The woman’s face brightened when the strong aroma of the dried fish reached her nose. It had been a while since Peukka (pseudonym) had tasted pollack.Dried pollack is a popular side dish in Peukka’s home of Cambodia, with a similar flavor profile to Korean jwipo, a seasoned jerky made of filefish. The fish can often be seen dangling above Cambodian marketplaces, strung up on lines.
This is the “soul food” that this 45-year-old eats whenever she feels homesick. She’s been in South Korea for eight years now, doing farming work.I’d met the Cambodian in a shipping container inside a greenhouse in a Seoul suburb. “We have to work even when we’re sick. We can’t take a break when we have a cold. The best thing to do when I’m feeling sick is to have some pollack and some watery rice,” Peukka said, as she flipped over the pollack in a frying pan.
The frying pan didn’t have a handle, so she had to hold it precariously with rolled up toilet paper. The hood above the stove was stained black from the smoke.
Peukka’s pollack had been brought to the farm by a coworker who’d returned from a trip to Cambodia the day before. A Southeast Asian market nearby sells the dried fish, but for three or four times the price back home. She wasn’t about to pay that much. Thanks to her coworker, though, Peukka was finally going to have a decent meal.
As everyone sat down for a Cambodian-style meal, a smile crossed Peukka’s face, as if she were back home. Except for the fact that she and her friends were in a shipping container, not a house, and that the floor was as cold as ice.
Peukka and her coworkers each make 1.7 million won (US$1,457) a month, though the owner of the farm deducts a monthly 250,000 won (US$214.24) in rent for their “dormitory.” As of July 2019, resident aliens are required to enroll in the national health insurance program, which, for the Cambodians, means paying a monthly premium of 112,850 won (US$96.71).
As of last year, Koreans working 40 hours a week for the minimum wage were pulling in 1,745,000 won (US$1,495) a month. Since these Cambodians are working for 11-12 hours a day and six days a week, they ought to be making much more, but they occupy a legal loophole.
When it comes to agro-livestock workers, Korea’s Labor Standards Act exempts farmers from the typical requirements for work hours, break time, and days off – almost as if they were being punished for getting a low score on the Korean language test.
“All the vegetables that are served on our table come from the hands of migrant workers. In rural areas of Gyeonggi Province, the only people you see on Sunday are migrant workers. Most of them come here to work when they’re full of youth and energy, in their twenties 20s and 30s, only to be replaced, like a used-up battery, after less than five years,” said Kim Dal-seong, a pastor involved in helping migrant workers.
According to the Ministry of Justice, there were some 28,000 migrant laborers like Peukka employed on Korean farms in 2018.