Archive for the ‘Member Articles’ Category

This is the first installment from Amnesty G48 member Mike Glendinning on the impact of the global economic crisis on migrant workers in South Korea and the wider region. He is currently conducting further research and meeting with leaders of organisations advocating migrant worker rights in Korea.

The opinions expressed herein represent those of the author rather than Amnesty International.

In the last three years, we have seen an almost unprecedented economic downturn throughout much of the world. Besides the impact on the housing and financial markets, the effects on individual’s rights have been stark. Migrant workers are, from past recession’s experience, usually at the forefront of those that have their rights violated first. Over the course of a series of interviews and articles, the Amnesty blog will analyze the impact of the recession on migrant workers rights within South-East Asia, with particular focus on Asian migrants in South Korea. This entry will act solely as an introduction on migrant workers, the recession and migrants’ rights within South-East Asia and will focus on Korea.

From Singapore to France and from South Africa to Peru, the recession has impacted on migrant workers via a number of ways. The majority of these cases have been the erosion of basic rights in the workplace as well, in some extreme cases, as complete denial of civil liberties.

A recent Amnesty International report, Disposable Labour: Rights of Migrant Workers in South Korea (1) (2009) condemned the treatment of migrant workers in South Korea. This report focuses on the general treatment of migrant workers and the current system visa system as well as the government’s crackdown on illegal workers. As has been documented by Amnesty and other groups, the current visa system allows for easy exploitation of migrant workers. Naturally, the recession, as in other countries, only makes this exploitation worse.

The Amnesty report documents an increase of arrests of illegal workers (as a result of the government’s crackdown on illegal migrants – itself announced as the recession was starting to take hold). Moreover, the report analyses statistics on the treatment of migrant workers. As a sign of how much the recession has impacted on businesses and on migrant workers, the number of migrant workers who had their wages withheld by employers tripled in 2008 alone. The report summarises the problem of the visa system impacting on migrant workers since the start of the recession when it says that “The inability to find new employment in the two month time limit, exacerbated by the economic downturn, often leaves migrant workers with little choice but to accept jobs with unfavourable work conditions just to maintain their immigration status”.

The problems migrants face in South Korea are also felt further afield. According to the UNDP (2), as of August 2009, 70,000 migrant, largely women, garment makers had lost their jobs in Cambodia. 19% of the 58% of people who had entered the sex trade since the onset of the crisis were ex-garment makers. Whilst it is difficult to correlate across the South-East Asia region and to analyse how the recession has had an impact on the sex trade, one thing is clear from that statistic: the numbers of migrant workers losing employment throughout South-East Asia is substantial. Moreover, these migrant workers facing the loss of employment are also at risk of having their rights violated. As further evidence of the impact of the recession, the head of Migrante, a Filipino migrant workers NGO, anticipates job losses for Filipinos working abroad to be in the region of 100,000(3). The recession’s impact on job losses often leaves employees alone, jobless in a foreign country with no means to get home and, with a difficult job market, extremely diminished chances of getting another job.

The most extreme example of violations of rights as a result of the recession in Asia has to be the incident in Singapore last year.(4) A group of over a hundred migrant shipbuilders spent three months locked in a cage by their employers to stop them complaining to authorities about unpaid salaries. They were only released as a result of a concerned advocacy group contacted the labour ministry. This incident alone violates almost every single clause of the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (which Singapore, or Korea for that matter, is not a party or signature of). Whilst not as extreme as this incident, violations of migrant workers rights as a result of the recession abound throughout Asia.

A little further west in the Middle East, there are swathes of unemployed migrants who were abandoned there without a job, money, and eventually food or housing, when the recession impacted on the building industry.(5) Their have been cases of migrant workers not having been paid in anything up to a year. It has been documented that some unemployed migrant workers have been reduced to being homeless and having to rely on one meal a day for subsistence.

Back in Asia, Malaysia is in the process of sending home about 60% of migrant workers by refusing new visas or exporting those working illegally. This is not the first time that recession has impacted on migrant workers within Asia resulting in workers being deported in massive numbers. The 1997 Asian financial crisis resulted in mass deportations, the rights of migrant workers being heavily curtailed, and heavy financial changes which migrant workers, as being amongst the poorest of the people in any given country, faced the brunt of.

Other than Malaysia, there have been noted migrant workers rights abuses in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, amongst others since the onset of the recession which have been as a result of the recession.

