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Littoral Labor by ikkibawiKrrr

*As we began to take interest in the ocean, we realized once again that there are countless foreign workers working at sea. Even at the harbor we visited, there were foreign workers on every ship. Working at sea and working on an island means working in an environment that can be even more isolating as a foreigner. These fishermen's stories were compiled based on anecdotes provided by the Migrant Center Donghaeng. We would like to thank Okgeum Won and Haneul Na for their help providing case studies.


I work on a fishing boat that goes out to the Yellow Sea. There are five other foreign workers like me on the boat. The average monthly wage is 1.8 million won. This is the minimum wage in Korea. On the harbor, each boat is its own business. When I joined this boat’s crew, we did not go out to sea because it wasn’t fishing season. So my duties were to clean a restaurant operated by the boat’s owner and make fishing gear in the warehouse.

As time passed and it became fishing season, I started to work on a boat for the first time.

After the first trip, I discovered that my seasickness was so severe that it was impossible for me to continue doing this job.

Who could have foreseen this? I kept throwing up and felt nauseous. It was terrible. So I asked for a change of workplace. The owner told me, "If you pay me three million won, I will terminate the labor contract, but if you don't, I will file a civil lawsuit." The three million dollars was the sum of my salary during the off season, the time it took him to hire me, and the time it would take him to hire someone else if I quit. He even told me that he paid me a salary during the off season though I didn't work. This is not true. As I mentioned earlier, I did a lot of cleaning and fishing gear work. Three million dollars is a lot of money for me. Of course I didn't have that money. I told the owner that I couldn’t pay him that and asked him to hire me back. But since that day, the owner hasn’t been giving me any work. I’m very anxious and frustrated by this illogical situation. Why is it unacceptable for a worker with severe seasickness to apply for a change of workplace? Why can't a worker apply for a change when his physical and mental conditions are not suitable for this type of work? Why must the worker take responsibility for all of this? Why should the worker pay three million won in compensation for damages? What should I do when my employer demands that I pay him if I want to change my workplace, but won’t give me any work when I say I’ll continue to work with him? Was I supposed to keep my head down and keep riding the fishing boat despite the constant headaches and nausea? I really don't know.


I am working on an island in South Jeolla Province. There are three Vietnamese undocumented workers on this boat, including myself. Five people, including the owner of the boat, work on the boat. The first monthly wage I received after coming to Korea was 1.9 million won, which was the minimum wage. When we set out on the boat, we are at sea for four or five days, then come back to the port to sell the fish, which are silver pomfret. We rest on land for a day or so, restock our oil and ice, then go back out to sea. If it's windy and the weather is bad, we do odd jobs at the harbor and rest at the owner's house. In this region, first-time employees are usually paid 2.2 million won per month, but I was paid 1.9 million. I work at least 12 hours a day, sometimes 16.

I used to be a sailor in central Vietnam, catching fish such as cutlassfish and anchovies, so I had some work experience. I told the owner so and asked for a higher salary.

He agreed to pay me 2.5 million won from the second month. That was actually the average wage for the other undocumented workers on that boat. But on the second payday, my bank account was credited with 2.19 million won instead of the promised 2.5 million won. I was told that was the sum left after deducting the cost of meals, accommodation, and life insurance. It’s customary for the shipowner to provide meals for the foreign workers, and even the labor contract states that the employer is to provide three meals per day. The insurance cost is severance pay, so the shipowner is the one responsible for paying it. Despite all this, my employer deducted the costs of accommodation, food, and insurance from my salary every month. I couldn't understand why I was the only one whose wages were being deducted for food and lodging when I was doing the same hard labor. I asked for the same monthly salary as the other undocumented workers, but the owner said no.

One day, I was supposed to be pulling out some fishing nets, but I couldn’t get to do it. I was in a very bad condition because I’d drank a lot the night before, stressing out my salary and what I was to do from now on. That night, three Vietnamese undocumented workers, excluding me, worked with the shipowner. September is fishing season for yellow corvina and squid. But that day, the three undocumented workers said they would quit because they could get paid 3 million won in 13 days to catch corvina elsewhere. They said they would not stay here anymore because they were only paid 1.9 million won for 15 days of work, and the shipowner swore at them constantly. That night, too, the shipowner shouted obscenities like “fucking asshole” at the crew for not tying the ropes properly so that the captain could keep the boat close to the harbor. The next day, the three Vietnamese undocumented workers left. As a result, the boat was unable to sail because there were not enough people to work. Unable to fish anymore, the owner suddenly offered to terminate my contract, but under strange conditions.

The shipowner's wife told me that if I paid her 7 million won, she would terminate my contract. If I didn't pay, she said she’d report me for leaving the workplace premises which would make me an “illegal alien”. I couldn't speak Korean very well, so I asked my brother, who works in manufacturing in Yeosu, to interpret for me. But talking to the shipowner was no use. Even when I pleaded with them to lower the amount, because 7 million was a huge sum, the wife wouldn’t budge. My brother got angry and said he’d report them for hiring “illegal aliens”. That made the shipowner’s wife even more angry, and she yelled, "On Jeju Island, you have to pay 10 million won to cancel the contract. On this island, you have to pay at least 7 million won.” In my four months of working for them, I’d made about 8 million won. If I paid the shipowner 7 million to terminate my contract, I would have earned 1 million won in four months, which would mean I had basically worked for free. The Ministry of Labor is aware that some employers charge the employee with extra costs like this to terminate the contract, but they refuse to intervene, only saying this should be settled between the business owner and the worker. Is there any way out for me? My frustration keeps growing.


I am a foreign worker on a ship. My workplace is a seaweed farm. Right from the start, I got on the ship and was out at sea for five days. One day, I was carrying some rope before boarding the boat, and I got very tired because the ropes were quite heavy. I sat down to rest for a while, and the shipowner suddenly got very angry and threw me off. I had to leave before I could even have a chance to figure out why he was angry. I had only worked there for a week when I was thrown out for no reason. With no one to turn to for help, I went to the Ministry of Labor and spent a night at the lodging they provided. The Ministry officer told me that my labor contract could be canceled if I “went back and reached an agreement" with the employer. I tried to go back and talk to him, but the shipowner kicked me out of the quarters again and threw my bags out. He kicked my luggage and threw it out, saying, "Hurry up, you bastard! Get rid of your things!", "Get this out of here! Get out!", "Get rid of it!", "Get the hell out of here!”, "Get out, you little shit!". I was kicked out just like that. The next day I went to see the shipowner again to try to settle things, but instead of settling, I was thrown out again. He shoved a broom in my face and said, "Go away!" and threw me out.

Even though I wanted to work, the shipowner kicked me out without giving me a job, and I was treated unfairly for no reason. The labor contract I signed said that my employer will provide accommodation, but I have nowhere to go because I was kicked out.

I want to work and earn money, but the shipowner refused. I have no idea why.

The employment center officer in charge of foreign workers told me to talk to the shipowner to resolve the situation, but he has blocked my number. He’s also blocked the employment center officer’s number too, so there is no way to contact him. I begged the officer to visit the shipowner to resolve this issue, since my Korean is very poor and I’m sure I will be kicked out again. I cannot work at another business without this shipowner’s consent. Why on earth did he get so angry with me, and why did he kick me out?

I have no idea. It's very scary that this person who has cut off contact with me and refuses to communicate is in control of my future.