A Culture of Support

This post is a radio piece prepared for International Underground as part of the series “Inside Seoul’s Filipino Community,” a project that grew out of curiosity toward one of the more unique landmarks many visitors to Seoul are sure to stop by before leaving: The Hyehwa Filipino Market. The text below is an exact transcript of the audio from this piece. Feel free to follow along with the sounds, but take our word for it, you’ll definitely want to listen.


Outside after sunday service at the Hyehwa Catholic Church

Filipinos gather on the steps of the Hyehwa Catholic Church where they attend mass in English each Sunday. For many, this is their only day off for the week. Photo: Danielle Harms/International Underground

This is an International Underground podcast. I’m Greg Boone, welcome to the first in what will hopefully be a long series of podcasts. Our story this week comes to you from Seoul, Korea, where we are currently based. Many, if not all, popular guide books about Korea mention the Filipino Market in Seoul’s Hyewha-dong, including Lonely Planet, and Rough Guide. In a culture that emphasizes it’s so-called single race, Hyewha sticks out as a landmark. Our team of journalists decided to venture out to the market one weekend, not to eat delicious Filipino food or buy Filipino goods (though we did do that), but to see what this market was all about. We wondered why this market only exists on Sundays, why is it in Hyewha, and is this just the tip of a massive iceberg? Of course, it was. Over the following three months we spent a considerable amount of time talking to migrant laborers, community organizers, as well as fathers and mothers, working abroad to help at home.

In the next fifteen minutes you will hear from some of those people who are working on the forefront of an ongoing battle regarding the Employment Permit System, complicated by language and cultural barriers. The system was put into place by a man many now know as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. According to our sources, Mr. Ban wanted to make Korea’s the premier standard for imported labor policy in the world. Despite what is written on paper, many problems still remain.

The Employment Permit System

Aquilino Juanites Jr. (Aquil): It’s very complicated now because, during the first year of implementation of EPS…

International Underground: This is Aquil, he’s the Chairman of Sulyapinoy, a weekly newsletter serving the Filipino Community in Seoul. He’s talking about the process of applying to work in Korea through the Employment Permit System, or EPS.

Aquil: …First you must submit your application. For example, in The Philippines, it’s the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, and in Korea it’s the HRDK, human resources department of Korea. Then, if you are qualified, the host country will include your name to the roster of job seekers, and through the Internet they pass to HRD Korea, and then the employer will select from the roster of job seekers. Then, if the employer selects you, they must provide the proper contract sent to the host country, and the selected job seeker will sign or reject depending on him. If you reject you only have two times, two chances. If you reject once, you only have one more chance, after that your name will be removed.

IU: Aquil works in a factory that manufactures alarm systems for a company called Secom.

Aquil: Our work schedule started 8:30 in the morning, and will be finished at 6:30 in the evening, because we are under the 40 hour work system from the ministry of labor.

Aquil: We’re in our particular case, we are lucky. Because our company mostly our co-workers are more educated than other companies so we cannot experience yet, the so-called discrimination like that. Unlike in other parts of the province, discrimination is very rampant like that. So, in our case we are lucky.

We are lucky because every year our employers give us to, send us to hospital for medical check up every year. So at least we are sure that we are still healthy. In other companies after three years medical examinations are not implemented in that company. Unless the Korean Orginzation Of Safety and Health will inspect in that certain factory. In our case we are very very lucky.

IU: He definitely isn’t alone in his job quality, but he also isn’t exaggerating when he says he is lucky. The overwhelming majority of the people we spoke with for this story worked ten hour days, Monday through Saturday, and many of them had to fight to have Sundays off so they could come out to Hyehwa-dong for the church and the weekly Filipino market. It’s hard to imagine, given all of our conversations, that Korea has some of the best legal protections in the world for migrant workers. Under EPS a worker has a considerable amount of protection from the government.