In one report, showing how many job losses are expected, the numbers are startling:

These declines have major implications for employment. The China Post reports that as many as 400,000 Indonesians, about a tenth of those working in plantations, manufacturing and as domestic helpers in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Middle East, may be sent home in 2009 as companies such as Intel Corp. and Western Digital Corp. cut production. Malaysia, with about 2 million documented foreign workers (and has an irregular migrant workforce of about 500,000), recently announced a freeze in recruitment of foreign workers in manufacturing and services industries. Other reports say about 300,000 jobs may be lost in Singapore by 2010, two thirds of which are held by foreigners or permanent residents(6)

This report also notes the losses of jobs likely to be greater for women migrants than males. The same report states that Malaysian government instigated a ‘foreigner out’ first policy in regards to jobs. Targeting foreigners as being first out of any job is a policy based entirely upon discrimination. Unfortunately, Malaysia does not appear to be the only country either having already implemented it, in the process of implementing it, or considering implementing it.

Carlos Lopes, the UN Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNITAR, acknowledged that migrant workers are experiencing higher unemployment rates and decreased salary levels, and, as a result, overseas remittance has declined substantially.(7) Obviously, decreased salary levels has an impact on the amount migrant workers can remit home to support families in economically less developed countries, and the impact on the poorest of people in these countries is significant. The worst element of the impact of the recession on wages is the impact on the wellbeing of the migrant workers. A significant decrease in salary naturally has implications on being able to sustain accommodation, buy food, pay bills and receive healthcare. The impact of the recession should not just be concerned with the employment rights of migrants (that is, the rights of migrants within the workplace), but concern should be focused on the rights of migrants outside of the workplace which have been tampered with because of the recession.

A recent Oxfam report shows the impact on health and general well-being in the Philippines because of the recession (and because of poverty, more broadly) on women workers(8). The recession will have a clear effect on malnourishment in the Philippines as particularly female workers are having their salaries cut. This report does not focus on migrant workers at all, but the implications of malnourishment as a result of poverty due to the recession are obvious. Time will tell exactly how much malnourishment will increase amongst migrant workers due to the recession.

What impact has the recession had on migrants in South Korea? As seen in other countries, the government started a crackdown in October 2009. They targeted undocumented workers. In the same year, they also cut the number of visas available for migrants (typically from other Asian countries) on the H-2 and E-9 visas from 100,000 to 34,000. The government has recently announced an increase of 10,000 extra visas this year(9). In terms of impact on the rights of migrants in Korea, it is obvious that the government is trying to instigate policies which protect the interests of Korean workers at the expense of migrants. As seen in the case of Malaysia and Korea, the issue of protecting the rights of the peoples of those countries at the expense of others is important. Also, there are a number of countries that are offering migrant workers money to leave (Spain and Japan are probably the most notable examples).

The International Labour Organization estimate that somewhere between 18 million and 51 million could lose their jobs because of the financial crisis. Previous recessions suggest that it won’t be the rich who are worst affected in the long-run; it’ll be the poor. Migrant workers would naturally fit in to that category. What impact has the recession had on migrant workers financially and, also importantly, on their rights within Korea?

Watch out for the next installment to find out how.


1) Disposable Labour: Rights of Migrant Workers in South Korea http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ASA25/001/2009/en

2) The economic crisis’s impact on migrants and AIDS http://content.undp.org/go/newsroom/2009/august/the-economic-crisiss-impact-on-migrants-and-aids.en. Accessed: 30th of July, 2010.

3) Economic downturn weighs on Filipino migrant laborers, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE52O0CN20090325. Accessed: 3rd of August, 2010.

4) Asian migrant workers face abuse, debt from recession, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE51204520090203. Accessed: 2nd of August, 2010.

5) Migrant workers’ collateral damage in UAE, http://www.business.maktoob.com/20090000500436/Migrant_workers_collateral_damage_in_UAE/Article.htm. Accessed: 2nd of August, 2010.

6) Impacts of the Economic Crisis: Women Migrant Workers in Asia, http://www.nsi-ins.ca/english/pdf/Gibb_IWG%20GEM%20July%202009.pdf. Accessed: 4th of August, 2010.

7) Impacts of the financial and economic crisis on international migration and migrants, http://www.globalmigrationgroup.org/pdf/GMG_Joint_Statement_at_GFMDIII.pdf. Accessed: 2nd of August, 2010.

8) Feminised Recession:: Impact of the Global Financial Crisis on Women Workers in the Philippines http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/policy/economic_crisis/downloads/rr_gec_impact_on_philippines_120210.pdf Accessed: 4th of August, 2010.

9) Firms to hire more foreign workers, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2010/07/116_70459.html. Accessed: 30th of July, 2010.