SEOUL - Migrant farm workers in South Korea face rampant abuse under a "shameful" government work permit system that encourages exploitation, Amnesty International said in a report published Monday.
The report, which the South Korean Labour Ministry suggested was exaggerated, came on the heels of a visit by the UN's special rapporteur on racism, who also cited "serious problems" faced by the growing number of foreign workers hired as low-paid, unskilled manual labourers.
The Amnesty report, titled "Bitter Harvest" and based on interviews with dozens of farm workers around the country, painted a picture of intimidation and violence, coupled with excessive working hours and squalid accommodation.
"The exploitation of migrant farm workers in South Korea is a stain on the country," said Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific Migrant Rights Researcher at Amnesty.
"The authorities have created a shameful system that allows trafficking for exploitation and forced labour to flourish.
"If South Koreans were trapped in a similar cycle of abuse, there would rightly be outrage," Muico said.
As of 2013, there were around 250,000 migrant workers in South Korea, 20,000 of them working in the agricultural sector.
They are contracted under the government's Employment Permit System (EPS), which the Amnesty report criticised for being excessively weighted in favour of employers, leaving workers trapped and vulnerable and without sufficient legal protection.
While employers can fire workers at will, the migrants - mainly from Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam - can only change jobs if their current employer signs a release form.
Debts leave workers vulnerable
Because many rack up large debts at home to get to South Korea, the cost of losing their jobs is enormous, leaving them little leverage when they are exploited.
"The EPS leaves migrant workers at the mercy of unscrupulous employers who take advantage of the system's severe restrictions on migrants' ability to change jobs," Muico said.
"For many migrants saddled with huge debts, staying with an abusive boss appears the only option," she added.
The South Korean Labour Ministry responded with a statement suggesting the Amnesty report was exaggerated and highlighting legal changes that provided more circumstances in which workers can change jobs without their employers' permission.
These included contractual violations and unfair treatment, the ministry said, adding that the number of workers changing employment had risen from less than 20,000 in 2006 to more than 53,000 in 2013.
The ministry said officials carried out regular workplace inspections and imposed "harsh penalties" for labour violations.
The Amnesty report, however, alleged a degree of government complicity, saying exploited workers who sought redress were discouraged by the authorities from taking things forward.
One 25-year-old Cambodian worker told Amnesty he had gone to a government job centre with mobile phone footage of his employer beating him.
"The caseworker told me that it was my fault because I had cut the cabbages the wrong way," he said. "She told me to hurry back and apologise."
Faced with a rapidly ageing population and high urbanisation rate among the young, South Korea has turned to migrants to fill labour gaps in the agriculture, fishing and construction sectors.
Amnesty called on the government to ensure the workers basic rights when it came to working hours and rest days, and allow them to change jobs without getting a release form from their employer.
UN Special Rapporteur Mutuma Ruteere had flagged similar concerns with the EPS after his week-long visit to South Korea earlier this month.
As well as often being denied standard remuneration for their labour, Ruteere said non-Korean workers were "often subjected to racist and xenophobic verbal and physical abuse".