an interview with Kabir Uddin of the Equality Trade Union

In North America, there has been a shift away from convergence style protests to more localized actions that challenge global capital with a paradigm of action that has come to be known loosely as direct-action casework. Influenced by a variety of social ideas from anti-imperialism, unionism, and anarchism, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the Bus Riders Union, and No One Is Illegal are all examples of this model. They advocate with and on behalf of the unemployed, homeless, urban poor, and people without papers as well as other non-traditional constituents of labor politics. In South Korea the Equality Trade Union (ETU) -– an umbrella union for female factory workers, victims of workplace accidents, casual and contingent workers, disabled pedestrians, and migrant workers –- occupies a similar position, though in a radically different context. The following interview with Kabir Uddin, an illegal migrant worker from Bangladesh at the forefront of the ETU, reveals how labor activism, international solidarity, and radical social protest have been merged into constellation of radical politics that speaks to an alternative globalization: one in which migrants moving across borders in a trans-nationalism from below unite with local leftist traditions to create powerful new social movements.


Migrant workers in South Korea


Jamie Doucette: I think it would be best to start with a few general facts for readers who don’t know much about migrant workers in South Korea. To start, how many migrant workers are there at the moment?


Kabir Uddin: There are about 350,000 migrant workers in Korea. It all started around 1991. The numbers of people coming here for work were small, and then around 1994-96, the numbers increased by more than 250,000 migrants. Currently, about eighty percent of these workers are illegal.


J: What makes these workers illegal?


K: Well, there are only two ways for migrants to gain entrance to Korea. One is a tourist visa that lasts for three months and the other is Industrial Trainee System (ITS). There is no work permit system yet. The Korea Federation of Small and middle Business (KFSB) has agents in undeveloped or developing countries who recruit the numbers of workers they need. Like me, many people apply for a dream job in Korea. Those who are lucky pay more than $US 8,000 to come here, and under the Industrial Trainee System, they are never officially recognized as a worker -– just a ‘trainee’ — but we work a minimum of 12 hours a day for very low wages in what are called 3D jobs (jobs that are dirty, dangerous and difficult). The Labor Standards Act isn’t enforced for trainees; neither are there basic labor rights, or severance pay. For that reason, after migrant workers learn a few skills and some of the language, they run away and become illegal, facing the risk of crackdown and deportation at any time.



Origins of migrant worker activism in Korea


J: When, and how, did you form the Migrants’ Branch of the Equality Trade Union (ETU-MB)?


K: I had been working for eleven months since October 1996 under the Trainee system when my friends and I ran away from our factories because of low wages and long work hours. We then moved to Masok, a large, furniture producing industrial area. Every once and a while we had to run away to hide in the mountains for a few hours because of an immigration crackdown. More then 1700 migrant workers from many different countries lived in our area but only a few officers would come to check identification permits so we would run and hide. In the evening, when we came back we’d check who got caught. If only a few people were caught the rest of us would feel lucky. Actually, we didn’t understand what was our fault. We work here peacefully. Yet, we have to live like this and at any time we can be deported, laid off, violated, or be made to work for two or three months without pay, or have our salary delayed by our employers who use us cause we are illegal. If somebody beats me I have to hush up because I’m illegal.


Later we met some people from a Korean counseling center, which formed in 1995-96. Some priests from a church started a NGO to work on different problems like unpaid salary, labor violations, and to help develop some cultural programs for workers from different countries. These organizations were small and had only one or two staff members with part time volunteers. My fellow Bangladeshi friends and I met there a few times and I worked there part time every Saturday and Sunday to help with translation and counseling for other migrants. But there is a limit to NGO organizing, so sometimes we joined protests with other Korean workers and attended May Day and other festivals, protests, etc. My childhood friends and I were inspired by the radical atmosphere of these protests and met many committed activists and curious students who wanted to know about the situation of migrant workers. In 1999, my childhood friend Bidduth (Bidu) and I, with others friends also went on an educational television channel for a live program about the problems of illegality and the ITS. They ignored us and mainly kept the discussions to the Joint Committee for Migrant Workers in Korea‘s (JCMK) president and with businessmen from the KFSB. That was the first and last time we did any broadcasting like that. On the other hand it did generate some media attention but our situation didn’t change. After that the JCMK, Ministry Of Labor, and Ministry Of Justice, held a meeting to discuss introducing a new Employment Permit System, which is very similar to the ITS. But they only discussed the matter among themselves; there were not any migrant representatives.


