Life can be full of surprises in Korea especially if you look like an underpaid, vulnerable migrant worker from a South or Southeast Asian country, says Bonojit Hussain, an Indian national who brought the first racial discrimination case here in 2009.
Hussain, former research professor at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul, recalls that his three and a half years in Korea were full of unexpected moments and yet the most shocking moment came when he shared a taxi with two Samsung employees on a Friday night.
“One Samsung guy sitting behind me suddenly grabbed my neck and started to strangle me without any apparent reason,” Hussain said in a recent interview at The Korea Observer office in Yongsan, Seoul.
Fortunately, the driver pulled over and stopped the racist Samsung worker from strangling him.
He argues that the Samsung worker would not have attacked him if he looked like a Korean or a foreigner from a wealthy country.
Studies show that migrant workers, a term used to describe low-wage workers who undertake “3D” jobs (dirty, difficult and dangerous), often find themselves helpless even when verbally and physically abused, sexually harassed and forced to work overtime without pay.
Though he worked as a professor, Hussain also had to endure many “dehumanizing experiences” in Korea simply because of his appearances.
“If I took a seat, the seat next to me would often remain empty even during rush hours in crowded subways,” he said, adding that such reactions “make you doubt about yourself, lose confidence, forget that you are being discriminated.”
A 2013 Human Rights Commission survey of 161 migrant workers in rural areas of Korea found that 75.8 percent of them suffered from verbal abuses, 14.9 percent from physical abuses. Moreover, 30 percent of the female respondents answered that they had been sexually abused.
Hussain claims that “darker-skinned” people in Korea continue to encounter racial prejudice regardless of their economic status and nationality.
“I interviewed a person from Nepal who owns two Indian/Nepali restaurants in Bucheon,” he said, noting that the restaurant owner is a naturalized Korean citizen whose business is thriving.
“Every time he goes out to the city, every time he takes a taxi, the only question people are asking is ‘How much did you earn? How much did you send away from Korea?” He said, quoting the restaurant owner as saying, “For Koreans, I am still a migrant worker who is here to take away somebody’s job.”
In 2009, Hussain made the headlines for bringing the nation’s first racial discrimination case. Incheon District Court convicted and fined a Korean man, identified only as his surname Park, 1 million won ($964) for racial and sexist slurs at them.
He recalls that the incident drew a great deal of attention not only because it was the country’s first prosecution for a racist offense, but also had all the right elements to get the media spotlight, including violence, young woman and sexist remarks.
In the following video, Hussain explains what really happened on the evening of July 10, 2009 and why he and his friend decided to stand up against racial discrimination, even though the police refused to take any action on the grounds that “racial discrimination does not exist in Korea.”
In the wake of the incident, lawmakers proclaimed to propose an anti-racism bill but later scrapped the plan in the face of strong opposition from conservative Christian groups.
A Korean middle school textbook defines socially vulnerable people as “those in poverty, individuals with disabilities, elderly persons, migrant workers, mixed-blood people and those who are politically, economically and socially marginalized.”
This reflects a deep-seated belief among Koreans that they are a homogeneous race with “pure blood” lines, which refer to the notion that Korean people are a pure race descended from a single common ancestor.
The notion of pure blood often results in discrimination toward migrant workers and expats. However, law enforcement authorities cannot monitor or deal with racism cases as racial discrimination is not illegal.
The National Human Rights Commission may look into racial discrimination cases but it can only make non-binding recommendations.