South Koreans are infamously impatient. The country zipped through a spectacular makeover from a dirt-poor, post-war agrarian society into a manufacturing superstar. True to its national temperament, it is now aging faster than any other country thanks to one of the world’s lowest birth rates. From the economy to the military—which relies on conscripts to fill its ranks—the situation spells disaster for the country. It has also laid bare South Korea’s reliance on an authorized nationality-based system of quasi-slavery, which has forced foreign laborers to exist on the margins of the society, even though they play a vitally important economic role.
Globally and historically, immigrants have been an engine of growth. They comprise three percent of the world’s population, but contribute to more than nine percent of global GDP. They put more money into the pension system than they take out. They integrate. And without immigration, for example, the U.S. economy would have grown 15 percent less between 1990 and 2014.
South Korea, too, has recognized the importance of migrant labor. Since the early 1990s, the country has employed an increasing number of low-skilled migrant workers to toil away in factories, on construction sites and farms older South Koreans are retiring from and young South Koreans shy away from. In 2016, there were over one million economically active migrants. They work in harsh and dangerous conditions, and cannot bring their families. Police raids have led to deaths and injuries of foreign workers.
This is all because the so-called “guest worker” program—or the Employment Permit System (EPS)—is designed to keep migrant laborers second-class citizens and prevent them from settling down permanently. The EPS is an official tool that enables employers to exploit migrant workers. It has also exacerbated racism and xenophobia against those from poor countries and who have darker skin.
The EPS is a government program that’s designed to meet the needs of small- and medium-sized businesses for low-skilled workers. Launched in 2004 to replace the Industrial Trainee Scheme—which brought in migrant workers, as the name implies, as “trainees” who weren’t paid full wages—it is based on a bilateral arrangement between South Korea and the governments of 15 “developing nations” in the region, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. The program has many flaws, including giving too much power to employers, which leads to a host of human rights abuses.
The ETS migrant workers cannot change employers without the latter’s permission. Technically, South Korean labor laws apply to them as well, but in practice they earn less than the minimum legal wage and are often forced to work overtime without pay. And many migrants work on farms and fisheries, which are exempt from regulations on overtime and holidays by Article 63 of the Labor Act.
In addition, they can stay in South Korea only up to four years and 10 months, which means they cannot qualify for permanent residency, which is available to legal residents of five years or longer. They cannot claim their pension contribution and severance pay until after leaving the country, and many employers withhold the amount, knowing that workers cannot easily file claims from abroad. There is no shortage of horror stories of migrant workers being abused. But the victims feel that they cannot complain for fear of losing their jobs and therefore their visas, when their families back home rely on remittances.
There has been plenty of condemnation of this arrangement from the international community. In December 2018, the UN criticized the severe and systemic racism and discrimination in this system, to no avail. And shockingly, racial discrimination is not illegal in South Korea. The comprehensive anti-discrimination bill, which would protect everyone including racial and sexual minorities, has been stuck at the National Assembly since 2007 due to opposition from conservative groups, especially the Evangelical community. In 2014, the UN’s special rapporteur on racism called on the South Korean government to pass the bill and ratify the international convention to protect migrant workers. The UN is still waiting.
A legal and institutional framework to protect the rights of migrant workers is important because it’s the only way they can begin to integrate into the society as equals, not to mention make South Korea attractive as a destination for legal migrant labor, which the country desperately needs.
Immigration opponents everywhere argue that foreign laborers steal jobs from native workers. In fact, the opposite is true. During the Asian Financial Crisis, even as unemployment rates soared among South Koreans, the demand for low-skilled migrant workers remained strong—so much so that the government ended up inviting even more foreign workers. In the U.S., immigrant workers have had the effect of bumping up native workers for opportunities higher up the ladder. Employers, harnessing the advantage of immigrants’ cheap labor, invested in new businesses, which increased productivity and reduced price.
The ETS is ultimately a temporary worker program being used to address the country’s long-term and structural labor shortage. That the South Korean government—administration after administration regardless of its ideological orientation—sees this temporary worker program as an integral part of the country’s labor policy, separate from immigration and social agenda, is alarming. It’s also naive because they are repeating the unfortunate legacy of Western Europe’s guest worker programs. Many of the guest workers inevitably stayed on, which, in the absence of proper integration policies, led to economic and social crises.
Sadly, integration is not South Korea’s strong suit. A half of its population—women—have yet to find equal footing on the labor market, given the country’s enduring problem of gender inequality.
The failure to integrate “others” is a massive shortcoming in today’s interdependent world. The only way to not fall behind as a country is keeping oneself as open as possible. Yet South Koreans cling to anachronistic pride of being a racially “pure” nation. This myth has been spread not least by the government itself, which has promoted for decades a false view of racial and cultural homogeneity in school curriculums and politics. Predictably, the first non-ethnic Korean member ever of the National Assembly became the country’s “one of the most hated women” solely because of her Filipino heritage.
The fact is that the nation of one blood, if it existed at all, is no more. Between 2007 and 2015, the number of racially-mixed families doubled, totaling 820,000, thanks to marriage migrants (many South Korean men have taken to marrying women from other parts of Asia). In 2017, more than five percent of children born in South Korea were of mixed heritage. Diversity is already here.
Some South Koreans say that they don’t have enough land or natural resources to share with immigrants, and South Korea is indeed one of the most densely-populated countries. But Lebanon, a Middle Eastern country one tenth the size of Korea with a population of four million, has let in one million Syrian refugees since 2011. A quarter of the population is refugees. If Lebanon can manage, surely South Korea can.
By 2060, South Korea might need as many as 15 million immigrants to maintain growth. By 2065, more than 40 percent of the population would be over 65. Currently, five workers support one elderly person by paying into the national pension fund; in 50 years, the ratio would be 1:1.
Given this context, migrant workers are a long-term solution to South Korea’s demographic deficits, not an interim stop-gap for labor shortage to be discarded later. The government should support their integration into society and give them a path to full citizenship. Years ago, South Korea, too, dispatched workers around the world as an economic lifeline. It takes pride in the legacy of miners and nurses who went to Germany and the construction workers in the Middle East. This is all the more reason the country should recognize that immigrants are not harmful, but that fear of immigrants is. If South Korea can remember this, it might have a chance to dismantle that ticking demographic time bomb before it explodes.
Or the alternative is the path of slow death.
Cover image: a July 2019 demonstration by the Migrants’ Trade Union (MTU) against the treatment they receive in South Korea (source: MTU – Migrants’ Trade Union Facebook page)