Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Being Khon Phi as a Form of Resistance among Thai Migrant Workers in Korea

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Being Khon Phi as a Form of Resistance among Thai Migrant Workers in Korea

Article excerpt

This research note draws on "multi-sited" fieldwork on Thai--especially Thai-Isan--migrant workers overseas. It forms part of a large project that has included fieldwork not only in the Republic of Korea, conducted between 28 March and 27 April 2011 and between 9 April and 4 May 2013 and reported here, but also month-long trips for fieldwork in Japan (during November and December 1995, June 1996 and June 1997), Hong Kong (3-31 May 2008) and Taiwan (during October and November 2009).

The present note is a partial account of the second of my two separate month-long periods of fieldwork in a multicultural zone created by a Korean municipality for transnational migrant workers as part of a national policy for the management of migrant workers. The market block in this zone provides all necessary services--from foreign food, banking, health care, remittance services, facilities for workers to make claims and more. It also permits the Korean government to keep track of transnational migrant workers on their days off. Out of concern for my informants, I do not here give the name of the municipality in which this zone is located.

During my two periods of fieldwork in this setting, I lived and worked among Thai migrant workers. I also met and talked to many other people in this market town who understood English, where there were many young male and female workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and countries of the former USSR and Africa.

The publication here of English-language summary translations of my field notes without theoretical analysis is intended to inform the study of international labour migration in the Southeast and East Asian contexts. For reasons of space, I focus on the case of one illegal migrant worker from Thailand to present, whom I call "Nit Noi". This name, like all names used here, is a pseudonym.

   I am Nit Noi. I am fifty-six years old, a khon phi [literally ghost
   person, illegal migrant worker]. 1 came to work in Korea for
   the first time when I was about twenty-nine years old, after my
   Thai husband left me. [Following our divorce] I had to work
   to earn enough for myself, my son and my three-months-old
   daughter, whom I left under the care of my older sister and
   mother at my mother's home in Lam Luk Ka. (1) I was able to
   get a job in Korea because my older sister knew one Korean
   man who helped secure a job for me. I left Bangkok for Korea
   in 2526 [1983] (2)--after the worst floods in Bangkok history,
   if my memory serves me right. When I first came to Korea,
   I worked legally in a textile factory. My contract expired after
   a few years and then I worked illegally, [as] a khon phi, still
   in the textile factory. I got on well with the Korean thao kae
   [owner] of the small family-owned factory. There were two
   other Thais working in the same place, but I was a bit different
   from them because I tried to learn Korean in my workplace. 1
   was able to pick up some Korean. I lived in the factory dorm
   with the other two Thais, but they didn't learn any Korean even
   though they had joined the factory before I did. We got along
   okay, but I got along with the Korean thao kae better--I was
   able to translate any messages in Korean that he had for us.
   We were all khon phi, but still got the same monthly pay as
   we did when we were legal. The thao kae gave each of us a
   monthly rice ration, too. We cooked our own meals. We were
   happy to work and to send our money back home. Of course
   I sent my monthly income to my mother. I didn't make much
   money, but sent enough back for my mother to raise my two
   children. I wrote letters to my mother regularly then; there were
   no cell phones at that time. I wasn't really afraid of getting
   caught by the Korean immigration authorities, because it was
   such a small family factory that I worked in, but there was a
   risk for all us khon phi because we were there illegally. … 
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