Event Report: “Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea”

A photo of Hae Yeon Choo's "Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea" from an event at the Asian Institute, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto l Credits: AI

“Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea” was an event hosted at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto on 15 September 2016. It was sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Korea and co-sponsored by the Asian Institute. This event featured the launch and a discussion of Professor Hae Yeon Choo’s book Decentering Citizenship. Professor Choo’s book is an examination of the complexities of citizenship by exploring the struggle of three groups of Filipina migrants in South Korea. As an assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Toronto Mississauga, Professor Choo’s work has focused on problematizing notions of “immigration integration” and belonging. Associate Professor Rachel Silvey from the Asia-Pacific Program chaired the book launch, and fellow Professor Jesook Song of the Centre for Korean Studies and Professor Anna Koreteweg from the Department of Sociology were part of the discussion panel. The event consisted of readings from Professor Choo’s book, a discussion on the themes of the book by the panelists, and ended with a Q&A with Professor Choo.

The event began as Professor Silvey gave the opening remarks and then invited Professor Hae Yeon Choo to introduce her book. The narratives in her book follow three different groups of Filipina migrant workers: Filipinas who have married Korean men, and Filipina hostesses working at American military bases. Since the late 1980s, South Korea has bene the destination of migrant labour, as people coming with tourist visas stay past their visa deadlines as undocumented workers. The number of migrant laborers continued to increase up to 200,000 workers in 2008, most of whom “hide in plain sight” in factory towns on the borders of cities such as Seoul. Tensions arose as migrant workers began claiming certain rights despite their unclear legal and citizenship status. Furthermore, social and cultural questions on assimilation and belonging began to arise, as migrant workers make up an increasingly large portion of the South Korean social fabric.

To begin the discussion, Professor Choo first read the story of a migrant worker who had been recently detained at the Immigration Detention Centre near Seoul after a factory raid. The main question on the detained worker’s mind was why had immigration officers come after her, as she remained within the confines of the factory complex and did not stand out in any way. Possible theories of her detention surrounded issues such as a fellow worker owing her money, and thus reporting her to the debtl or possibly another worker being jealous of his/her possessions and thus calling immigration officers. Professor Choo stated that this example reveals the complex code of conduct and set of rules that migrant workers have to follow. Such regulations are not only set by immigration officers but also the migrant community itself, highlighting how selective the targets of enforcement can be.

To expand, Professor Choo described the struggles facing South Korean activists who attempt to aid migrant workers, as they often face criticism and judgment from other South Koreans. She highlighted the fact that many activists supporting the migrants were participants in the previous workers’ rights movement, and this new struggle was creating new ways of relating the South Korean population with the migrant population. These narratives serve to reflect the various policies of social and physical control exerted on migrant workers, and how the promise of citizenship works to maintain social inequality. In illustrating the ways that the Filipina women react and resist to state policies, citizenship is presented not  as a fixed policy but something that can be negotiated.

Next, Professor Jesook Song began the panel discussion of the book by emphasizing how it served as a good example of ethnography, as well as its interesting nature as an accessible and readable book for undergraduate students. Professor Song elaborated on some key points, including the process in which the Filipina women situated themselves into the clear trajectories of three groups. Then through labor alliances or feminist alliances, the women could leverage these categorizations to claim their rights as citizens, migrant, or mother. In this way, boundaries between the different groups were something fabricated by civil society and migrants themselves. The key lesson through these experiences is how migrant struggles for rights are not only shaping and understanding the definition of citizenship. They also shape the experience of non-migrant Korean ethnicity and their understanding of citizenship and identity – this is a double process. The discourse on citizenship for migrant workers in South Korea is also important in shaping how to think of the “other”. Professor Song finished her analysis by raising questions about what migrant rights bring specifically to the question of citizenship, and on the difficulty of inclusion, as citizenship is an inherently exclusive policy.

Following Professor Song, Professor Koreteweg continued the discussion by complimenting the way the book develops a nuanced analytical framework and shows it through the sophisticated but accessible narratives. For Professor Koreteweg, the book’s chapter on immigration raids and how they function to enforce law through spatial containment was particularly interesting. She briefly expanded on how migrants are not only victims of immigration enforcement, but also use enforcement to police their own communities as exemplified by the first story Professor Choo presented.  Also noteworthy was how the history of state formation in South Korea has influenced the class of activists sympathetic to the migrant cause.  Those who had lived under Korea’s more authoritarian state era are particularly prone to be more sympathetic to the cause. Professor Koreteweg also questioned whether these activists in a way were using migrants as a prop, and were in fact more concerned about creating an image of a “good” Korea, rather than the rights of individual migrants.

To end the discussion, Professor Choo addressed some of these questions and presented some key ideas. Korean activists’ motivations to help migrants do in part stem from normative ideas of how South Koreans picture society and their desire to rebuild Korea with successful integration of migrant populations. However, this self-interest does not undermine the meaning of their work. Professor Choo emphasized that the unique aspect of the migrant struggle in South Korea was the increasing use of the rhetoric of dignity rather than equality. In demanding their dignity, the migrant struggle makes a claim with a larger reach than particular rights, rather a reach for all possibilities beyond. This event and Professor Choo’s book were both quite eye-opening, and posed many new questions on the concept of citizenship and how its process of inclusion and exclusion is shaping forms of identity and culture in South Korea.

Eden Lee is a 3rd Year student majoring in International Relations and Contemporary Asian Studies. She is particularly interested in the East Asian region and its economic and security developments. She currently serves as an Event Reporter for Synergy’s East Asia Section.

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