On a narrow one way street, two men face each other. Both need to go forward, but neither can turn back. The two step towards each other with glaring faces. One man raises his fist. The other does too. One man winds his arms backwards, but the other man extends his arm for a handshake, smiling. Given a closer look, enemies may not be enemies. Such is the notion Rainbow School holds for immigrant and Korean workers.
Rainbow School is a club formed by three universities, Korea University (KU), Sungshin Women’s University, and Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU), that seeks to stop discrimination against immigrant workers in Korea. It focuses on studying the different hardships such immigrant workers may face through directly interacting with them. Meanwhile, an underlying motto of the club is to steer away from pitying such immigrant workers, and to instead contemplate ways to help them procure their rights.
The principal of the club, Jin Tae Hwan (’12, Political Science and International Relations) said, “A crucial point many people miss out on is that immigrant workers are not separate entities from the overall work force.” While superficially, immigrant workers may seem to pose a threat as an alternative to Korean workers, in truth they are a complementary force to the overall union of Korean workers. The two parties face the same issues, need the same aid, and thus should collaborate to procure their rights. He added that, as legal workers of this nation, immigrant workers have certain inalienable rights and should be treated in an appropriate manner by society.
▲ The KU Rainbow School members on their usual activity routine.Provided by Rainbow School
Each week, members at the Rainbow School spend two hours tutoring immigrant workers who are registered with the club in speaking Korean. Each school of the club conducts classes in different places. KU members teach in the north of Gyeonggi Province. According to Jin, the classes are far from perfect. “As university students, the tutors do not have professionally planned out curriculums. However, we do try our best to teach our tutees on how to speak and listen to Korean. In short, we focus on the more practical side of the language.”
Yet the classes are not only on the usage of Korean language. Following the founding notion of the club, tutors also teach their students about the legal rights workers are given by the government. The classes promote the idea that immigrant and Korean workers share the same issues on their rights and thus should consider each other as partners rather than enemies. Immigrant workers registered with the Rainbow School are each given what is called a Naeil Notebook. The Korean characters naeil, defined as tomorrow and my work, reflect the sentiment that immigrant workers are a rightful segment of the Korean workforce and that they should strive for better working conditions. The notebook contains information on helpful legal codes and commonly used terms and vocabulary.
Jin emphasized that the classes were not a part of a social service. “We are not superior to immigrant workers. It is true that we are helping them, but at the same time we are not patronizing them. Thinking of our work as a social service creates a feeling of pity. Yet pity is not an attitude that we want to approach our activities with.” Jin further mentioned that the club members hoped that immigrant and Korean workers would stand as equals. Creating a sense of pity towards immigrant workers only encourages a deeper gap between the two parties. Hence, club members tend to think of their activities as a part of general interaction and communication. True to this notion, Rainbow School members also host various events including May Day in April, seminars on the working conditions of immigrants, and pub night. Together, these comprise an overall effort to truly interact with immigrant workers, rather than to just aid them.
Jin hopes that these activities will help change the prejudice against immigrant workers in Korea. He stated that these activities are of great significance, especially more so because the social attitude towards immigrant workers seems to be growing increasingly negative. Both on paper and in real life, the foothold of immigrant workers is steadily shrinking.
In August 2012, the Ministry of Employment and Labor proposed new legislation that seriously restricted employment opportunities for immigrant laborers. It includes regulations that forbid immigrant workers from choosing a new work place. Once immigrant workers are fired or quit their old jobs, they are, by law, in order to find a new job, required to enter the labor market and forced to wait until a willing employer comes to hire them. In other words, they are denied the right to choose new jobs on their own.
Even before this legislation, working terms for immigrant workers were harsh. They were often discriminated against, illegally paid lower salaries, and faced difficulties in finding new jobs. However, the further restrictions on work opportunities have made working conditions for immigrant workers nearly hopeless. “It is almost as if the government is treating them as slaves. Such treatment really is not acceptable,” said Jin.
Jin further mentioned, “Current society is becoming increasingly hostile towards immigrant laborers. This is troublesome for the Rainbow School because we wish to properly inform the public about immigrant workers, that they are equals no different from ourselves and that they deserve the rights that our own workers enjoy. However, the overall society seems to retain a sort of prejudice against them.” He admitted that the situation was becoming more difficult both for immigrant workers and the Rainbow School. “This is exactly Rainbow School’s job. We try to eliminate these prejudices and help people better understand immigrant workers. In that sense, our members are putting efforts like we never did before into our activities.”
Rainbow School welcomes any potential members. Recruitment is open all year round, and students of all age are able to submit applications. New members are required to pass a one month period of preparation. During this period they will attend seminars on immigrant workers and learn about what activities they will engage in. Once the preparation period is over, they will directly start tutoring immigrant workers. “We do not need anyone special,” Jin stated, “We just need someone who is willing to empathize with the immigrant workers and realizes that the social attitude is inappropriate.”a