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Migrant hostesses in South Korea: when the anti-trafficking framework runs out

Hostess work has been largely excluded from migrant labour struggles in South Korea. For hostesses to claim their human rights, South Korea must first recognise women’s work as worthy.

Marinol’s predicament in South Korea

Marinol, a Filipina woman in her thirties, was dealing with false promises when I met with her in 2008 in an American military camptown in South Korea. She was one of about 3000 Filipina women with an ‘entertainer’ visa in South Korea, and she thought she would be performing as a singer. But when she arrived, Marinol learned that she had been hired to serve drinks and entertain American GIs as a club hostess. The club owner forbid her to go out of the club and the residence for the first month, withheld her passport, and pressured her to spend the night with customers. The employment contract she had signed promised decent wages, one day off per week, and health insurance, yet it was meaningless and she did not know where to turn for help.

Certainly, not all migrant hostesses in South Korea faced the same degree of deception or restriction of mobility as Marinol did. Many knew that they would be working as hostesses, not as singers or dancers, and some were moderately content with their clubs’ working conditions. But breach of contract and restrictions to mobility were routine and recurring problems. When they occurred, migrant hostesses had little alternative.

Although South Korea has instituted anti-trafficking initiatives since 2004, including the passage of the Protection of Victims of Sexual Trafficking Act, the ‘war on trafficking’ has done little to address the problems faced by migrant hostesses like Marinol. Some feminist organisations receive a modicum of government funding to offer protective measures for migrant women in the camptown clubs, such as shelter, legal and medical assistance, as they were considered ‘victims of trafficking’ and ‘victims of prostitution’ rather than criminals. While some individual hostesses benefitted from such initiatives, especially those wanting to leave the clubs altogether, the overall working conditions for those who wanted to stay and work in South Korea remained largely unchanged.

The inadequacies of frameworks that emphasise ‘trafficking’ are well known to feminist and migration scholars. Sociologist Rhacel Parreñas asks us to think beyond the binary of free labour and trafficking, and instead to consider the condition of “indentured mobility,” in which migrant women engage in a tough bargain between poverty and indentured labour. Rescuing the women construed as helpless victims, she argues, is not the answer. Rather, we need to examine the global inequalities and migrant contract labour systems that produce the conditions of vulnerability for migrant women. Likewise, anthropologist Sealing Cheng points to the limits of anti-trafficking laws in South Korea, advocating instead for human rights and migrant rights approaches.

Beyond the limitations of the language of trafficking, I want to think through why migrant hostesses in South Korea have been excluded from the broader migrant advocacy in South Korea. To do this, I turn to the advocacy struggle that led to the expansion of human rights and labour rights for migrant factory workers. Delving into the discrepancy between migrant rights for factory workers and hostesses teaches us how gender operates in people’s recognition of certain groups of migrants as worthy of rights.

Gendering migrant rights: when the discourse of trafficking is not enough

Migrant factory workers and hostesses in South Korea face shared conditions that make them vulnerable. These include short-term contract labour, assigned workplaces, restriction of freedom to change employers, and immigration control against undocumented migrants. In the 1990s, South Korean employers of migrant factory workers regularly engaged in abusive practices, such as withholding passports, defaulting on the fair pay stipulated in the labour contract, and denying access to workers’ compensation or health care. These conditions are similar to the conditions faced by many migrant hostesses like Marinol.

Yet, the situation has changed drastically for migrant factory workers in the past two decades. Since the mid 1990s, stories of the abuse of migrant workers have prompted mostly Protestant and Catholic faith-based migrant advocacy groups in South Korea to condemn exploitative practices in factories as ‘modern slavery’ and as ‘violations of human rights’. Instead of attempting to stop or criminalise the flow of migrants, South Korean advocates have become involved in struggles for better working conditions through direct advocacy and legal challenge.

The successful mobilisation of migrant communities, as well as the involvement of trade unions and labour activists, has led to significant gains in the expansion of rights for migrant factory workers. These include landmark cases that expanded the Labour Standards Act to migrant workers in 1995, and the right to severance pay regardless of legal status in 1997. Certainly, migrant factory workers still face exploitative working conditions, discriminatory treatment against migrants, physical and verbal abuse, and sexual harassment. Nevertheless, they have both the migrant co-ethnic community and migrant advocacy organisations, including the migrant trade union, at their backs when they decide to challenge indignities and rights violations individually or collectively. The same level of advocacy work or community building is yet to emerge for migrant hostesses.

‘Real’ work vs. ‘easy’ work: constructing difference between factory workers and club hostesses

What explains the differences between the mobilisations for migrant factory workers and hostesses? The actions of Father Thomas, a Catholic priest and migrant advocate, illuminate this difference. Father Thomas was actively involved in the mobilisation of the Filipino community through social activities and labor counseling for migrant factory workers. In contrast, he only offered a weekly mass in the military camptown. He neither planned efforts to mobilise camptown hostesses nor extended offers for labour counseling. He expressed scepticism when I asked whether he was interested in expanding his existing programmes to cover hostesses, and doubted that anyone would be interested. Although he was aware that some migrant hostesses faced conditions of restricted mobility and labour rights violations, he clearly saw the difference:

Some [migrant hostesses] run away and work in the factories, but many stay because they know factory work is difficult … They have to carry heavy stuff, risk having their fingers cut, and they have to dress like ajumma [middle-aged women]. At clubs, it’s easy work. You dress sexy, and drink, sing, dance, and you can sleep the whole day the next day.

For Father Thomas, hostess workers were not ‘real’ workers in the way factory workers were, as in his eyes the hostesses did not face the same level of physical demand, risk of injury, and de-sexualisation. He saw hostess work, which is based on the sale of women’s sexual appeal, as “easy work” and denied that it involved long working hours and high degrees of physical and emotional labour. Given that Father Thomas is a Catholic priest, it is noteworthy that his unwillingness to advocate on behalf of hostesses was predicated on his perception that their work was “easy”, and not on the idea that their work is morally questionable in the eyes of the church.

Other migrant advocates and activists were less explicit about why they exclude migrant hostesses from their initiatives. South Korean migrant advocates often campaign on the ‘dignity’ of workers, highlighting their sacrifices as breadwinners and arguing that migrants must receive the just fruits of their hard work. While such rhetoric has masculine undertones, migrant women in manufacturing and agriculture have also benefitted from such support and rights claims along with their male counterparts.

However, migrant hostesses in the camptown clubs, a feminised labour sector, do not easily fit the model of ‘worker’ in the eyes of South Korean civil society. When asked about migrant hostesses, many migrant advocates said they did not know much and suggested hostesses were in the realm of feminist organisations, not their own.

Migrant hostesses who want to improve the working conditions in their clubs have limited avenues though which to claim their labour and social rights. The effectiveness of the anti-trafficking approach employed by South Korean feminist organisations is limited because it protects victims rather than advances migrant rights. But the absence of migrant advocacy groups and trade unions has also been part of the problem, as migrant women involved in feminised work have not been recognised as worthy of mobilisation as subjects of migrant rights.

To claim human and labour rights for migrant hostesses, we will need to do more than critically engage with the discourse of trafficking. What it calls for is to fundamentally reconceptualise women’s labour as worthy of rights and dignity.

About the author

Hae Yeon Choo is a sociologist at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She is an author of the forthcoming Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea (Stanford University Press), a comparative study of three groups of Filipina women in South Korea: factory workers, wives of South Korean men, and hostesses at American military camptown clubs.

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