How Ali from 'Squid Game' is making migrant worker exploitation in Korea more visible

·5 min read

As Korean horror drama “Squid Game” has the entire world hooked to their Netflix accounts, a lesser-known diaspora is coming to the mainstream. Thousands of Pakistanis have existed in South Korea for decades, but the character Ali Abdul, played by Indian actor Anupam Tripathi, is now making their stories visible to a global audience.

Ali, a migrant factory worker whose boss withheld his pay for months, is forced to leave his wife and baby to take his chance at winning millions in the deadly games.

Upon the show’s release, Tripathi’s character immediately became a fan favorite.

“We felt that it will be received well, but when it became a phenomenon and sensation, it was not expected — I was not prepared,” Tripathi told Variety.

Over the last week, debates about his portrayal have gone viral, with some saying his subservient way of speaking — constantly referring those around him as “sir” — makes them uncomfortable. Others say that’s just a reality for migrant workers up against abuse and barriers in the country.

“Please explain why Squid Game portrays the only non-Korean main character as a brown-skinned man who the entire time snivels in ‘sirs,’ gratitude, sacrifice, and subservience,” one person tweeted.

“South Asian are just taught from a young age to be selfless and caring,” another said. “We’re a collective society that unfortunately gets often exploited.”

CedarBough T. Saeji, assistant professor of Korean and East Asian studies at Pusan National University in South Korea, said it’s a combination of both. To understand how Ali is written, she said, it’s important to know how he got there.

Foreign immigrants were first allowed into South Korea in 1993, when the country’s rapid development made it impossible to fill all the blue-collar jobs in manufacturing, construction and agriculture. “Industrial trainees” began coming to the country from other places in Asia seeking better opportunities.

“The situation they were dealing with was incredibly exploitative,” Saeji told NBC Asian America.

Employers would pay them very low wages and sometimes even seize their passports and pay them nothing at all. Since their visas were tied directly to their companies and there were no foreign-language options for reporting exploitation, they often had no options. Isolation, small living quarters and dangerous work environments were constant realities.

Many would move to other companies in hopes of better conditions, only to find that they had become undocumented because their visas no longer applied to their new employer.

“They became this illegal underclass in Korean society,” Saeji said.

Organizing in the early 2000s led many migrant workers to learn Korean and push for better conditions. More protection laws were passed, but these conditions along with rampant anti-immigrant sentiment still exist.

Pakistani immigrants don’t even rank in the top 20 largest foreign populations in South Korea. The country with the most immigrants is China, with over 1 million residents in the country, followed by Vietnam and Thailand, each with over 200,000. Pakistan’s immigrant numbers sit around 13,000, but Saeji noted their struggle reflects that of the larger migrant laborer population.

A Southeast Asian character, Player 276 (portrayed by Filipino actor Christian Lagahit), appears on "Squid Game" and befriends Ali in the fourth episode.

Chung Ki-seon, a researcher at Seoul National University, predicted that the need for migrant labor is only going to increase as the Korean population ages and shrinks — especially in the labor-intensive agriculture industry, where more and more foreign and undocumented workers continue to be used.

“The approximate age of the [Korean] people working the fields right now is over 70,” she told NPR this year. “And once they reach 75 or older, it will be hard for them to remain in the workforce.”

Though she said that need is being recognized in government and policy is beginning to change, it’s still very difficult for migrant workers to become citizens. South Korea has more than 392,000 undocumented workers, and their conditions are bleak.

Korean officials promised reform earlier this year after a 31-year-old Cambodian farm worker died on the job. Field workers are often left to sleep in plastic shipping containers or unventilated huts, The Associated Press reported, where the woman died.

Though Saeji noted that Ali speaks near-perfect Korean, she guessed he is undocumented, given his inability to fight his wages being withheld by reporting his boss. The formality of the way he speaks is another tell of his situation, as it’s common for foreigners who have learned the language in the context of speaking to their exploitative employers.

“He’s being eloquent, but he’s also playing into this person who’s been abused,” she said. “He’s trying so hard to not anger anybody, even though he’s in this desperate situation.”

Korean media has long perpetuated the stereotype of the migrant worker as a simpleton with broken language and exaggerated mannerisms, and Saeji said Ali doesn’t completely transcend that.

“He’s definitely not going beyond the role that has been given to foreign factory workers,” she said. “He’s still stuck in that narrative. But on the other hand, if he isn’t working for an exploitative boss, if he isn’t out of money, then why would he be doing this game?”

The most unrealistic part of Ali’s story for Saeji is that he brought his wife and son with him from Pakistan.

“It’s nearly impossible to be able to bring a family in on any of these kinds of visas,” she said.

Attachment to Ali and sentiment over the way he left the show has continued since its release, with viewers declaring their sympathy and love for him online. He won over audiences for a reason, Saeji said, and his story resonated with a lot of people. It unearthed for the public the reality of a situation that isn’t often seen.

“It’s really hard for non-Koreans in this country to get past a certain level,” she said. “It’s just a horrible situation.”

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