Sending our farm workers to South Korea: good news?

Growing up in Sta. Rita, Pampanga, where I was born into a rice-farming family eight decades back, I enjoyed watching seasonal farmworkers do their tasks during the planting and harvesting seasons.

When it was planting time, rain or shine, they were a sight to see. Arrayed in rows on the muddy field, they rhythmically thrust the rice seedlings held between their index and middle fingers into the slightly submerged soil, in time with the music from a guitar or accordion played by a local musician. During harvest time, they worked under the hot sun, amidst lively bantering.

The seasonal farmworkers then got free lunch and merienda, and were recompensed either with small cash or a share of the harvest.

Change, however, came in recent years. It has become difficult to find seasonal farmworkers from the local community. Mandatory wage levels, now higher than before but still low, may be a factor. Today, more farmers are leasing, or renting, small farm machinery like mechanical plows and threshers to do much of the planting, harvesting and other work in the rice fields.

Thus, I wasn’t surprised to read a news report last week that the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) had sent, on Feb. 29, the first batch of Filipinos to work in the farmlands of South Korea.

Consisting of 39 seasonal farmworkers from three Pampanga municipalities – Apalit, Lubao and Magalang – they were deployed through what’s called the local governments’ Seasonal Workers Program (SWP). The SWP, according to the DMW, is an initiative undertaken by the partner local governments in the Philippines and in South Korea to help fill up the latter’s lack of agricultural workers during its peak farming seasons.

The Bureau of Immigration facilitated the departure of the first batch via the Clark International Airport, after the farmworkers underwent the mandatory predeparture orientation seminar. The DMW provided their special exit clearance allowing them to fly to South Korea.

Should this development be considered good news?

The initial batch of farmworkers was dispatched under an “interim pipeline processing” procedure aimed at guaranteeing the rights and welfare of OFWs involved in the SWP, said the DMW. After them, the department said, it expected more batches to be deployed in South Korea.

Why an interim procedure? Just last Jan. 11, the DMW issued a moratorium on the deployment of overseas Filipino workers under the SWP because of reports of “illegal recruitment, labor and welfare cases.”

Such labor problems have indeed existed in South Korea, according to a New York Times report on March 4. It seems that, more than ever before, South Korea now relies on foreign workers – but it “often does not protect them from predatory employers and other abuses.”

The DMW has said that the first batch, and all succeeding batches, would be provided with protection for their rights as laborers.

Such protection, the department pointed out, would include the proper contracts to be signed with the hiring South Korean employers, proper living and working conditions and insurance and welfare coverage as members of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).

It even assured seasonal farmworkers who wish to undergo the SWP that “there is no recruitment fee to be charged to them.” It called on the public to report to the DMW Migrant Workers Protection Bureau anyone who would be collecting a recruitment fee.

Now let’s take a look at the foreign-labor situation in South Korea, as exposed in the New York Times report.

Hiring foreign labor has become imperative for South Korea due to a “demographic crisis:” a shrinking and aging population. In 2023, data released last week by the country’s government again showed that South Korea recorded the world’s “lowest total fertility rate.”

The SK government’s response was to more than double the quota for “low-skilled workers from less-developed nations including Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines.”

“Hundreds of thousands of (foreign workers) now toil in South Korea, typically in small factories, or on remote farms or fishing boats – jobs that locals consider too dirty, dangerous or low-paying,” the NYT report said. With little say on choosing or changing employers, it added, “many foreign workers endure predatory bosses, inhumane housing, discrimination and abuses.”

As an example, the report cited the case of Chandi Das Hari Narayan from Bangladesh, who worked in a forest park and was seriously injured in an accident as he was cutting down a tall tree. While SK law requires a safety helmet for this task, he wasn’t provided one. “A falling branch hit his head, knocking him out, blood spilling from his nose and mouth,” the report said.

His boss refused to call an ambulance, so a fellow worker had to rush Narayan to a hospital. Doctors found internal bleeding in his head, his skull fractured in three places. He had to stay long in the hospital to recuperate from the surgery done on him.

Nonchalantly, his employer claimed in a document filed for worker’s compensation – without Narayan’s approval or consent – that he suffered only “minor injuries,” implying he would be given little, if any, monetary compensation.

To this unjust treatment by his boss, Narayan remonstrated: “They would not have treated me like this if I were a South Korean. They treat migrant workers like disposable items.”

“The work in South Korea can be deadly,” the NYT report concluded. It referred to a recent study that showed foreign/migrant workers were “nearly three times more likely to die in work-related accidents compared with the national average.”

Nonetheless, the report noted that South Korea remains an attractive foreign-labor destination for unemployed people in poorer countries. More than 300,000 low-skilled workers are on temporary work visas. A bigger number, 430,000 migrant workers, have overstayed their visas and continue to work illegally, according to government data.

This situation is a matter of deep concern for every Filipino who cares for our OFWs, and calls for relevant action by the DMW, the Marcos Jr. administration.

Published in Philippine Star
March 16, 2017

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