Working Illegally Abroad

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

I am shocked to learn that some 5000 Malaysians are working illegally in South Korea with the more desperate ones living like refugees always on the run from the authorities. What forced these able-bodied men and women to seek their fortunes in the Korean peninsula of all places? This is a question that requires definitive answers to appease the inquisitive mind.

South Korea was languishing at the bottom of the economic pile following the debilitating Korean War (1950 to 1953) that divided the Korean peninsula into Communist North Korea and a democratised South Korea.

The war began on June 25, 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea after a series of clashes along the border. The United Nations, with the United States as the principal force, came to the rescue of South Korea while China, and later the Soviet Union, were on the side of North Korea.

The fighting ended on July 27, 1953, when an armistice was signed. The agreement created the Korean Demilitarized Zone to separate North and South Korea, and allowed the return of prisoners. However, no peace treaty has been signed. The two Koreas are “technically still at war” till today.

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of South Korea in the 1950s was a miserly USD500, less than half of what pre-independent Malaya was enjoying. Incidentally GDP is defined as “the total value of everything produced by all the people and companies in the country”. It is the best way to measure a country’s wealth. And based on GDP alone South Korea today is the fourth wealthiest country in Asia and the 11th in the world.

Its transformation from one of the poorest to one of the most developed high-income countries in just one generation is nothing short of a miracle. South Korea is a member of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and thus gets invited to be part of G20 (Group of 20 developed nations). Malaysia trails far behind as we are still trapped in the middle-income country bracket and has yet to rid itself of its disenchanting Third World image.

Now back to the unfortunate 5000. They are part of an estimated 251,000 illegal foreign workers in the country, as reported by The Korean Herald. Their problems, as highlighted by the Korean news portal, ranged from permanent disability after workplace accidents to being left broke after being fired by their employers.

One such person known only as Farhan said he and two of his friends have been living on the streets after being sacked from a seaweed processing company. They have been working for just a week. He was told to leave after coming down with fever and had to rely on friends for food and money. On weekends they would sleep at the Seoul Central Mosque while on weekdays at a friend’s house.

Another Malaysian, a woman, shared a tiny house with 18 others. She works on an onion and sweet potato farm. Life is not a bed of roses as many would want to believe. According to her the house is so overcrowded that some had to sleep in front of the toilet or on the kitchen floor. She said there were cases of Malaysians being physically abused for not working fast enough. And because of their illegal status they are often exploited, made to work long hours without rest and barred from talking to their friends.

The risk of accidents is great as they are seldom given briefings or provided with safety equipment. And to add salt to their wounds, their labour sometimes goes unrewarded because their employers take advantage of their illegal status by holding back their pay believing that they would not dare to report to the authorities.

These reports sound familiar don’t they? Well, illegals in Malaysia are similarly treated by unscrupulous employers. But to hear our fellow Malaysians being given a hard time is not something pleasant to our ears. Winter is harsh, especially in parts of central South Korea. I just wonder how these unfortunate beings fared while working in the fields and on farms where living conditions are never favourable to those from the tropics.

The question that begs to be answered is why do they go to South Korea to look for jobs? Is it because of the pay factor or are jobs becoming scarce in Malaysia? I believe it is the combination of both evils. Pay, I feel, is just a secondary reason. The scarcity of good-paying jobs that complement one’s ability is the main reason. At last count nearly 400,000 university graduates are without jobs as at end last year and the number is growing.

Most of these graduates are not employable for a number of reasons. Their inability to converse in English is the nagging factor and I vouch for this. Our institutions of higher learning, public and private, are mass-producing graduates who are ill equipped for the job market, thus the glut.

In the interim, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand will remain as favourites with job-deprived Malaysians who believe that opportunities are still aplenty in these foreign shores. The government has yet to formulate a plan to create enough good-paying jobs for our youths and this is indeed a tragedy.


I attended the last session of Sharpened Word held at Institut Darul Ridzuan, Ipoh on Saturday, March 17. I was there more out of curiosity as I wanted to hear Dina Zaman, one of the three speakers slated for that month’s programme. Dina, in her infinite moment and wisdom, broached the subject of divide and rule, as was practised by the British in pre-independent Malaya.

Divide and rule is a favourite term with the bourgeoisie (upper class) Malays of today. They would allude to it whenever they are unsure how to describe the bullying their forefathers had suffered under the British during yesteryears. Sadly, those who uttered the word have never seen a British colonial master, let alone experience the injustice. It is all a conjecture aimed at drawing sympathy from their listeners.

A member of the audience, in response to Dina’s allusion to the phrase, expounded on it in graphic terms. She got a little emotional too.

Come on, the British had granted us independence sixty years ago, is divide and rule still relevant today? Look at the bigger picture. Who is dividing and who is ruling the country today? If you have the answer then you know what I mean.

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