He came here to “fulfill his Korean dream,” I was told. But I wasn’t talking to a teenage boy looking to become the next K-Pop star. He is an ordinary, working-class person from Vietnam, coming to South Korea to work long hours in physically gruelling jobs.
Despite the prospect of earning only minimum wage, the offer for many is too lucrative to pass up. Spend five years of your life doing manual work far from your home and family. After that, you’ll have saved enough to build your parents a house in your home country or put your sister through college.
For migrant workers throughout South and Southeast Asia, South Korea provides exactly that opportunity. These workers come from countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines where the average monthly salary is a quarter (or less) of monthly earnings on minimum wage in South Korea.
With this difference in salaries, it’s not hard to see why many of the migrant workers that come into the country choose to stay beyond the 4 years and 10 months allowed. After that point, they join the ranks of unregistered migrants living and working illegally. There are roughly 300,000 migrants currently in the country holding visas for unskilled labor jobs, and of them 50,000 have overstayed their visas.
At least in Gwangju, a city in the southwest known for its leftist politics and local commitment to civil liberties, unregistered migrants are not facing major crackdowns. Police interest in foreign workers is rare unless they receive specific reports of crime or violence.
Kim Nam-jin, director of an NGO in Gwangju called Asia Brightness Community, added that his organization and others in the city file complaints and oppose any government attempts to arrest unregistered migrants. To him, migrant workers – regardless of visa status – are people just looking to make an honest day’s wage and not cause any problems, all points they raise with police whenever they hear of a looming crackdown.
For an unregistered worker, basic legal protections set out in South Korean law are surprisingly robust. Private companies and individuals have no obligation to inform authorities if they discover that a foreign resident doesn’t have a valid visa. Only government employees have an obligation to report illegal migrants, but exemptions exist for schools, hospitals, and even the police if a non-citizen is the victim of a crime or human rights violation.
In other words, an unregistered worker can hold a job, travel within the country, receive medical treatment, even give birth without being reported to immigration. Even so, unregistered workers still have good reason to be cautious of authorities and keep a low profile as they could be reported at any time. In fact, in 2016, the government deported 29,000 people, with some additional 10,000 being ordered or advised to leave South Korea.
Korea Exposé spoke with a Vietnamese laborer living in Gwangju who’s experienced all of this directly.
Could you tell me about yourself?
Sure. My name is Hiển. I’m from Nam Dinh Province, which is close to Ho Chi Minh City. I’m 34 years old, and my wife and I have a young daughter. I’ve been living and working in South Korea for the last 10 years.
I know you’ve been in South Korea for a decade, first legally and then without a visa. Why did you decide on this path?
Right, I’m now what they call an unregistered laborer. I came to South Korea through EPS, the government’s overseas recruiting system, and worked legally for 4 years and 10 months, the maximum that’s allowed.
Making the decision to continue staying in the country wasn’t easy. At first, my motivation was to save enough money to be able to build a house in my hometown. After I met my wife and we got married, I then also wanted to save money for our married life back in Vietnam. And then two years ago my wife gave birth to our daughter, so now our goal is to save money needed for her education in the future.
Does she live with you here? As a person without legal status in South Korea, having a child here would complicate things for you.
Actually, we didn’t have any trouble in the hospital when she was born. We registered her birth with the Vietnamese embassy, so she has citizenship in our home country. We asked a friend of ours to take her back to my hometown. She lives there now with my parents.
She’s so young for you to be living apart from her. You and your wife must miss her immensely.
Of course! We use video chats to see her and talk with her every day. I do feel a lot of guilt about the situation. We’re her parents and we should be there to raise her ourselves. At the same time we are also responsible to provide for her future, which is what we are doing by working here and saving money. It’s a complicated situation, to be sure.
Could you tell me about how you met your wife? Is she also Vietnamese?
Yes, she’s also Vietnamese. My first placement under the EPS was in Gumi in a metal plating plant. I didn’t stay at job but I keep in touch with Vietnamese friends I made during my time there. On a trip back to Gumi to visit these friends, one of them introduced me to my wife. She and I continued chatting with each other through Facebook and eventually we decided to get married.
Where have you worked in Korea?
I’ve worked in 4 different companies in 3 cities. The first was in Gumi, as I mentioned. The company did silver plating on pipes over 100 meters long. I stayed there for two years. After I left I was placed at a woodworking company in Hwaseong, near Seoul. I was there for just one year. My last job under the EPS was here, in Gwangju, at a plant making styrofoam packing materials for household appliances. Fridges, TVs, washing machines and the like.
After becoming an unregistered migrant I found work at an injection moulding company. They make things like hood ornaments or metals logos that a company puts on a refrigerator. I work the night shift, from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. It’s a small company with just three people: the boss, another Vietnamese employee and me.
Why did you leave your first two workplaces? Was it difficult to leave?
At the metal plating factory in Gumi, the boss was a very unkind person. He often shouted and I saw him hit some of the other workers. But my main reason for leaving was that I began to be concerned about my health. The air quality was quite poor and I often had difficulty breathing. Metal plating involves very high temperatures so there are always fumes in the air. When I decided to leave, I told the employment center I wanted to quit and gave them my reason, and they found my next job for me. [Migrants on work visa under EPS don’t have the right to freely choose employers.]
The carpentry job in Hwaseong was a different story. The work itself was fine, but that was in 2009-2010. The global economic recession hurt a lot of companies, and my bosses weren’t able to pay me. I reported this to the employment center, and they placed me in Gwangju. A few months later the company did pay me those missing wages.
I left my first Gwangju job at the styrofoam plant when my visa expired.
Why did you first decide to come to South Korea?
I came to South Korea when I was 24. I had just finished my program in electrical work at a technical college, but even with a degree like this finding well-paying work in Vietnam is difficult. I had a friend who told me about working in S. Korea and it seemed like a good deal. You can earn a lot more money here than you can back home. [A full-time minimum-wage job in South Korea pays per month roughly four times as much as the current average monthly salary in Vietnam.]
What was your preparation process like?
You have to pass skill tests and strength tests, as well as scoring at least 120 points on a Korean language test. With tuition for Korean classes and job training, application fees and airfare, the whole process took six months and cost me about 6,000,000 won. [130 million VND converted using the 2007 exchange rate. The amount is equal to roughly four months’ wages for an average worker in Vietnam in 2007.]
That’s quite a bit of money.
It was. I took out a bank loan for half of the amount, and the rest I borrowed from people I knew already working in South Korea. When I arrived I wanted to pay everything back quickly. I spent very little money on myself and worked 12 to 16 hours a day for my entire first year. By the end of that year I was debt free.
I imagine you didn’t have any time left for yourself. What about now?
Now I have more time and I can afford to live a little more comfortably. My wife and I together earn about 4,000,000 won per month, and we spend about 800,000 won of that on ourselves and send the rest back to our families in Vietnam.
When we do have time for ourselves we like to go for walks in parks or markets, and we visit our friends and eat together. I like going to pool halls but my wife isn’t very interested. [laughs]
When do you plan to leave South Korea, and what are your plans for after you leave?
Our plan is to go back to Vietnam next year to be with our daughter. Using the money we’ve saved and the job skills I’ve learned I hope to start a business in my hometown.
Korea Exposé spoke with Hiển with the help of an interpreter. His name has been changed in the article to protect his identity.
Cover Image: Hiển is an unregistered laborer in Gwangju, South Korea. (Daniel Corks/Korea Exposé)