South Korea: migrant workers and the anti-war movement

IssueJune - Aug 2003
Feature by Christian Karl

“Migrant workers from different nationalities in Korea stand united against the US war against Iraq. We join in solidarity with other peace--and freedom--loving people in Korea and the rest of the world, and with millions of our fellow migrants and compatriots in our homelands and overseas, in saying NO! to this unjust war.”. So read the text on a leaflet ETU-MB (Equal Trade Union Migrant's Branch, a part of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions/KCTU) members distributed during the anti-war demonstration here in Seoul, the South Korean capital, on 15 February 2003.

Parallel to the mass movement against the US military presence on the Korean peninsula last autumn, the anti-war movement was also increasing. As during the anti-USFK (United States Forces Korea) rallies, the migrant workers movement participated in the anti-war protests actively from the beginning. On the first anti-war demonstration last October only a few migrant workers took part at the event, but very quickly the number of migrants participating in the South Korean peace movement increased.

Get organised!

But they didn't just take part in the demonstrations, they also mobilised in their own communities as part of the wider anti-war movement. Along with Korean students they organised propaganda events in parts of Seoul where small factories are located, factories in which migrant workers, predominantly,are employed, and also near the main mosque. Here they came into close con-tact with people mainly from Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The consequence of their mobilisation was that, on the large demonstration that took place on 15 February, more than 50migrant workers participated and had their own bloc at the event. This, even though it was a Saturday in South Korea, which is generally an ordinary working day, with 12-hour days being normal (especially for migrants, who are the most exploited workers in Korea).

Playing an active role

On all the subsequent demonstrations, migrant workers, especially members of the ETU-MB, played a very active role. They wrote and distributed their own leaflets and had posters expressing their outrage at the aggression against Iraq.

”After the US imperialist invaded Iraq,Bush arrogantly said that the war is over! This is a big lie! The war is not over. It is only starting. The US Imperialist is continuing its re-mapping or re-colonisation,not only in the Middle-East countries, but also in the South East Asian countries”, a Filipino migrant said in a speech during the anti-war demonstration held on 12April and organised by Daham-kke (All Together), the youth organisation of the left-wing Democratic Labour Party. His words also expressed his worries about the US military presence in his home country.

As more and more migrant workers participated in the anti-war movement, they also began to organise themselves within Korean political groups - a really new development and something which has never happened before.

So during this process, migrant workers not only took part in the peace movement, they also changed their own position--away from the periphery and closer to the centre of Korean society. And because of it they also became more accepted by, and received more attention from, the Korean public.

Unity and solidarity

So it was no great surprise that on 27 April the KCTU organised a “Migrant Worker Action Day” and that on the same day, in the afternoon, Korean student groups prepared a “Struggle Cultural Festival” to offer support on the migrant worker issue in Korea.

During the cultural festival, more then300 migrant workers and Koreans participated, the students demanded full democratic and labour rights for migrant workers and ETU-MB members demanded the immediate withdrawal of South Korean troops from Iraq - and of course an end to the US occupation. The festival strongly expressed the unity and solidarity between Koreans and migrant workers, not only in the struggle for full rights for migrant workers and the struggle against the war in Iraq but also against a possible US attack against North Korea.

Mahabuti, a migrant worker from Bangladesh commented: “Without peace in Korea we won't even need a work visa anymore. So our first priority has to be to fight against the possibility of war on the peninsula and elsewhere!”