J: So what happened then?


K: Well, we asked ourselves: Where were the migrant workers’ representatives? Why weren’t they consulted? Why don’t they want to listen to us? Because of this, legislation never reduced illegality and the problems we deal with. So, some more progressive people from the JCMK created a new organization that was really active. Around September of 2000 we got organized with both Korean workers and migrant workers and named it SN for MRF. (Struggle Network for Migrants’ Rights and Freedom of migration). At first, there were only 2 migrants, Jones, a Phillipino activist and myself. In total there were 13 members. I was then fired from the JCMK’s Migrants’ center in Masok (Shalom House). The priest there threatened me several times not to come back but we didn’t have any offices or money and hadn’t begun to build support from other migrant workers. So, we started a newsletter in 4 languages: Bangla, Nepalese, English and Korean. We joined every big protest of Korean workers we could and distributed pamphlets to them. After a lot of hard work we started getting support, and I’d get threatened from the local police. My friends told me to be careful. All of us were illegal and scared to do real actions.


The birth of the Equality Trade Union


J: So, did things start growing from then on?


K: Yeah, we had a lot of students supporting us with their solidarity. We did sit-ins in front of Myoungdong Cathedral [a historic site of sanctuary for South Korean activists during the military regime] even though our numbers were small. We were even joined by a group of English teachers from the US and Canada. Our activities increased and so did our members. I started learning more about labor activities and radical politics and also Korean, English, and Pakistani. After 8 months a women’s workers union suggested that we organize and make branch union with them. So we discussed more and more about labor union activity, and why it was important. Technically, there were no legal problems with starting a union in itself, but according to Immigration law we are illegal. That’s why we have mother union. We named it the Equality Trade Union (ETU) and we have some other branches. We are the first migrant workers’ union in South Korea. Technically we are the part of Korean Confederation Trade Union (KCTU) [Korea's largest, and most radical, trade union confederation with approx. 750,000 members]. From the beginning of SN for MRF we got a lot of support from the KCTU and others unions, especially the irregular [temp] worker’s unions from Korea telecom.


On May 19, 2001 we launched our union with a ceremony at Yonsai University with more then one hundred participants and some KCTU and others civil society leaders. Our message was that we must fight together with Korean workers. Our Slogans were: Stop the Crack-down. Achieve labor rights. Achieve migrants’ rights. Abolish the Trainee System. For the last two years we’ve fought for every issue concerning migrant workers, from public protest to withheld pay to workplace accidents and wildcat strikes, and for very first time we demanded legalization in 2002 on April 7th by organizing more then one thousand migrant workers to march on a highway in downtown Seoul. We’ve united migrants from many different countries. That was the first time in Korea that migrants have gotten together in large numbers like that. We’ve also fought specific factories and have won against employers this year and last year in some cases, even though we are illegal migrants we have negotiated disputes for other workers. Any way this is our story, I mean ETU-MB story. Our main goal is to legalize all migrants and achieve working visas and labor rights.


Day to day organizing


J: How is the ETU organized? In other words, what are its parts? Can you give me some examples of actions that the ETU-MB has organized and/or participated in?


