Migrants Film Alleged Abuse in South Korea

A Cambodian migrant worker in South Korea on Monday claimed that possessions belonging to him and his friends were burned in an arson attack by their factory boss after they refused to work overtime.

In a separate incident last week, another Cambodian worker was seen apparently being attacked by his factory manager in a video uploaded to Facebook.

The claims of abuses have followed warnings that despite the hundreds of millions of dollars being sent back as remittances each year, thousands of Cambodians working in South Korea remain vulnerable to exploitation and even violence, with three emergency shelters opened in December specifically for Cambodian migrants facing conflict or abuse in their workplaces.

About 53,000 Cambodian workers are living in South Korea, Long Dimanche, Cambodia’s ambassador to South Korea, said in April. Between 3,000 to 4,000 of them are there illegally with expired employment contracts or visas, he said.

Mr. Dimanche warned that illegal workers’ undocumented status left them open to exploitation by employers such as being paid lower wages.

Despite the documented problems, workers are still drawn to South Korea and the migrant dream of high wages and better standard of living. Many are supporting families back home. Speaking in January, Heng Sour, spokesman for the Labor Ministry, said an increasing number of migrant workers travel to South Korea each year. According to Mr. Dimanche, Cambodians living in South Korea sent $500 million home last year.

The lure of earning up to $1,500 a month—a figure given by Kong Vannoch, founder of an association of Cambodian migrant workers that provides information and language training to Cambodian workers in South Korea—is a strong one.

But the dream, as Sam Chetra found out, can turn sour.

Mr. Chetra, 25, who hails from Svay Rieng province, posted videos to Facebook on Sunday allegedly showing the smoldering remains of his possessions and those of his four Cambodian friends, which had been set on fire by his boss.

A pile of smoking ash is seen outside their room, which also appears to have been overturned.

Among their possessions damaged were documentation, jewelry and smartphones.

Mr. Chetra, who said he had been at the factory in Gyeonggi-do province for more than three years, accused his boss of deliberately starting the fire in retaliation for their refusal to work overtime after not being paid.

“We went to the bank to check the balance, we didn’t see that he put the money into our bank accounts for the five of us. We were upset,” he said, adding that he and his Cambodian friends were regularly paid one to two weeks late.

After deciding to avoid overtime on Sunday, Mr. Chetra and the four other Cambodians went to visit friends about 20 minutes away on Saturday night. However, by the morning they received a telephone call from a friend who witnessed the small blaze outside their room.

“We didn’t expect that the boss would have done that. I couldn’t imagine that,” he said.

Mr. Chetra said he immediately reported the arson to police and the Korea Support Center for Foreign Workers, which promised to send representatives to the factory today to discuss the matter with the factory boss.

However, Mr. Chetra said there was no chance of him continuing to work at the factory.

“We don’t want to think about the compensation yet. The most important thing is that we don’t want to work there anymore,” he said.

“We want to get the salary that we haven’t been paid yet and the severance payment. That’s it. For the compensation for the damage, we can do later.”

Ambassador Mr. Dimanche said he had spoken to the workers after hearing about the case in the media.

“We advised him to do it following the procedure to address this issue,” Mr. Dimanche said. “We advised him to meet with the Korean Support Center for Foreign Workers.”

In a separate case, a video was posted to the Facebook page of Kim Sokchet, 25, from Kompong Cham province, apparently showing him being attacked by his South Korean manager in a separate Gyeonggi-do factory.

Mr. Sokchet said on Monday that he decided not to report the case after he was put under the supervision of a separate manager.

Moeun Tola, the head of the labor rights group Central, on Monday said migrant workers faced discrimination in many countries.

“In the mindset of the employers, whether Thai, Malaysian, Korean or Chinese, they look at Cambodian workers in a way, the way that is less respectful,” he said.

Mr. Tola said those who work in the agriculture sector were more vulnerable to the abuse because they were out of sight of the authorities.

However, he said that stricter labor laws in South Korea helped prevent worker abuse by employers.

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