June 25, 2024

“It is like human trafficking in modern day. The brokers treated seasonal workers like slaves,” said Ko.

The South Korean government refused requests for comment.

The Philippine government said the scheme was run on a state-by-state basis – at least 45 local governments took part – and that it had no jurisdiction over the local level.

The country has a total of 1,600 local government units that can enter into deals with their counterparts in South Korea.

This hands-off stance means it is hard to tally the numbers of workers affected or track the extent of abuses.

Seeking better oversight, Manila announced plans in March to channel all future migrant workers through a bilateral deal.

No bilateral agreement on the seasonal farm workers programme has yet been reached.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation contacted several local governments for comment – none replied.

Empty promises?

More than 3,500 Filipinos have been recruited since 2022, when South Korea launched sister-city agreements that twin local Filipino states with richer ones in the East Asian country.

The workers were drawn to the scheme by the promise of earning up to five times what they can make at home.

For South Korea, the migrants plug a chronic labour shortfall exacerbated by an aging and shrinking population, with foreign workers taking on low-paid jobs that many locals shun.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation analysed the documents of 12 former seasonal workers – papers that revealed systemic contract violations, the deals often struck by independent brokers.

Among complaints: welfare violations, exorbitant broker fees, harsh conditions, diluted pay and a lack of any redress.

Many Filipinos also said they were too afraid to speak out for fear of being shut out of future job prospects.

Here are the stories of three former migrant workers, all of whose names have been changed to protect their identities.

Juan

Rice farmer Juan is typical of the victims interviewed over a four-month investigation.

Enticed by the prospect of a hefty salary, Juan staked his family’s two-hectare (five-acre) farm for a chance to work a season in South Korea, only to face hard labor when he moved abroad then a legal battle for his assets once back home.

The work was brokered last July by his town – General Mamerto Natividad, 120 km (75 miles) north of Manila – which contracted the 42-year-old for a five-month stint abroad.

He was promised a monthly salary of 43,000 Philippine pesos ($752), more than double his usual takings.

But when he arrived in Hwasun, at the foot of South Korea, Juan was forced to work as a mountain grass cutter, a gruelling job only doable after hiking two hours through peak summer heat.

Juan said the entire employment process – from his hiring at home to dropoff at post – was handled by three people whom he called brokers, a married Filipino couple and lone Korean man.

Juan complained to the brokers, expecting to be redeployed.

“We thought they would hear our complaints and help us find a new employer,” Juan said.

Instead, he was told to go to the airport the following day.

“The brokers forced us to go back to the Philippines and told the local government that we wanted to go home. But that’s not true,” he said. “They also refused to return our collateral.”

The family had signed over land as collateral to secure the overseas work contract and said the brokers tried to keep that land when Juan returned early. Juan said it took a four-month fight and 180,000 pesos in legal fees to win back the plot.

Bianca

Bianca – who spent five months picking strawberries in South Korea – said she had to work 14-hour days and that brokers kept her bank book and passport for her entire stay.

“The brokers only sent our families in the Philippines 15,000 pesos a month,” said the ex-seasonal farm worker.

She left for South Korea in 2022 on a promise of 35,000 pesos a month, but said she was then charged 20,000 a month for housing, food and ‘handling’.

She said no charges were mentioned in her contract but she felt too scared to complain.

“It was my dream to go to South Korea. I didn’t know that the job there would be hard – 14 hours. It was hard to endure.”

Last year, the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), the government arm set up to protect Filipinos working overseas, received 150 complaints related to illegal recruitment, labour practice and welfare under the seasonal farm workers programme.

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