06-19-2007 22:37
A Mongolian Migrant Worker¡¯s Story

Batmonkh, a Mongolian journalist and migrant laborer, walks through Incheon¡¯s China Town before heading home to Mongolia. He is one of 27,000 educated Mongolians working in the Korean industrial sector. / Courtesy of S. Phillips

By Simon Phillips

SEOUL _ Thirteen hundred miles from his home, a promising young Mongolian journalist named Batmonkh has found him self-working as a manual laborer to support his wife and child.

``In Ulan Bator, where I worked as a sports writer for the UB Post, I earned less than $100 a month, but it cost $200 to live¡¯¡¯ explains Batmonkh, as he pours a shot of vodka into my glass. ``All the money earned, I gave to my mother-in-law, for my wife and baby boy, but it wasn¡¯t enough, so I came to Korea.¡¯¡¯

Batmonkh is one of 27,000 Mongolians who live in Korea. Attracted by a $3 an hour wage, for which they compete with Filipinos, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, Russians and other migrant workers on a daily basis. The work is low skilled, such as labouring in heavy industry or in factories.

We are sitting in a two-bedroom house, somewhere on the outskirts of Seoul. It is 4 a.m. and the table is surrounded with 10 or so Mongolian migrant workers. They are strong and intelligent looking men who have a purity of conscience.

Coming from a nomadic culture they have none of the trappings of capitalist development and it shows in the honesty and goodwill, which they extend to me.

Batmonkh¡¯s day begins at 6.30 a.m. when he wakes up on the floor of his friend¡¯s house. He knows that he must get to the job agency before 7:30 a.m., to be sure of finding work for the day. Though the work is insecure, he will take whatever is going. At $3 an hour he is earning as much in an hour as he would in a day back home.

``It is unfortunate that 95 percent of the Mongolian workers here are educated people¡¯¡¯ says Batmonkh, who had to drop out of his fourth year of study as an engineer due to financial pressure. ``Mongolians are only allowed very basic jobs and have no chance to assert themselves. Koreans make it clear who is boss.¡¯¡¯

From his six-month stay in Korea, Batmonkh has good and bad tales to tell. Over all though, his story has been an unsuccessful one. `Recently, whilst working in a wood yard which supplies fuel to jimjilbangs, I filled a chainsaw with the wrong mixture of oil and petrol, I was beaten by the supervisor with a metal tool until I bled.¡¯¡¯

Shaken by the incident, he took his complaint to Mr. Seo who runs the Foreign Worker¡¯s Counselling Office in China Town, Incheon.

The company in question offered Batmonkh a 300,000 won bribe, afraid that an investigation might uncover three illegal workers whom they were employing at the time.

But Batmonkh is not bitter; he has a strong heart, which is necessary for anyone in his position. He tells me of incidents when he has shown ingenuity in the workplace, only to be suppressed by angry bosses. ``They should be aware how hard it is for Mongolians to work here. The Koreans may get angry easily, so they need to understand.¡¯¡¯

Mr. Seo, who has worked for seven years supporting foreign workers, can only advise those who come to him to be strong.

Not all of his employers have been unkind, Batmonkh tells me. For a time, he worked in the painting section of a shipyard belonging to a leading Korean company. Here the people appreciated his ability to speak Korean and respected his English language skills too.

As the first light of dawn enters the two-bedroom house, the vodka is still flowing. A film production company are here to document the life of Mongolian workers in Korea.

They make success stories, and Batmonkh is to feature in this particular film, which will be aired on Arirang TV. Though he is tired, he faithfully interprets between the Korean crew and the Mongolians gathered here.

One of the group was a nomad in Mongolia, he has the typical look of a man educated by the land; considered backward by city folk. He is staring at a clay figure of a horse, which his friend, a boxer, made by hand. It has the perfect likeness to a real horse. His gaze gives nothing away, in his mind he is on the plains of Mongolia.

When questioned, he proudly admits that he has killed 35 wolves to defend his livestock. A person with a life like this does not integrate naturally into Korean society, especially as a manual labourer in a factory.

Batmonkh has a one-way flight ticket booked for Mongolia. For now, he has had enough. He has decided that the love for his wife and baby son outweigh the need for money. After six months of trials and tribulations, he is going home and has no expectations to pass through Korea again.

When I ask him how he feels about leaving, Batmonkh replies, ``I am glad to leave as it is lonely and boring, here each man is for himself working hard, there is no time for life.¡¯¡¯ I ask him what he intends to do when he gets home: ``I hope to work as a guide and pursue my English and journalism studies.¡¯¡¯

Batmonkh has spent some of his money on a dictaphone, laptop, MP5 and camera. Things which are, ``more interesting, more helpful to life, for journalism and study, not just for me.¡¯¡¯ He will return to Mongolia with 2,000,000 won for his family.