Abuse on the ocean
Not long ago, Koreans felt shame and embarrassment because of reports about some employers’ flagrant abuses of foreign workers here. A latest U.S. Department of State report on human trafficking shows mistreatment of foreign employees has been made not just on land but also at sea.
``Since 2011, there have been allegations of forced labor abuse and unpaid and underpaid wages on South Korean-flagged fishing vessels in New Zealand waters,” the report said.
The belated investigation by the Korean government confirmed it was true. Yet the testimonies by the victims, a group of Indonesian fishermen who worked aboard the Korean deep-sea fishing vessel, Oyang 75, indicate the reality was far harsher and more inhumane than the single sentence in the U.S. government report.
According to Sugito, one of the Indonesians who escaped from the ship in New Zealand, Korean fishermen treated them in the most shameful and inhumane ways, beating them with fish and dirty gloves, giving them worse food than the Koreans, made frequent sexual approaches and hurled insults in languages they couldn’t understand. Their employer, Sajo Oyang, didn’t give them paid leave nor severance pay.
``I couldn’t bear my rage with this mistreatment that I never experienced on any other vessels of any other country,” said the 29-year-old father of two. ``I sometimes wondered whether it’s part of the Korean culture.”
We can’t help but wonder, too. No amount of K-pop and hallyu or Korean wave idols can hide the shady creepiness of some Koreans’ dual psyche, which is weak to the strong and strong to the weak, both at home and abroad.
Admittedly, even the long arm of the law cannot reach the middle of the ocean, which is why even Korean employees often complain about cases of egregious abuse during operations that last for many months.
Yet that does not excuse the foreign and maritime ministry officials, who made belated and unwilling responses to look into the case, and the employer who still remains silent.
The government needs to drastically toughen penalties on violators of basic working conditions, both on land and at sea, and whether they are Koreans or foreigners, especially for the latter, if this is a country anxious to appear as a global player.
Or, Seoul had better stop bragging about its joining the so-called 20-50 club ― $20,000 in per capita income and a population of 50 million. It only makes this nation seem more like savage nouveau riche.