Living on the Tears of Invisible Foreign Workers: Korea Herald Writer

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Jeju’s marine divers are among the symbolic features of the South Island and, admittedly, its main tourist resource. The “haenyeo” and their centuries-old know-how in harvesting the oceans are recognized by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

In the 15th century, however, these strong women stunned a new magistrate on his inspection tour by bravely leaping into the cold winter sea, dressed only in fine cotton outfits.

The soft-hearted magistrate gave instructions never again to serve abalone and seaweed on his table. “How could I eat them when I saw these poor women working in such disbelieving conditions? he lamented.

“A Greenhouse is Not a House,” a 2018 documentary produced by Asian Media Culture Factory, is instantly reminiscent of this episode from the days of King Sejong.

The hour-long film, co-directed by Shekh al Mamun and Jeong So-hee, is an embarrassing revelation of the harsh reality endured by people in other Asian countries who bolster our declining agricultural industry. Al Mamun, from Bangladesh, and Jeong are both union activists who defend the rights of migrant workers.

As the film’s title suggests, a large majority of migrant farm workers – mostly young women – live in greenhouses.

Specifically, after working long hours for low pay, they sleep and eat in makeshift structures built of sandwich panels or shipping containers inside a plastic greenhouse.

What sets their so-called “dormitories” apart from the multiple rows of other greenhouses for producing fresh vegetables all year round is their black shade cover.

These seedy living quarters, hidden under the dark blanket, consist of small rooms, each shared by an average of three to five workers.

They are rarely equipped with proper heating or cooling systems, clean kitchens, shower rooms or toilets. Some don’t even have a safety lock.

The film shows around these shelters – sub-human in a word – as well as workers explaining their basic daily problems.

These scenes are inevitably linked to the death, one night in December 2020, of a 31-year-old Cambodian woman on a vegetable farm in Pocheon, Gyeonggi province.

Awaiting a long-awaited reunion with her family in just three weeks, and leaving behind her plane ticket to Phnom Penh, Nuon Sokkheng was found dead in her squalid, poorly heated shelter.

As her housemates spent the night in another location as the weather forecast predicted temperatures would dip to minus 18 degrees Celsius, Nuon Sokkheng slept alone in her room.

An autopsy cited complications from cirrhosis as the cause of his death, but few doubted his condition was affected by his living environment.