A day in the life of a female Cambodian migrant worker on a perilla leaf farm in Gyeongsang Province begins at 6:30 a.m. She squats and picks the leaves, ties 10 of them into a bundle and then tosses it into a box. The process is repeated until 5:30 p.m. To meet the daily target of harvesting 15,000 leaves, equivalent to 15 cartons, she often skips bathroom breaks or even lunch breaks. If she misses the daily harvest target, her employer may threaten to cut her monthly salary, which is barely set at Korea’s minimum wage.
At the end of each day, the freshly-picked perilla leaves are sent to a cold storage warehouse and then to local grocery stores across the country, to be eventually served on Koreans’ dinner tables.
In her recent book titled, “Struggles with Perilla Leaves: 1,500 Days with Cambodian Migrant Workers,” scholar-activist Woo Choon-hee looks into the daily lives of foreign-born workers on perilla farms, a crop she views symbolizes the growing presence of foreign workers in Korea’s agricultural workforce.