LONDON: Vulnerable, low-paid Filipinos have been exploited, tricked and abused under a migrant worker scheme launched by South Korea to plug its severe labour shortage, an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation has found.

Under the scheme — which also recruits workers from Nepal, Vietnam, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, Uzbekistan and Thailand — farmers and fishermen relocate to South Korea for five to eight months of work with the promise of big wages to take home.

But the Thomson Reuters Foundation has talked to a dozen ex-workers who say the scheme falls short — many say they returned empty handed and some risked losing land to the brokers who sealed their temporary contracts.

Workers said brokers had charged excessive fees for securing them back-breaking work, controlled their movements by confiscating their passports and documents, and cheated them out of promised wages.

Informal brokers blamed for pay and welfare abuses

“This clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of seasonal workers to human trafficking and forced labor,” said Ko Gibok of the Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea (JCMK), a coalition of groups working to improve migrant rights. Ko called the programme a new form of modern slavery.

“It is like human trafficking in modern day. The brokers treated seasonal workers like slaves,” said Ko. The South Korean government refused requests for comment.

The Philippine government said the scheme was run on a state-by-state basis — at least 45 local governments took part — and that it had no jurisdiction over the local level.

The country has a total of 1,600 local government units that can enter into deals with their counterparts in South Korea. This hands-off stance means it is hard to tally the numbers of workers affected or track the extent of abuses.

Seeking better oversight, Manila announced plans in March to channel all future migrant workers through a bilateral deal. No bilateral agreement on the seasonal farm workers programme has yet been reached.

Empty promises

More than 3,500 Filipinos have been recruited since 2022, when South Korea launched sister-city agreements that twin local Filipino states with richer ones in the East Asian country.

The workers were drawn to the scheme by the promise of earning up to five times what they can make at home. For South Korea, the migrants plug a chronic labour shortfall exacerbated by an aging and shrinking population, with foreign workers taking on low-paid jobs that many locals shun.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation analysed the documents of 12 former seasonal workers — papers that revealed systemic contract violations, the deals often struck by independent brokers.

Among complaints: welfare violations, exorbitant broker fees, harsh conditions, diluted pay and a lack of any redress. Many Filipinos also said they were too afraid to speak out for fear of being shut out of future job prospects. Here are the stories of three former migrant workers, all of whose names have been changed to protect their identities.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2024

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