SOUTH KOREA: Migrant Workers' Rights Clouded by Race, Class

>> Sunday, August 17, 2008

By Alex Jong Lee

SEOUL, Dec 19 (IPS) - Since August, rights activists in South Korea have been fighting a crackdown on illegal migrant workers. But South Asian and South-east Asians are resentful that Westerners, particularly those in the country’s booming English language teaching industry, are seen differently.

"I guess the perspective of the Korean left (how they focus on migrant exploitation) is okay but that can be problematic if they are not talking about ‘white migrants,’" said Bonojit Hussain, a member of the Progressive Students’ Union in India and a graduate student at Song Kong Hoe University.

Most "progressives" in S. Korea, he suggested, highlight the "plight" of migrant workers and push for legal reforms, but downplay issues of race, class, and nationality, particularly where it concerns English language-teaching foreign workers from the richer Western countries.

Moreover, he said, popular discourse on migration has become more politicised and the word, "migrant" itself usually evokes negative sentiment.

"If you bring the element of class into it, not their class background in their own country but after coming to Korea -- white or brown or yellow or whatever -- then if you add the dynamics of class, then I think we should qualify it this way: ‘working class migrant’ and ‘elite migrant,’" Hussain argued. "There is a distinction --all white migrants are elite."



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