Migrants Are Doing the Jobs South Koreans Sneer At

The system punishes undocumented workers but winks at their employers.

Workers clear snow in Seoul
Workers clear snow at Gyeongbokgung palace in central Seoul on Jan. 28. Ed Jones/AFP

In December 2020, Reuters reported that at least 522 Thai migrant workers in South Korea had died since 2015. According to the news agency, the vast majority were undocumented, and approximately 40 percent died of unknown causes; the other 60 percent died from health issues, accidents, or suicide.

On Jan. 4, South Korea’s Ministry of the Interior and Safety announced that the South Korean population officially declined for the first time, decreasing by 20,838 (0.04 percent) since 2019, making the 2020 total 51,829,023. This decline was caused by a 23,787 (0.09 percent) drop in the male population; the female population grew, but the rate of growth was just 0.01 percent, 0.09 percent down on last year.

South Korea’s population decline is a major contributing factor to its need for immigration, and that need is growing. However, major flaws in South Korea’s immigration policies for blue-collar workers create deadly vulnerabilities for the migrant workers they desperately need. These immigration policy flaws likely contributed to the deaths of many of the 522 Thai migrant workers.

South Korea’s economy has thrived since it joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1996—but its immigration policy issues have grown.

In the early 1990s, the economic stratification of the population between rural and urban areas brought in the first wave of marriage-based immigration to South Korea. Rural men quickly saw their marriage options dwindle as Korean women searched for better lives in major cities. The South Korean government sought brides for rural men and saw the Korean Chinese population in northeastern China as a solution. At that time, long before the switch to a “multicultural Korea” policy in the 2010s, immigration was chiefly aimed at bringing in ethnic Korean women.

During the 1990s, when the South Korean economy was drastically ahead of even first-tier Chinese cities, many Korean Chinese women also saw South Korea’s new immigration policies as an opportunity to enter the country for work opportunities. South Korean businesses had already lobbied the government to bring in migrant workers, but only marriage migrants were allowed. Therefore, many small businesses had few qualms with hiring marriage migrants who wanted to become undocumented workers.

Today, although there are legal ways to work in blue-collar fields as a migrant worker, many migrants workers in South Korea are still undocumented, since policies still fail to align with need. South Korea no longer has a domestic population able to meet its labor needs and not just because of simple population decline.

On average, young South Koreans are much more educated than previous generations and their OECD counterparts. In 2017, approximately 70 percent of South Koreans between the ages of 25 and 34 had a college degree—but they’re not keen to work for any but the biggest firms. They worry that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) may not follow labor laws and offer long hours for low pay and few advancement opportunities. Based on 2018 data, workers at SMEs are paid less than half of what their counterparts at chaebols (Korea’s largest corporations) make. Despite high rates of unemployment for young adults, many are unwilling to consider working in the areas where workers are most urgently needed.

South Korea’s SMEs mainly need workers in agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, and construction, among other blue-collar sectors, which is inherently mismatched with the employment expectations of South Korean young adults. Many of these positions are so-called 3D jobs—dirty, dangerous, and demeaning (or difficult). This increases young Koreans’ reluctance to pursue the positions. As reported by the Korean Herald in 2017, approximately 80.5 percent of SMEs in one poll said they were unable to find workers. SMEs also reported high attrition rates when they were able to fill positions locally.

This job skills mismatch has led South Korea to bring in migrant workers through its Employment Permit System (EPS) to work in SMEs that employ fewer than 300 employees. The system is explicitly aimed at sectors experiencing a severe labor shortage. However, it has numerous flaws.

Migrant workers who enter South Korea through the EPS are legally tied to their employer. They can change employers only with written consent from their current employer. Extending their stay of three years by another 22 months also requires employer consent. Exceptions to employer consent are made only if the worker has evidence of mistreatment or if the employer shuts down. Additionally, the EPS does not allow migrant workers to be accompanied by family members.

These rules make documented migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation. Their presence in South Korea and documented status are dependent on the honesty and kindness of their employer. If the employer decides to take advantage, there are often few recourses, as proving mistreatment can be challenging in an unfamiliar legal system. They also lack the emotional support provided by having family present.

There are many cases of documented migrant workers being underpaid, having their passport withheld, being forced to work unpaid overtime, or being verbally, physically, or sexually abused. In such cases, leaving their employer without consent often becomes their best choice to escape exploitation. However, leaving South Korea would mean forfeiting job opportunities and the ability to send money back home. This leads many to become undocumented migrant workers.

As undocumented migrant workers, they can change employers at will, which helps alleviate immediate exploitation and abuses. However, they become more vulnerable in other aspects. Undocumented migrant workers in South Korea have very poor access to health care services, usually relying on nonprofits for assistance. In addition, immigration officers from the Justice Ministry regularly conduct immigration raids that can lead to death, injury, and/or deportation along with being banned from entering the country for years.

There are currently 248,000 EPS migrant workers and approximately 398,000 undocumented migrant workers in South Korea. Many undocumented migrant workers initially enter South Korea on tourist visas or overstay previously issued work visas. Others hire brokers in their home countries who exploit them by charging high fees to make employment and living arrangements that often do not meet broker promises. If caught, their employers face few consequences.

These flaws have created a migrant workforce that is mostly undocumented and extremely vulnerable. The system encourages the use of undocumented migrant workers by SMEs, empowers SME employers, and disenfranchises both documented and undocumented migrant workers.

So why has South Korea created and maintained a system set up to disenfranchise the blue-collar workers it desperately needs? The system is meant to discourage the permanent settlement of blue-collar workers while still allowing the South Korean economy to benefit from their labor. It is a clash between policy based on economic need and societal pressures.

Many migrant workers in South Korea come from developing nations in Southeast Asia. In a recent study published by the Diplomat, 56 percent of respondents either strongly disagreed or disagreed with the South Korean government encouraging migration from Southeast Asia. Only 9 percent agreed or strongly agreed. South Koreans are still reluctant to encourage immigration.

South Korea is a mostly homogenous nation just beginning to court multiculturalism, with a mostly insular culture that rejects immigration, especially for unskilled laborers. Although the need for migrant work is seen as an economic necessity, the Korean public is mostly against the idea of accepting migrant workers on a permanent basis or including them as part of the fabric of Korean society.

For policymakers, there is little incentive or political will to improve the situation of documented and undocumented migrant workers. In tough economic times, there has even been pressure to do the opposite. There has been calls for harsher crackdowns on undocumented migrant workers. There have also been calls to legalize paying migrant workers less than the federal minimum wage.

However, there are signs that the dire situation for migrant workers in South Korea will improve. Young and educated South Koreans are more likely to support immigration regardless of ethnicity and to support improving rights for immigrants. This implies that over time South Korean society will become more hospitable to migrant workers, especially as they increasingly serve a critical economic need. Finally, migrant workers have started to organize and even created the Migrants’ Trade Union in 2005 to politically push for their rights. Increasing public support, increasing economic need, and the development of an independent voice of their own can eventually give the South Korean government the political push it needs to improve the current situation.

Monet Stokes is a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Tsinghua University. She focuses on policy, economics, and culture in East Asia.

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