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16.2.04

Migrant Worker Union Leader Detained in South Korea 

South Korean immigration officials detained the head of the nation's only migrant worker union group Feb. 15, the three-month mark for his group's sit-in demonstration against an incoming foreign labor system at a downtown Seoul church compound.

Nepali Samar Thapa, the chief of the Equality Trade Union-Migrants Branch, was apprehended by 5 immigration officers and forced into a nearby car as he, alone, approached Hyehwa Cathedral on the edge of central Seoul, where he was to give documents to a Filipino migrant workers group and then meet with other ETU-MB members in the area.

He was quickly whisked off to a holding center in Yeosu, 455 km south of Seoul, ETU-MB officials said.

Thapa's immediate fate is unknown, but one ETU-MB members concur that he is definitely facing deportation.

"This is a dirty trick by the immigration authorities before the Justice Ministry comes to the bargaining table with the ETU-MB," said a source close to the migrant workers union. Immigration is under the authority of the Justice Ministry.

The day before Thapa's detainment, a delegation from the Justice Ministry met with members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the more progressive of South Korea's two labor umbrellas, and said they were willing to meet with the ETU-MB to discuss its demands and problems the union has with the Employment Permit System (EPS), she said. The ETU-MB is a member of the KCTU.

On Nov. 15, Thapa and over 80 ETU-MB members began a sit-in demonstration at the Myeongdong Cathedral, a customary haven from the police for labor and civic groups, to demand the government not proceed with a crackdown on illegal foreign workers, to begin two days later, and to instead legalize them.

The crackdown is part of government measures to put into effect in August the EPS for procuring and managing foreign workers, mainly for so-called "3D" (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs at small- and medium-sized manufacturers. The EPS was to replace the older and problematic Industrial Trainee System (ITS), but now will run along side it.

Thapa and his peers from Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and other nations are also calling for the abolishment of the ITS, the creation of a five-year work permit system, the freedom to choose their place of work, the release of all migrant workers being held in detention centers, and the guarantee of the three basic labor rights stipulated by the South Korean Constitution: the rights of organization, collective bargaining and collective action.

As the crackdown has continued, the government has enacted a number of grace periods to allow migrant workers to voluntarily leave the country without penalization, including the current one until the end of the month, during which Thapa was apprehended.

Local English daily the Korea Times reported last week that Lim Chae-lim, an official at the Justice Ministry's Residence Control Division, said his ministry would collaborate with the police from next month to crackdown on illegal foreigners. He also said that as of last Monday his ministry has detained 3,192 undocumented foreign workers, deporting 2,831 of them, since the roundups began. There are an estimated 120,000 illegal foreign workers in South Korea.

Currently, some 65 migrant workers and a group of supporters are camped out in the cold in a makeshift shelter at Myeongdong Cathedral, holding daily demonstrations at 7 p.m.

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