Immigrant Workers in Korea’s Agricultural Areas Treated like Serfs

The Situation of Foreigners Who Work in Agriculture

Jeong Hae-myeong | 기사입력 2023/04/20 [06:18]

Immigrant Workers in Korea’s Agricultural Areas Treated like Serfs

The Situation of Foreigners Who Work in Agriculture

Jeong Hae-myeong | 입력 : 2023/04/20 [06:18]

Editor’s note: Certified labor consultant Jeong Hae-myeong wrote this article for the Spring 2014 edition of Labor and Health, the quarterly magazine published by the Solidarity for Worker’s Health.


This is the fifth time that the Ministry of Labor has come to investigate complaints about this farm.


Since the last inspection two weeks ago, two of the immigrant workers have gone to other farms in Icheon and Asan. No one could work during the last inspection, and today as well they won’t be able to work; because they have to make this time up later, they won’t have a proper day off this month. They’ve decided told that since they can’t work today, they should consider it a day off, and when the inspection is finished they can do what they want.


Though it is winter, the off-season for agriculture, the farm’s owner didn’t come at all last time and is late today. Though he hasn’t given the two who quit pay for their final month or severance pay, he is unashamed. An employee who lost a fingernail working has requested compensation for the time that they couldn’t work, but all the owner thinks about is the hospital bill that was quite high because industrial accident insurance doesn’t apply to agricultural work. He refuses to accept that the Labor Standard Act states that a farm’s owner, the owner of the business, has a responsibility to compensate the worker in the case of an industrial accident.


The labor inspector only repeats that without documents proving that employees were forced to work overtime, there is not much that he can do. He doesn’t even glance at a notepad that a foreign laborer has used to keep track of his own hours. At least two of the workers had gotten out, had changed workplaces to the pig farm and dropwort farm as they had wished. Should I be happy that they were allowed that much, or sorry for all that they were cheated out of?


▲ Immigrant agricultural workers  ©White Paper on Immigrant Laborers in Farming Areas


Let’s look more closely at the lives of immigrant agricultural workers. Here, I excerpt and summarize “White Paper on Immigrant Workers in the Agricultural Industry Under the Employment Permit System,” a study conducted and published last year by immigrant worker’s rights groups.


Foreign workers filling the need for agricultural labor


Foreign workers began to enter the agricultural field in 2003 through the Industrial Training System. The number of domestic agricultural workers had dropped from 6.66 million in 1990 to 3.42 million in 2004, and 60% of those left were small farm owners over the age of 60. In order to address this lack of agricultural labor, the government expanded the Industrial Training System to include the agricultural field; in July 2003, 923 foreigners entered the country as Foreigner Agricultural Trainees.


Under the Industrial Training System, immigrant workers were classified as “trainees” and not protected by the National Labor Relations Act and so there were abuses like withholding pay on the pretense of “saving” it for the worker, confined labor, and forbidding workers to change workplaces, and it was criticized as the “slave training system.” Because of such harmful effects, it was replaced in August 2004 by the Employment Permit System, which recognized immigrants supplementing the agricultural workforce as laborers.


The numbers of foreign workers in the agricultural field rose quickly, from 892 in 2006 to 16,484 (of which 30% were women) by December 2012.  The 2013 entrance quota was 6,000 people, up from 4,500 the year before, and it appears that this will only continue to rise, due to the lack of domestic labor.


However, the human rights conditions faced by foreign workers in the agricultural fields are abysmal. There are many cases in which there are only 2-3 workers besides the farm’s owner, and many in which the workers are isolated with the owner far from other farms, unlike those who work in manufacturing in an industrial complex or city. Because of these conditions, serious human rights violations like owners seizing workers’ identifying documents, forcing them to work, and physically and verbally abusing them run rampant.


“ID seizure” widespread, limits workers’ movements


After agricultural workers arrive in Korea, complete three days of mandatory education, and go to their workplaces, it is common for farm owners to confiscate their passports and other forms of identification. They might say they need them in order to get an alien registration card or open a bank account for the worker, but then don’t give them back. They claim that they do this to protect themselves by preventing workers from running away, but it is against the law.


A passport might be forcibly seized to control a worker who resists harsh working conditions or the farm owner’s violence, and this process sometimes involves violence. Identification seizure can be a way of fundamentally restricting the foreign worker’s contact with the outside world, because foreign workers caught without identification by Immigration may be mistaken for illegal aliens and face penalties.


The long hours and poor living conditions on these isolated farms leads to a higher rate of desertion compared to the manufacturing industry, and so it is common for farm owners to seize workers’ identification to prevent this.


Foreign workers who’ve suffered identification seizure, forced labor, and Labor Relations Act violations have faced physical and verbal abuse and being threatened with farm equipment by farm owners when they complain. Those who’ve asked for help from outside organizations or agencies have also faced retribution by farm owners.


The majority of farm owners complain that foreign workers “don’t work hard.” It’s natural that someone who hasn’t done farm work before and isn’t used to it wouldn’t be good at it. However, farm owners looking to maximize profits are quick to treat the foreign workers harshly, and when they are drinking on top of that, violence can erupt.


Even when workers dealing with violence ask for help from the police or Department of Labor’s Job Center, officials often listen only to the farm owner’s testimony or just “take the Korean’s side.” It is rare for them to provide interpretation when it is needed.


Life in the farmer’s house or a vinyl tent; high risk of sexual assault


Due to their absolutely inferior position relative to the farm owner, foreign workers face a high risk of sexual assault.


