Yang Hae Woo has been getting in the face of South Korean government officials her entire adult life. She started out as a student radical in the 1980s, protesting the abuses of military dictator Chun Doo Hwan. It wasn't long before she had focused her considerable energy on the issue of workers' rights, inspired in part by a summer she spent laboring in a toy factory. Yang finally found her true calling in the mid-1990s, when she was arrested and spent a month in jail for blocking police from arresting illegal immigrant workers.
Today, at 39, Yang spends all her time on that issue. She's director of the Korean Migrant Workers' Human Rights Center and heads an alliance of 15 groups that lobbies for kinder, gentler immigration policies. At the heart of her quest is a contradiction in Korean society. Korea, once called the Hermit Kingdom, has never been very welcoming of outsiders, yet its thriving economy doesn't have enough workers, particularly manual laborers. So over the years the government has invited some 250,000 unskilled guest workers into the country from nations such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Most of them do jobs that Koreans reject as too difficult, dirty, and dangerous. Officials then looked the other way when the immigrants overstayed their highly restrictive visas. Today some 190,000 foreign workers and their families live in Korea illegally, forming a new underclass that can't join unions, own property, or send their children to local schools. Yang Hae Woo rejects this "blind, nationalistic approach" and has sought to force the government to recognize the migrants as legal residents and give them rights. "People get too emotional and don't face the reality," says Yang.
In May, Yang's long quest finally met with some success, when Seoul released a plan to end by 2007 an abuse-ridden "industrial trainee" system that has in effect treated foreigners as second-class citizens. The foreign workers are paid less, and must seek permission from their employers to change jobs. Under the new plan, foreign workers will enjoy most of the same rights as local workers, at least during their legal stay. Yang, though, says that doesn't address the problems faced by illegal migrants, and wants an amnesty for them. "It is deplorable that there's virtually no credible system to protect basic rights for the foreign workers," laments Yang.
Yang's soft-spoken manner and diminutive stature veil her iron-cast determination to end abuses. On more than one occasion Yang has used her body to block police and heavy-handed immigration officers bent on expelling undocumented foreign workers. Instead, she says, they should be investigating crimes against the workers, who she maintains are frequently beaten, raped, and shortchanged on pay by employers.
Lately public opinion has been swinging her way. Recent surveys show that 70% of Koreans think foreign workers should have the same rights as their local counterparts. As recently as 2002, only 35% of those surveyed backed equal rights for foreign workers. The rapid aging of the Korean population might have something to do with the shift in attitude; the fertility rate among women has fallen to 1.19 children from 1.78 in 1992, guaranteeing worker shortages into the indefinite future. If sentiment has changed, no one doubts Yang Hae Woo has played a vital role.
By Moon Ihlwan