K: The ETU-MB was organized by Korean activists with some migrant workers like me who had connections with migrant communities, and interested migrant workers. We migrant workers hold various responsibilities: propaganda, cultural festivals, and our many rallies in front of the Seoul Immigration office, where we’ve been attacked and have had to fight back against them several times. When we were preparing for the second, large mass rally of illegal and ‘trainee’ migrant workers in April of 2001, Immigration, the Police and Intelligence suppressed our rally, so then Bidu, Yi Yoon Joo (our union chief) and I held a sit-in struggle for 77days and were joined by Nepalese migrants as well. After that we got coverage in the international press. Also there were solidarity protests in other countries in front of Korean Embassies by our relatives and sympathetic organizations. Finally, Bidu and I were arrested at six am in the morning by more then 100 police last September 2nd, 2002. Bidu and I were held in a detention center for 81 days but we put up a fight in jail and there were protests all over Korea. We started a hunger strike for the release of all long time detainees as well. At last we were finally released. Bidu and I were rewarded as “strugglers of the year” by the KCTU while we were in jail. There were two short documentaries made about our plight by Korean students, and we were covered on Korean National TV and in other newspapers. You can find our full story and Anyway we didn’t achieve all our goals but we can say that migrant workers issues are now considered a major social issue and the ETU-MB is at the front line of struggle here.


Organizing across cultures


J: What kind of difficulties do you encounter when your members speak many different languages and come from different countries and cultures? 

K: I think it’s pretty easy cause although there are many differences between us, the work that we suffer through is the same and the language of struggle is very similar over the world. Sometimes we have communication problems and are misunderstood by Korean Activists. This is a problem because the members of the ETU-MB are 80% Bangladeshi. We have to use Korean but other foreigners can’t understand Korean well. Koreans also can’t speak English well. I am very lucky that I can speak 5 languages relatively well. So, language is one of our biggest problems. We are trying to break all cultural discriminations among us and we are now even mixing in better with Korean culture because we live in Korean society. Now our front-liners speak and make slogans like Korean activists.


J: How do you deal with conflicts in the group? How do you keep people feeling happy and confident during hard times?


K: I believe each member has something to contribute that’s part of his or her attitude or behavior. I have learned a lot from the Korean staff of the ETU, especially Yi Yoon Joo. My childhood and long time friend Bidu too, he is a leader in the Bangladeshi communities. There have been some problems with egoism and leadership conflicts but not with migrants, but with some younger Korean activists. There have been some people whose opinions and theory were more radical, but we managed to solve those problems. Sometimes we put on large picnics to refresh ourselves. Our last picnic at Sorak Mountain was very large; about 300 migrants participated, even though they weren’t members. We are progressive and criticize our own mistakes: that’s why conflict doesn’t stay long I think.


A global movement?


J: The ETU seems to attend Korean Labor protests as well as anti-war protests and other solidarity protests every weekend, even though this often puts you in dangerous situations due to the combatant nature of these rallies where violence is more a fact of the matter than a conscious tactical choice? So, why is solidarity, especially labor solidarity so important to the ETU?


K: We are migrants here so we are powerless without Korean activists. First of all we are illegal and from different cultures. So we don’t know our enemies very well and how strong they may be: which way they will decide to attack and oppress to us. Above all else we are workers even though we are migrants. If any workers go to other countries they are migrants and they need to get together with local movements, because employers and capitalists exploit our labor by making us different and discriminating against us for their own profits. If capitalists globalize capital, why shouldn’t workers unite with workers all over the world?


J: Where do you do your most important work: on the factory floor, in people’s homes, at the ETU-MB office, at protests?


K: Very good question. I guess I don’t know. My ultimate satisfaction would be a little revolution, to have 100,000 migrants join our rally and have the whole world know about and support our struggle. May be you are thinking I am completely crazy or a simply a daydreamer. But I know that deep in my heart I have a tornado and great fire that will always try to burn all oppressing forms of capitalist and government oppression. Anyway, what I have done up till now I am deeply determined to continue. When others are scared to show their faces, we must make success even through very small actions. What’s been satisfying so far has been: speaking to 30,000 people at May Day, fighting the immigration officers, holding the sit-in struggle, the 21 day hunger strike and at last being released from the detention center. Above all else I am very satisfied to be a part of the migrant worker movement as a front-line fighter.



Jamie Doucette is studying transnational labor migration at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He writes about migrant workers’ issues, activist street tactics, and cultures of popular protest.

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