Labor migrants from Russian Siberia and former Soviet republics to contribute to the South Korea’s racial make-up change

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By Marina Romanova

okkRBqa26KMMajority of the Russian labor migrants in South Korea work there illegally, as well as migrants from former Soviet Central Asian republics, who have been driven off from Russia’s migrant labor market due to its current economic and political crisis.

According to Russia’s official migration data for January 2016, there were 1.9 million Uzbeks working in Russia, marking a 15 percent drop from the same period in 2015. The central bank in Moscow has also said that remittances to Uzbekistan have plummeted, totaling US$3bn in 2015, down from US$5.6bn the year before, reports.

In an interview with a Tashkent television station, the head of the Uzbek agency for foreign labor migration, Ulugbek Nazarov, said 16.5 thousand Uzbeks are officially registered as working in South Korea. Some informal estimation says the real number of labor migrants in South Korea from Uzbekistan is at least twice as big.

Earlier this March, the local press of former Soviet republic reported that two countries have signed a tentative memorandum of understanding “on allowing for greater numbers of Uzbeks to go to South Korea in the future.” First memorandum of understanding on this matter was signed by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Population of Uzbekistan with their South Korean counterparts nine years ago. In line with the document, over 22,500 citizens of Uzbekistan were employed in South Korea in 2007.

It is unclear how many migrant laborers from another new Central Asian state of Tajikistan are currently work in South Korea but certainly fewer than Uzbek migrant laborers, according to the country own assessment.

90 percent of Kyrgyz citizens in Korea working in industrial projects and 10 percent are in fishery, the Kabar quoted Nurdin Tynaev, Head of the Center for Employment of the Labor Ministry of Kyrgyzstan as saying. Nearly all migrant workers from the republic are young men.

There are over 4,000 Kyrgyz citizens who work as labor migrants in South Korea according to the government data. While many work in factories or in the fishing industry, there are also those that run small and medium enterprises providing restaurant services for their countrymen and Koreans, and still more that ensure deliveries of Korean textiles and cosmetics to the Central Asian republics.

Typically, these salaries vary from US$800 to $1,200, at least twice what the average Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik, Turkmen or Uzbek might earn in Russia, where the vast majority of the region’s surplus labor heads.

From Siberia as Russian Korean

Seoul_046Unlike workers from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who use their own documents when crossing borders, many Russians from Asian part of the country are taking advantage of their physical sameness with ethnic Koreans and apparently are arriving to Seoul as made-up Russian Koreans avoiding scrutiny of border control.

To be regarded as Korean from Russia, one has not only to look Eastern Asian but also change her or his identity e.g. family name to Korean. Reportedly, the entire working-age population of two villages of Kyzhinginsky region of Buryat Republic of Russia has changed their family names to Korean (Kim, Pak and alike) to be able to cross the border as such.

According to the local press and several Internet forums, there are around as much as 5 thousand Buryats both legally and illegally currently working in South Korea. Although, it is unclear how many of them are made-up temporary Koreans. There is group called “Buryats in South Korea” in Russian Facebook analog with 1,174 registered members. There is also direct flight from Buryat capital city of Ulan-Ude to Seoul.

While the majority of those immigrating to Korea are coming from undeveloped countries in Asia, primarily Southeast Asia, in search of a higher quality of life and better economic opportunities than those in their home countries, Asian Russians are coming to make some money and then return to their home cities and settlements in Russian Siberia and Far East.

“On average, they are paid less than South Korean workers in similar jobs and are at greater risk of industrial accidents with inadequate medical treatment or compensation. [They] are tied to their employer and face restrictions in changing jobs, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation such as unfair dismissal”, the most recent Amnesty International Report on South Korean labor migrants says.

Nevertheless, started more than 12 years ago, labor immigration to South Korea from Buryat regions of Russia has notably increased in numbers since the last year due to the economic and political crisis in the country. Those from Buryat Republic primarily work in factories. Salaries in South Korea for them are said to vary between US$900 to US$2,000 per month. Typically those labor migrants are coming home after 2 to 4 years and then changing their identity back upon arrival.

Ever since Korea emerged on the world stage as a rich, developed country, immigration to Korea has rapidly increased.

State officials can only approximate of labor migrants currently working illegally in the country. To give a general idea, there are about 250,000 migrant workers in the country under the Employment Permit System (EPS), which allows employers to bring in workers in industries where labor is tight, including agriculture, construction and manufacturing. However, Korea’s foreign population stands at roughly 1.5 million – around three percent of the total population, according to official data.

The number of immigrants working in the country illegally increased from 167,780 in 2011 to 214,168 in 2015, Seoul officials says. Under current law, workers must obtain permission from the employer to change jobs, can be terminated without cause, and must have their contracts renewed yearly. Many of the country’s new immigrants come to South Korea as migrant laborers to work low-skilled, often hazardous jobs – work commonly referred to as the “3D” professions: dirty, dangerous, and demeaning, The Diplomat explains.

90 percent of migrants from Kyrgyzstan work in South Korea in difficult conditions, the Kabar quoted Nurdin Tynaev, official the Labor Ministry of Kyrgyzstan as saying earlier this March.

“I have personally seen the conditions in which they work. Their machines are modern and to work there they need special training, which they never given”, he said, adding that migrants are working in plants producing chemicals and industrial products.

Nonetheless, population of unskilled laborers in South Korea, in Daniel Corks words, is very much an invisible minority there. “The only time this population is mentioned is when a crime is committed by someone in this community, or to say that areas where large numbers of migrants live are dangerous and should be avoided,” Daniel Corks, research fellow at the Korea Human Rights Foundation, said in his interview to Deutsche Welle.

Korean society is still adjusting to the fact that the racial make-up of the country is changing. “It will likely be a long time before Korean society at large accepts that modern South Korea is racially different from the past and that the plight of non-Koreans can no longer be ignored”, assumed Corks.

At the same time, Koreans entering the job market are very reluctant to take unskilled labor positions, preferring white collar jobs and favor large cities. The absence of a local labor force for manufacturing and agriculture industries has led the government to encourage immigration to fill these positions.

Korean migration to Russia

Busan_144Korean immigration to Russia officially started after the Treaty of Beijing (1860) when Russia became a neighbor of Korea. However, Koreans had already moved into Primorskaia oblast when the land was still under Qing control. There were also seasonal, irregular, and illegal migrants.

The Koreans crossed the Tumen River on the Korean-Russian border but also on the Russian-Manchuria border to escape hunger and the harsh Japanese rule in Korea. By 1923, the number of Korean immigrants had exceeded 100,000 and by 1927 their number had reached 170,000, Jeanyoung Lee writes in her study “Korean-Chinese Migration into the Russian Far East: A Human Security Perspective.”

During the 1920s, however, the Korean population in the Russian Far East had reached an estimated 250,000. By 1914, about third of the Korean immigrants had become Russian citizens. Many were converted to Orthodox Christianity and russified their names.

Among the 125,000 ethnic Koreans currently remaining in Russia, at least 33,000 are living in Primorskii krai. Other regions of the Russian Far East with ethnic Korean populations range from Khabarovsk to Kamchatka.

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