Nov 1, 2008

World - Blind S Korea masseurs win case

A South Korean law which states that only the visually impaired can be licensed masseurs has been upheld in the country's Constitutional Court.

The licensed masseurs - who must be registered blind - have been protesting against moves to change the law.

They say it is a legal protection that provides many blind people with autonomy and an income.

Sighted masseurs said that the law infringed on free employment rights and criminalised them in their trade.

"The court decision is not only a verdict on our right to live but also a measure of South Korea's conscientiousness," said Lee Gyu-seong from the Korean Association of Masseurs.

Noisy protests

The group - which has about 7,100 visually impaired members - has led noisy protests over the court case, with some blind masseurs even jumping off bridges into the Han river which runs through Seoul.

The law goes back to 1912 when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule. The US military government abolished the protection in 1946 but it was reinstated in 1963.

South Korea's estimated 200,000 unlicensed masseurs said the law denied them the right to practise their trade.

Unlicensed masseurs can face heavy fines and even prison sentences, but they say there is high demand for their skills.

Although they won a 2006 court decision to overturn the law, parliament has now agreed to continue the monopoly for the blind as licensed masseurs.

"Massage is in effect the only occupation available for the visually handicapped and there is little alternative to guarantee earnings for those persons," said the Constitutional Court in a statement.

Welfare experts say that although the law helps blind people to make a living, it makes employers in other fields less likely to hire the visually impaired, thus adding to workplace discrimination.

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