“It’s a world of lawlessness,” the Reverend Kim Dal-sung muttered over the phone as he drove his tiny Kia over narrow dirt paths zigzagging through greenhouses made of plastic sheets and tubes.
In the bleak landscape of dull blue and gray in Pocheon, a town near South Korea’s ultra-modern capital, Seoul, hundreds of migrant workers from across Asia toil in harsh conditions, unprotected by labor laws, while doing the hardest, lowest-paid farm work most Koreans avoid.
The death of a 31-year-old Cambodian woman worker at one of the farms in December last year has revived decades-long criticism over South Korean exploitation of some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in Asia. Officials have promised reforms, but it is unclear what will change.
More than two months after Nuon Sokkheng’s death, South Korea this week announced plans to improve conditions for migrant farm workers, including expanding healthcare access. Daunted by opposition from farmers, officials chose not to ban using shipping containers as shelters.
On a chilly afternoon last month, groups of workers wearing bandanas and conical hats appeared and disappeared among hundreds of translucent tunnel-shaped greenhouses — each about 90m long — harvesting spinach, lettuce and other winter greens and stacking them high in boxes.
Kim, a pastor and outspoken advocate for migrant workers’ rights, is an unwelcome visitor at the farms, especially after Sokkheng was found dead on Dec. 20 last year inside a poorly heated, squalid shelter at one of the farms.
Her death, and those of many others, highlight the often cruel conditions facing migrant workers who have little recourse against their bosses.
“Farm owners here are like absolute monarchs ruling over migrant workers,” Kim said. “Some say they want to kill me.”
There are about 20,000 migrant workers legally working on South Korean farms, mostly from Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam. They were brought in under the government’s Employment Permit System (EPS).
To keep out undocumented immigrants, South Korea makes it extremely difficult for workers to leave their employers, even when they are grossly overworked or abused.
One farmer watched, scowling with hands on his hips, then mounted a tractor and began trailing visiting reporters to prevent his foreign employees from talking to them.
Another shouted and waved her hand furiously as she approached, stopping an interview with two Cambodian workers who returned to a shipping container.
South Korean farmers, too, are suffering. The industry is in decline, hurt by decades of labor shortages and increasing foreign competition. They get by importing labor to work long hours for low pay.
“Who are you to come here?” the female farm owner said. “Do you even know what farming is really like?”
Advocates and workers say that migrant workers in Pocheon work 10 to 15 hours per day, with only two Saturdays off per month. They earn about US$1,300 to US$1,600 per month, well below the legal minimum wage their contracts are supposed to ensure.
Rising before sunrise, they crouch or bend for hours, as they work their way through the huge plastic tunnels at each farm, planting, weeding, picking and thinning crops.
The workers often are crammed in shipping containers or flimsy, poorly ventilated huts, like the one in which Sokkheng died.
Advocates who interviewed her coworkers said she came to Pocheon in 2016 and died just weeks before she was due to return to Cambodia to spend time with her family.
Sokkheng appeared to have no obvious health problems, but an autopsy showed she died from complications from cirrhosis, likely worsened by the harsh conditions in which she lived and worked, they said.
She died during a bitter cold snap, when temperatures fell to minus-18°C. The shelter’s heating system was faulty, and others living there went to stay with friends to escape the cold. Sokkheng refused to go, they told advocates.
A Nepalese worker, who asked that his name not be used because he feared reprisals from his employer, said he was considering running away to find factory work as an undocumented migrant, after five years of working for a farmer who he said was abusive and occasionally violent.
“At least I’ll get more days off,” said the worker, who slipped out to a coffee shop outside the farm one evening for an interview.
“It’s just an extreme amount of work [each day]. You don’t get bathroom breaks. You don’t even have time to drink water,” he said.
He said he had excruciating back and shoulder pain, likening the situation to slavery.
Just 10 percent of the 200,000 migrant workers brought to South Korea under the EPS work on farms. About eight in 10 of those workers toil in factories, while the rest work in construction, fisheries and service industry jobs.
The South Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor told a lawmaker in October last year that 90 to 114 EPS workers died each year from 2017 to 2019.
The Venerable Linsaro, a Cambodian Buddhist monk based in South Korea, helps with funerals and sending cremated remains to grieving families in Cambodia.
He said he knew of at least 19 Cambodian workers who died last year. So far this year, one farm worker and one worker have been found dead in their shelters.
“Most of them are in their 20s and 30s... Many of them just died in their sleep,” Linsaro said.
He said he wonders if serious illnesses are going undetected because of workers’ lack of medical access.
The EPS was launched in 2004, to replace a 1990s industrial trainee system notorious for exposing migrant workers to horrific working conditions. It was meant to afford migrant workers the same basic legal rights as Koreans, but critics say it is even more exploitative and traps workers into a form of servitude.
Migrant farm workers are more vulnerable than factory workers, as rules about working hours, breaks and time off do not apply to agriculture. South Korea’s Labor Standards Act does not apply at all to workplaces with four or fewer employees, which is typical of many farms.
Choi Jung-kyu, a human rights lawyer, said that workers at these farms are virtually unprotected against unjust firings or wage theft, uncompensated for workplace injuries and have scant access to healthcare.
They often must pay US$90 to US$270 per month to stay in miserable makeshift dormitories that often are just shipping containers equipped with propane tanks for cooking. Such temporary structures usually only have portable toilets, he said.
“The government should absolutely stop letting farms with less than five workers use the EPS,” Choi said.
Three Cambodian workers who were interviewed at a Pocheon farm, but did not want to be named, spoke about the grueling work, South Korea’s bitterly cold winter and harassment by their employer, who calls them “dogs.”
They said that they persevere because the wages are better than in Cambodia, giving them a chance to escape poverty.
“I will deal with whatever hardship is thrown at me here,” said one, who is helping pay for educating his three siblings.
He said he dreams about buying a farm and a cow when he returns home.
Farmers insist they are barely getting by, too.
“Our farming communities are badly aged,” said Shin Hyun-yoo, leader of a farmers’ association in Gyeonggi Province, where Pocheon is located. “Many will collapse if it becomes harder to hire foreign workers.”
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