Helping South Korea's foreign workers win fair treatment
Using a message of love, Kim Hae Sung provides legal counseling, language training, and schools to help foreigners fit into a tight-knit society in South Korea.
Seoul, South Korea
Jin Yong-dao, an ethnic Korean born in China, lost his left forearm working at a shoe factory just a month after coming to South Korea, his father's homeland, in 2002. Mr. Jin was operating a machine that imprinted patterns on soles when it malfunctioned, crushing his arm.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Though he was given some financial compensation, the amount was much smaller than what he would have received as a legal South Korean worker.
Now, years after coming to the country to search for a job and his long-lost uncles, Jin says he wishes he had known about a man named Kim Hae Sung a lot sooner.
The Reverend Kim, a Christian pastor, has been working to help migrant workers and the urban poor in this Asian economic powerhouse for nearly 30 years. In 2000 he founded the charitable group Global Sarang ("love" in Korean).
Kim has won compensation for foreign laborers even when no relevant laws existed by using his personal connections and by staging protests. He reckons he has been hospitalized more than a dozen times due to scuffles with police during demonstrations and immigration raids.
"Broken jaw, ruptured eardrum...," he recalls. "But all of that is in the past now."
Indeed, in many ways Kim has come a long way since he was counseling migrant workers at his church in a poor Seoul suburb in the 1980s. His Korea Migrants' Center, opened in 2004, now offers legal counseling and help with labor-related problems to hundreds of people each week in 18 languages, free of charge. It also produces weekly informational webcasts and gives free Korean language classes.
But in other ways, Kim, recently named by a local newspaper as among the 100 people who will change Korea most over the next decade, seems very much in touch with his roots. He takes his meals in Global Sarang's cafeteria, which serves three meals a day to migrant workers in need.
In another building, migrants without health insurance receive medical checkups or undergo surgery at the hands of qualified doctors, who volunteer their services.
Jin was able to get care here and take time to recover after suffering a stroke. If he hadn't been sent to Global Sarang by another clinic, Jin says, "I wouldn't have been able to eat."
This March, Kim's group will open a preschool and elementary school for children of migrants – the first of its kind – with about 180 students. It hopes to build junior and senior high schools later.
About 18,000 migrant children do not attend school in South Korea due to the language barrier and other reasons, Kim estimates. Government officials say they keep no figures because children are not allowed to accompany parents who have worker visas.