Aquil: The Korean labor law prohibits the so-called discriminations against sex, nationality. The other one is also the Korean labor law limits, every week, the maximum overtime. The Korean labor law also, the Korean people, that Korean nationals and the foreign nationals have equal opportunities. For example, if you are a Korean and you get the bonus of one million, supposedly the foreigners will also get 1 million. Because, if the foreigner get only 500 thousand, that is, the labor standard act calls that one kind of discrimination.

When you have neither, holler

IU: The problem is not the law, it’s the implementation and enforcement of those laws.

Marlene Kim (Marlene): There are situations that emphasize that. If he’s Korean and I’m Filipino, my opinion will not matter because I’m Filipino. His opinion will matter. Or if your Mongolian, or Thailander. I don’t know if that’s racial discrimination or what you think. I hard it several times, not only from one worker, but from so many. Others are engineers, others have really careers but they wont be listened to.

Marlene: I’ve been trying to figure out how do we bridge these gaps like this?

IU: Marlene has a history of working for the Philippine government, and in Korea a significant portion of her job was negotiating between Filipinos and the Korean government. There’s an old adage where if you have the facts, argue the facts; if you have the law, argue the law; if you have neither, holler. A lot of hollering often comes from both sides of the labor disputes between Filipinos and their employers, Marlene attempts to help the workers who have the law and the facts on their side argue them toward a suitable resolution.

Marlene: While I do not always side with the workers, if they are also wrong I will tell them also. “Look, you came here to work, and then, by all means, please work! No work is easy, work is a gift, so please, if you come here to work, then work.” Now, if there are inhumane situations, treatment, then you have reason to complain. But for other things, for little things, I think you can settle it with yourself, ask yourself…

Filipinos attending choir practice

Filipino men and women gather at the Hyehwa Catholic Center, where Marlene Lim works, each Sunday. Some to participate in this choir, others just to meet and greet with other Filipinos. Photo: Danielle Harms/International Underground

…I wish there would be a dialog between employers, or the powers that be, or exactly the workers themselves. The law is, you have laws in more than enough, the problem is these the employers do no implement that, and their best excuse is: they are not aware of the law. It is your task to orient the employers.

I am teaching them right there and there, you are in the situation, you are the best person to know what is happening in your situation. I am not there, we cannot be there at the same time. So I teach them how.

Do not fight with your employer, ask politely. Ask, “what is this, what is this?” and before signing anything, please, if you don’t understand, don’t sign. Rule of thumb: if in doubt, don’t.

IU: Marlene isn’t alone in her work here in Korea. There are over 172 Filipino organizations throughout the country working together to help their fellow country-men and -women weather the day to day. One of the largest of those organizations in Seoul is the Filipino EPS Workers Association, founded by Rebenson, better known as Reeve, Recaña and now headed by Marcelino Serdeña III.

Marcelino Serdeña III (Marcelino): My full name is Marcelino Serdeña III spells his name

IU: We talked to Recaña and Serdeña one Sunday at the Hyewha branch of Woori Bank, a branch that stays open specially to serve the Filipino community. On the main floor of this bank Filipinos can be found each Sunday, sending money home to loved ones. On the second floor, FEWA offers support and counseling to workers facing issues mostly related to contract violations. Here’s Reeve:

Rebenson “Reeve” Recaña (Reeve): Since 2006, the very beginning, we have registered members of more than 500. That was three years ago, four years ago? I think it’s every day it’s growing. We cannot give you the exact number, but I think 1000 members, mostly from different places. This is our main office. Our organization is recognized by the Philippine embassy. The embassy is always consulting us about the issues and some problems. And, also the Korean government is recognizing also this organization…

Marcelino: …there are some problems that cannot be solved. We go to some migrant centers, and Korean NGOs that solve problems. We are attached with the Hyehwadong Filipino community, catholic community. Sometimes our problems that we can’t handle very well and we refer to our the highest priest here, Father Alvin. And sometimes our Korean NGOs friends.