Women make up 30% of foreign workers in the agricultural field, which is three times greater than their representation in manufacturing. Foreign workers know little about the Korean legal system, are not fluent in Korean, and spend a long time with a farm’s owner in small numbers, and are thus in an environment conducive to sexual assault.


The poor housing conditions of foreign workers in the agricultural industry is one reason why is difficult for female workers to escape from or defend themselves against the threat of sexual assault. This is especially true when they live in a “dormitory” room in the farm owner’s house.


Many foreign agricultural workers live in large vinyl tents [similar to greenhouses], converted shipping containers, or unused rooms in the farm owner’s house. There have been cases of female workers being forced to live in vinyl tents whose doors had no locks.


These “dormitories” are extremely problematic because they have little heating or cooling capacity and don’t allow workers much privacy. Sometimes farm owners also deduct housing fees from the workers’ pay; in one case, an owner deducted 200,000 won (187 USD) per month from each worker for group accommodations in a vinyl tent.


Those living in vinyl tents often have no access to hot water and so have to boil water to wash with, and also lack basic necessities like toilets and a place to bathe.


▲ During the off season, foreign workers are fired in droves. ©Choonhee Woo


Workers lent to other lent other farms, neglected during off-season


Though foreign workers must work at the farm of the farmer with whom they’ve signed a contract, they are often sent to work for the farmer’s family members or others. There have even been cases of foreign labor brokers getting involved, sending unused foreign workers from each small town to other towns or areas and putting them to work. In these cases, the foreign laborers often don’t know at whose farm they’ve worked.


In March, when the farming season begins, the shortage of labor makes farmers compete, clamoring at the Job Center to be sent more foreign workers, but during the off season, foreign workers are fired in droves. Luckily, those in greenhouse farming or the livestock industry can continue to work in the winter, but those in other types of agriculture have nothing to do and so may be sent to work at another farm illegally or just neglected. They may stop being paid, and in some cases they may even be told to come back in the spring only to be fired, even though the farm owner signed an employment contract.


Because it forbids foreign workers from changing workplaces, the Employment Permit System has received criticism that it violates labor rights and systematically supports forced labor. (Under the system, foreign workers are permitted to change workplaces three times in their first three years, and twice more during the year and ten months after their visa is renewed.)


Though the Employment Permit System clearly specifies that foreign workers are laborers covered by the Standard Labor Law, the Standard Labor Law’s provisions regarding working hours, break times, and vacation don’t apply to the agricultural and fishing industries. The workweek is not limited to 40 hours, overtime is not limited to 12 hours per week, and they are not required to receive one paid day of rest per week, nor time-and-a-half pay for overtime or holiday work.


Because of this, the majority of foreign workers in agriculture work ten or more hours per day while only being allowed around two days of rest per month—without receiving any overtime pay. To add to this, they are paid minimum wage or even less. Many farm owners don’t subscribe to the four major public insurance programs, so when a worker has an accident or falls is ill, he or she is responsible for expensive hospital bills without the benefit of health insurance.


Foreign agricultural workers who have entered Korea under the Employment Permit system cannot change their type of work and thus must work in agriculture until they leave the country; they also cannot change workplaces without the consent of the farm owner for whom they work. There have been cases of farm owners exploiting this rule by charging foreign workers a fee for their [the owners’] consent to change workplaces.


Why have farmers become corrupt bosses?


In this way, foreign agricultural workers are exposed to serious human rights violations like forced labor through identification seizure, verbal and physical abuse, and forced dispatch to work at other farms. A portion of workers, bound to their farm’s owners, receive less than minimum wage and live like feudal serfs.


It is true that actions of individual “bad bosses” make up a sizable portion of the human rights violations of employers. However, we must not overlook the problems inherent in government policies that, in trying to improve the situation for small farms without making fundamental changes, pass on to foreign workers the evils of an agricultural industry devastated by FTAs and structural alterations, and the Employment Permit System created for these policies.


Under the Employment Permit System, workers are not permitted to change workplaces without their employer’s consent, and to add to the inequality between the owner and a foreign laborer who knows little of Korea’s language and systems, the problem of employers considering workers their personal possessions is occurring.


In addition, there is the fact that limitations to the scope of the Standard Labor Law allow employers to demand long working hours.


Job Centers, NACF, police: who will fight for foreign workers’ rights?


Even though Job Centers, the administrative office for foreign workers, have a lot of power with respect to the Employment Permit System, the fact that they are understaffed and underqualified and their workers have difficulty communicating with foreign workers and have prejudices means that they sometimes re-victimize the foreign workers who come to them for help.


Though a Job Center has the responsibility to monitor a workplace that employs foreigners, a lack of staff means that visiting each site even once a year is difficult. Even when they discover a violation of the law, they usually just request that the problem be rectified instead of imposing strong penalties; this results in repeat offenses.


For example, when a Job Center sees an employment contract that a farm owner has written which stipulates more than 300 hours per month for less than the legal monthly minimum wage, it just processes it, no questions asked.


On the other hand, the NACF (National Agricultural Cooperative Federation), which is responsible for educating immigrant workers, also handles a variety of applications, such as that to change workplaces or extend the term of the employment permit. It provides services such as insurance to foreign workers, but in actuality it is geared more towards providing services to Korean farm owners than towards protecting the interests of foreign workers.


Government agencies like police stations and the Immigration Office are also unable to resolve problems even when a foreign worker reports a rights violation; they may conduct a one-sided investigation by failing to provide translating services for the foreign worker and listening only to the employer’s testimony.


Published: February 26, 2014

Translated by Marilyn Hook

Original article:


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(

이 기사 좋아요
  • 도배방지 이미지