life in korea

A Peek Into the Lives of Undocumented Workers in Seoul

Last week, my part-time helper brought a sad news. The live-in partner of my former part-timer was caught again in a factory raid and was immediately scheduled to be deported back to the Philippines. This was his second time to be deported back to the Philippines.

There are thousands of silently existing Filipino workers here in Seoul who are undocumented. They peacefully go about their ways, maximizing their work hours so they would be able to send enough money for their dependents back home. Go to Hyehwa every Sunday… and they all flock there. Not all are undocumented, but most are. This is just one question you don’t openly ask.

I got to know my two former part-time helpers through a nun-friend from Hyehwa. The Catholic church was my only link with other Filipinos then and if there were people I could bring myself to trust, they should be coming from the church. I had two helpers for different days of the week and I immediately saw my son warmed up to them instantly. The “interview” went with a candid admission that they were undocumented.

Marife had been living here in Seoul for three years already. She came over as a tourist. After a few months, she became undocumented. She met another Filipino, Jimmy, with whom she became pregnant. They lived together until she delivered her baby daughter here in Seoul. Being undocumented, they had to immediately send the baby back to the Philippines before she turns one month old. I’m not sure about the process but she told me they had to send her baby to the Philippines because the longer the baby stays here, the more difficult it will be to bring her home without the mother. At three weeks old, the baby boarded the plane carried by Marife’s Filipino friend (the friend was working here legally). Upon arrival at the airport in the Philippines, the baby was turned over to the waiting grandparents who went to Manila from the province.

Marife could do nothing but cry her heart out unless she also decides to go back to the Philippines and be with her baby… without a job and without money. Marife and Jimmy, with some friends, had to comfort each other and bear the longing for their baby. After a month, Jimmy was caught in a factory raid. He was deported back to the Philippines. Marife worked doubly hard for their baby’s needs, her family’s needs and Jimmy’s needed cash to be able to go back here in Seoul. Jimmy processed his papers again and after several months, under a different name, was able able to come back here in Seoul. He looked and looked for a job all the while cautious of being caught. It took a number of months before he got another factory job. They were living quietly, working diligently and attending bible study sessions. They have a good circle of supportive friends. And then last week, Jimmy was caught again. Marife cannot go to jail to meet Jimmy. She has no legal documents to show. They had to rely with other documented Filipino friends to bring Jimmy’s things. Marife now has to work more hours than necessary to pay the debt they incurred while processing for Jimmy’s papers, which wasn’t fully paid yet as Jimmy was only able to work for some number of months.

Who reported about the undocumented workers’ presence in the factory? A fellow Filipino.

Ate Susan had been living illegally here in Seoul for the past six years. The last time she was in the Philippines her daughter was 4 years old (she is now turning 11 years old). She’s living here with her husband, also undocumented. The daughter is being taken cared of by her sister in the province. They send money for their daughter’s needs as well as for her sister’s family’s needs. Her sister is looking after her daughter, after all. She got pregnant again and is due to deliver first week of July. She plans to go back to the Philippines for good after giving birth to personally take care of their children. The husband will remain here with the everyday hope that he will not be caught by immigration officers.

Marife stopped working for me because I had to go home for Christmas vacation last year. I told her that it was ok if she had to take on another job for the days she was working with me. It would have been unfair for her if she waited for me and she wasn’t paid anything. Ate Susan stopped working for me this year as her belly was already getting bigger and it was getting more difficult for her to work. She recommended my current part-timer, Tintin. Tintin is luckier. She is working here with legal papers as a domestic helper to an embassy consul. Her contract is only three times a week so she has time to work for other employers. But Tintin left her sponsor’s employment because of disagreement over salary. With the help of their “network”, she found another one for other days of the week. She only works for me every Saturday.

Ate Susan also introduced me to Ate Lorna when I needed a tarpaulin for my son’s birthday last year. Ate Lorna knew of a store in Dongdaemun. I met Ate Lorna in a subway. She was wearing a hat to conceal her hair-less head. She was undergoing chemotheraphy. She has cancer. She had been living here in Seoul for 12 years already. Last year when I met her, she was no longer working. She was staying in a religious institution which supports her treatments. I asked why she did not go home to the Philippines. It would be harder, she said. The treatment, the money, the everyday expenses… While she was working here in Seoul, she sent her nieces to school. She had a nurse already and one was waiting for the board exam. She is single and her happiness rests on the achievements of those she helped. What of her now that she needs help?

