Lack of future plans a concern for migrant workers in South Korea

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Cambodian ambassador to South Korea Long Dimanche (right) meets Cambodian migrant workers in Gimpo. Dimanche says there are currently around 60,000 Cambodians living in Korea, more than 45,000 of whom are migrant workers. Niem Chheng

While some Cambodian migrant workers in South Korea are happy to have relieved family debt burden at home, others are working in “not-good” conditions and without clear objectives.

At around 6pm, 21 workers leave a reservoir construction site in the city of Gimpo, around 15km from the South Korean capital Seoul. They include Cambodians who have been working on the project for three months.

Khat Tol, 35, hails from Kampong Thom province. The father of two children says he is happy to be working in South Korea, especially at his current construction site.

“I arrived here three years ago for my second term, but many of my colleagues have been here for only a year. When I have saved enough money, I will return to Cambodia because it is not easy to live here, even though the work is well paid. Now I am saving to afford things to make my life at home easier in the future,” Tol tells The Post.

A worker from Siem Reap province, who asked not to be named, said he had been living in Korea for more than three years now. He had cleared the debt his family owed to a microfinance company.

He had saved enough money to buy 5ha of land and a farm with 120 crocodiles.

Not far from the construction site is the pottery production company DI Eco Star. The company employs some 40 workers, nine of whom are Cambodians.

DI Eco Star manager Im Young-sook says she is satisfied with the performance of the Cambodians she hires.

“Most Cambodian workers are good and skilful. If they are not, I would not have hired them or extended their work here when they finish their first term. I like them,” she said.

An Srey Neth, another Cambodian worker from Kampong Cham province, has been working at a company that manufactures auto spare parts in the city of Gwangju after arriving in Korea four years ago.

“There are things that I am happy with, but there are also things that are not satisfying. What I’m not happy about is having to work full time but not getting paid for the work I have completed.

“For example, I’m supposed to take a break at lunch time, but in reality I can’t because the machinery is processing so we have to continue working, but we don’t get overtime. But generally I’m happy to have a stable, well-paid job here,” she says as she extends her passport validity at the House of Love Centre in Jinju.

‘Hard this year’

Many migrant workers interviewed by The Post say they face two common problems: late salary payment and unpaid overtime. The same is true of Senghong, who asked to be identified only by his given name.

“The salary here is high, but sometimes the employer pays it two to three months late. In my case, it has been nearly three months – since August – that I haven’t been paid. It is hard this year,” he said.

Samen Sokha, a labour counsellor at the Cambodian embassy in Seoul, says the common problem faced by migrant workers in South Korea is non-compliance with the labour law on the part of employers.

Compounding the problem, he says, are the dangers faced by workers on duty, and disputes between employers and employees, and among migrant workers themselves.

He called on workers to contact the embassy for help or contact the migrant worker-support centre in their town should such cases occur.

Sreng Vuochny, an official at a counselling centre for migrant workers in the city of Ansan, where 600 Cambodian people are residing and working, says late payment is not uncommon in Korea. While attributing the problem to employer exploitation, she says this is also caused by salary increases and the global economic downturn.

She also called on Cambodian women who get married to Korean men to contact her centre should any problem arise.

“I’m sympathetic for them because I have faced the same problems. That’s why I’m willing to work here to help them, even on a low salary,” Vuochny says.

Kim Dara has been living in Korea for seven years. Hailing from Siem Reap province, the 30-year-old is perhaps a role model for other migrant workers.

Since starting at a ship production company, Dara acquired good Korean language skills and worked up the ladder to become team leader. After a few more years, he received a coveted green card to live permanently in Korea and has since started his own business exporting ginseng to Cambodia.

Citing his own observations, he says the lack of a clear objective upon arrival in Korea is the main stumbling block to a migrant worker being successful.

“If they have skills, they will be promoted, and this applies to anyone coming to work here, not just workers. There are many success stories. For example, a worker at a car production company can become a manager.

“For me, I learned to speak Korean and became a manager. First I received $1,100, but later my salary increased to more than $3,000,” he says.

Dara points out that many Korean employers are happy with Cambodian workers because they are hard-working. He calls on new arrivals to always plan ahead.

“They should always have objectives for the future. They should not live a carefree life on their salary. Some of them have too casual an attitude, getting drunk and into fights. Some behave like gangsters and have no future plans.

“Some work only to send money home to pay off bank loans. When they have finished their work here, they go back with a small amount of money or nothing at all. This could lead to them becoming an illegal worker and face a lot of dangers,” he says.

Outstanding workers

Sokha, of the Cambodian embassy in Seoul, says the advantages of working in Korea include a relatively good monthly salary of $1,400, and opportunities to upgrade technical and Korean language skills.

He said out of the 16 countries that send migrant workers to Korea, Cambodia was ranked best for outstanding workers by the Human Resource Development Unit (HRD Korea) under the Korean Ministry of Employment and Labour.

He said this would help increase the quota of Cambodian migrant workers next year.

Cambodian ambassador to South Korea Long Dimanche says there are currently around 60,000 Cambodians living in Korea, more than 45,000 of whom are migrant workers. The rest, he says, are students and women who married to Korean men. He said Cambodians in Korea send around $600 million annually home to their family.

He said embassy officials regularly travelled to towns and regions away from Seoul to get to know workers and provide necessary services such as passport extensions.

Dimanche said there will be a discussion on the increase of the quota for Cambodian migrant workers during Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Korea for the Asean-Korea Commemorative summit from November 25-26.