IU: What are some of the Korean NGOs that you work with?

Reeve: Seoul Global, Philippine Korean Culture office, and of course, the Philippine Embassy, is very active in helping us, migrant workers, especially our labor attache attorney, DelMer Cruz, he is very active, and he is doing his best to help us, particularly on labor related problems. Every Sunday the Philippine labor office they have the outreach program. They went to different places in South Korea where Filipinos are present and they are consulting and helping our fellow workers.

Catholic centers here in Korea are very active in helping us workers. Unlike other sending countries, under the Employment Permit System, I think the Filipino community is very, we are united here. We are helping each other, we have different organizations helping one another and hand in hand with the other migrant centers. Other nationalities, other countries I don’t think they have like that.

IU: Filipinos constitute one of the largest foreign working populations in Korea, they are among the most mistreated. While the Americans and Europeans who come here are coming either for military or white collar jobs like teaching, the majority of migrant laborers are coming here to work so-called 3D jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and difficult and held in a lower regard. The discrimination Filipinos face in these jobs is not only worse, but more obvious than what other populations face.

Reeve: We established this organization just to… so many problems we have encountered in South Korea, as a worker from the Philippines.

We are under the employment permit system, it is a program under the Human Resources Development Center in Korea. And, there are so many problems, you know? Especially in the company. Mostly our problems are under paid. In particular, our salary, they are not following the basic minimum wage that is implemented by the Korean government to our overtime some employers, they do not pay exactly. And, of course, we have some problems also in our language difficulties.

Sometimes we suffered from discrimination. It is very common, and there is also problems on physical and verbal abuse. And, mostly, employers are not following the Korean labor law. In Korea, the EPS, for me, is a model, is a good system. But there must be a strict implementation of the Korean labor law. Right now our organization is dealing with different problems…


IU: Amidst all of the discrimination and the problems facing the Filipino workers one thing is clear. There is more than just a silver lining for this community. Here’s Bevi Tamargo, Editor-in-Chief of Sulyapinoy, the Filipino Newsletter:

Bevi Tamargo (Bevi): We don’t have like an individualistic culture. We’ve always had a really community-oriented culture. So it’s like, I don’t know… our nature is not individualistic, it’s not like a help your self kind of thing. We’ve always been group oriented. For example, like in other countries, the moment you turn 18 you have to move away from your parents. In the Philippines you stay until you are no longer single. So that’s kind of a group mentality thing. And then the family, the extended family, your uncles, and your distant uncles, are kind of close knit. So I guess it… that’s the concept of it. It’s a group oriented mentality.

Sunday Practice for the Hyehwa Filipino Catholic Community Choir

The Hyehwa Filipino Community Choir practices each Sunday. They will release an album soon. Danielle Harms/International Underground

IU: We talked to dozens of workers, community organizers, and volunteers, many of whom wore all of these hats at once, and the problems we heard them raise are not all that unique or even extreme compared with what other migrant groups around the world face. What is really impressive about this community, is its ability to pull itself together and transform Hyewha-dong, once a week, into a Mecca of support; this is the reason why the weekly Filipino newsletter, Sulyapinoy is so named:

Bevi: Sulyap means glad, pinoy means Filipino. It doesn’t translate very well, but I guess it means glad singer. Look at the Filipino community or something like that.

IU: You just listened to the first ever podcast from International Underground. You can read more about the Filipino community and related issues, subscribe to our news feed, and learn more about our organization at iu.harmsboone.org.

Special thanks to Andre Francisco, Danielle Harms, and Anna Waigand for their help in reporting on this story. This choir you are listening to is the Hyehwa Filipino Catholic Community Choir, they are releasing an album soon.

About Greg Boone

Owner and founder of Safer Online Milwaukee
This entry was posted in Inside Seoul's Filipino Community. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Culture of Support

  1. Nancy Harms says:

    Extremely interesting info. Thanks. Greg.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.