It isn’t always a hard and sad life. Some lucky ones turn to support groups, church organizations being the most popular. They get their strength from each other and develop life-long friendship bonded by their common status in a place far away from home. They go to out of town trips together. They organize picnics. It’s just sad that they have to be constantly wary of the people they deal with, lest they will be reported to immigration. Sadder of it all is, they have to be wary of their fellow Pinoys.

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13 thoughts on “A Peek Into the Lives of Undocumented Workers in Seoul

  1. Hi Wendy..my worry is that things like this is becoming normal to the point that many people thinks its worth the risk anyway. I dont understand why some Filipinos can find ways to make themselves useful to the society in general by following the law, while others simply cannot. Its selfishness i guess. As ive said the problem here are not those people reporting (for whatever reasons), but those people committing the wrong thing. I dont see any logic or rationale for condoning people (Filipino or not) who reports the wrong person and the wrong act to the authorities (regardless for money or for what), especially if the person who committed the wrong act is very much aware of what he/she is doing.

  2. Hi Arvinsign – you’re right. these kind of individual stories will never end and undocumented Filipinos will always be a problem, both to the individual themselves and to the government. if i may add, they will also always be a problem to those legally staying Filipinos who are affected by the general perception accorded to these illegal Filipinos.

    ideally, i would also want these illegal practice to end. but how? individually, we can’t do anything because choices were and are being made by thinking individuals who are willing to risk the consequences to earn. we could only wish for ourselves but it might be too presumptuous to wish for other’s welfare who wishes otherwise than what we wish for them (like, wishing for them not to be domestic helpers but for all we know, being domestic helpers and earning dollars – or won – is an achievement for them and their family already).

    in addition, i feel bad for those who are being deported because a fellow Filipino reported on them. if no filipino was involved, so be it. it’s the right of the korean government to conduct raids.

    last, even if it is in the police power of the Korean government to deport illegal workers, they don’t do it full blast. they could just go to Hyewha on Sundays and demand for the necessary documents. they don’t. why? in reality, both governments benefit. the korean government through the employers benefit from cheaper labor; the Philippine government, through employment for its people. so, we wish and we want to get rid of these illegal Filipinos – for whose benefit? not for the Korean government, not for the Philippine government, not for these individual people with individual stories to tell. we may only be wishing and wanting for the ideal for OUR INDIVIDUAL SELVES to make us feel good individually… but it’s tantamount to letting others live in hunger.

  3. Reading some of the comments above regarding stories like this is quite frustrating. These kind of stories will never end, and the solution to these problems is not to get rid of filipinos reporting other filipinos (illegal/undocumented), but to get rid of filipinos risking themselves coming over here and later on stay illegally. Its not about inggit, walang pakikisama, or money etc…the keyword to this problem is ILLEGAL. I will not acquiesce to anything illegal, if i am a socially responsible and sane person. Problems like these exists anywhere and everywhere and should be viewed in general (and its effect to the policies concerning hiring of filipino migrant workers here in korea or elsewhere) rather than picking and sympathizing on individual stories.

  4. to cher: i hope u will take this with no malice..but maybe you mean, the baby swallowed his/her own feces(meconium) not its mother’s…because the fetus floats inside your uterus- which is way down of your stomach and out of the way of the large intestine..so if the baby “poops” inside it has the tendency to swallow it..and you can check it if your bag of water(at delivery) is clear or stained (meconium-stained)…

  5. marami ako kakilalang undocumnted Filipinos d2, and they usually told me hindi sila ntatakot sa mga Koreans kundi sa mga kapwa Pinoy.at bakit naman kc nagsusumbog ang Pinoy na to sa kinauukulan?because they receive big money for that.may presyo bawat isang tao.Sguro nangangailangan din cla.

  6. when i gave birth i also met a filpina in the hospital, she and her husband are also illegal workers in korea…so they didn’t have insurance coverage….but their baby had a difficult birth and was able to swallow some of the mother’s feces so they had to pay A LOT for the hospital….i’m not sure if they were able to pay their hospital bills.

    cher´s last blog post..Zach with Teddy and Piggy

  7. i would hear similar stories everytime i talk with fellow pinoys in the phil embassy. it’s depressing to hear their plights and also makes me feel guilty of my ‘better’ situation. but one thing i noticed is that they seem happy have accepted their fates. they can even come up with jokes about it! they made a choice and are fully aware of the consequences…at in fairness, mabuti na yan at least may ginagawa kesa naman mangin tambay sa pinas tulad ng iba! at matuto na ring makibagay baka may magsumbong! hehe…

    april´s last blog post..The well-heeled woman

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