberal government have emerged from and pay homage to.

What remains to be seen is if how the new government will respond to key social struggles. With a new five hour work week and struggles heating up for legal unions for civil service and contingent workers, as well as ongoing campaigns against privatization, the displacement of urban street venders, and continuing labour activism in banking, medical and construction sectors, many wonder if Korea will begin a transition away from its current neoliberal trajectory. For the moment, one thing seems clear, that solidarity with foreign workers have remained a part of this new landscape of Korean social struggle, a landscape of potential for social gains where migrant workers just may able to win the access to public space to which they are currently being denied.

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