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South Korea criticized for exploitation of migrant workers in greenhouses

"It's a world of lawlessness," Rev. Kim Dal-sung muttered over the phone as he drove his tiny KIA over narrow dirt paths zigzagging through greenhouses made of plastic sheets and tubes. In the bleak landscape of dull blue and gray in Pocheon, a town near South Korea's ultra-modern capital, hundreds of migrant workers from across Asia toil in harsh conditions, unprotected by labor laws while doing the hardest, lowest-paid farm work most Koreans avoid.

The death of a 31-year-old Cambodian woman worker at one of the farms in December has revived decades-long criticism over South Korean exploitation of some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in Asia. Officials have promised reforms, but it's unclear what will change. More than two months after Sokkheng's death, South Korea this week announced plans to improve conditions for migrant farm workers, including expanding health care access. 

Kim, a pastor and outspoken advocate for migrant workers' rights, is an unwelcome visitor at the farms in Pocheon, especially after the Cambodian woman, Nuon Sokkheng, was found dead on Dec. 20 inside a poorly heated, squalid shelter at one of the farms. Her death, and those of many others, highlight the often cruel conditions facing migrant workers who have little recourse against their bosses.

There are around 20,000 Asian migrant workers legally working on South Korean farms, mostly from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Nepal. They were brought in under its Employment Permit System. To keep out undocumented immigrants, it makes it extremely difficult for workers to leave their employers, even when they are grossly overworked or abused.

South Korean farmers, too, are suffering. The industry is in decline, hurt by decades of labor shortages and increasing foreign competition. They get by importing labor to work long hours for low pay.

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