Undocumented Workers: International Students As South Korea's Migrant Labor
One day in his elective class, Cương just couldn’t stay awake. Whenever the professor started talking, Cương’s eyelids started to feel heavy. His head dropped down to his desk, seemingly on its own.
The professor noticed. After class, Cương, an international student from Vietnam, explained to her that he had worked a 12-hour shift at his job, finishing at 8 a.m. that morning. In an annoyed tone, she lectured him about his responsibility as a student. She finished by telling him that he had a choice to make: school, or work. He couldn’t help but laugh. In that moment he realized how little the professor knew about his situation.
Cương is one of 132,000 university level international students in South Korea. Almost every country around the world is represented, but Chinese and Vietnamese students alone number over 80,000. Most of the remainder come from elsewhere in Asia.
International students are an attractive target for South Korean universities, as the number of domestic applicants continues to shrink due to extremely low birth rates since 2000 (currently one of the lowest in the world). Eight universities, all in the lower-tier outside of Seoul, have closed in the last six years due to a combination of government pressure and low enrollment, and the government is moving aggressively to close more.
Students come to South Korea for a number of reasons: an interest in the country inspired by hallyu (the popularity of South Korean music and drama), wanderlust, highly ranked universities, less competition in enrollment (in the case of many Chinese students) — and for students like Cương, access to the local job market.
“I’m here to work, not study,” said Cương, who is currently a first-year student in a rural university near the southwestern metropolis of Gwangju. He’s supporting his family back home and is saving money to start a business when he returns to Vietnam.
Savings brought from still-developing home countries often don’t go very far when brought to South Korea. Unless students qualify for substantial scholarships or have an exceptionally wealthy family, economics drives many students find part time work in order to make ends meet.
Wages in South Korea here are much higher than in most international students’ home countries. The comparison varies widely by country, but for foreign students from developing countries, earning an average full-time salary of 2.6 million won ($2,400) in South Korea would mean pulling in three times or more the money they would make in a similar job back home. That kind of money can go a long way for family back home.
Like their domestic peers, many foreign students seek part-time employment in restaurants or shops near their schools. These workplaces rarely offer more than minimum wage, but even that can be impossible to resist. South Korea’s hourly minimum wage is 7,350 won ($6.84). That’s more than fives times the hourly wage in Vietnam and double the average of China’s minimum (China doesn’t have a national minimum wage; each region sets it independently).
Visa rules allow undergraduate students to work as long as 20 hours a week during the school term and an unlimited number of hours between terms. Students in language training programs can apply for permission to work six months after the program starts.
There’s a flip side to higher wages, and that’s a higher cost of living. Temptations from high wages notwithstanding, the relatively high cost of housing, food and transportation is a major burden for many foreign students, as one Taiwanese student studying in the region surrounding Gwangju said.
“All of the foreign students at my school have jobs,” he said, and that includes even those who would rather focus solely on their studies. “The financial pressure is just too strong.”
The Taiwanese student found his first job at a factory through a Vietnamese student. “A classmate told me about an employment agency that specifically looks for foreign students.”
The community of foreign students is well-connected on social media. Older students tell newcomers what jobs are available — usually at restaurants — and introduce them to potential employers. Any student can find work, even if their Korean language ability is very limited.
Students hoping to earn more money than what a restaurant job provides look to factory work, like Cương has done. The pay at a factory is generally minimum wage, just as with a restaurant, but they offer much longer hours. Many factories operate around the clock, with workers often doing 12 hour shifts daily.
Small factory owners rely heavily on migrant workers to fill low-skill, low-pay positions. For these jobs, a government program called Employment Permit System (EPS) directly recruits a standing labor force of 300,000 migrants from nearby Asian countries. But with many regulations, paperwork, and overhead costs, the government program is a headache for employers. Employers are obligated to provide free housing, health coverage and other benefits, and the minimum contract term is three years.
So for a factory owner, employing a foreign student off the books nets them a young worker willing to do a hard job for long hours at minimum wage — with the added benefit of avoiding all the hassle of the government program. Employers don’t have to pay taxes and can ignore rules about minimum wage and maximum weekly working hours. They can also cut back hours or lay the student off without any repercussions.
“Applying for EPS is expensive and it takes a long time. They put you on a waiting list and you never know when you’ll be placed with an employer,” Cương said, echoing the sentiments of many EPS migrants I’ve interviewed in the past. So he opts for the easier, but riskier, way.
The working situation varies for each international student — but it’s not difficult to find students working two to three jobs or going well over the government’s limit of 20 hours.
One student, also from Vietnam, proudly told me that, through working daily shifts from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. at a dakgalbi restaurant (spicy stir-fried chicken), he paid for all of his living expenses and school tuition on his own. In a good month he even has extra money to send home to his family.
The government requires foreign students to report their workplace and a detailed weekly work schedule via their school’s international students office. Government rules also ban certain types of jobs, such as factory work.
Despite the regulation, none of the students I spoke with reported their jobs to their school. They don’t see much reason to, despite warnings from the school about illegal work. Not reporting gives them flexibility to work over 20 hours and freedom to change jobs as they choose.
What about studying? Keeping up with the demands of a full-time university program is already tough, but add a job with nightly shifts ending at 2 a.m. to the mix and it becomes much harder to keep all those plates spinning. Some students manage, but many students I talked to admitted that they often can’t help but sleep through class.
Teachers I spoke with at one university in South Jeolla Province said that absenteeism is a major problem with international students. The school’s attendance policy states that students fail if they don’t attend at least 75% of the lectures, but foreign students are given a free pass.
As one of the office staff put it, “I don’t know why, but the international students are ‘special students,’ just like students on sports scholarships or 4th-year students who’ve already found a job. We can give them low grades, but never an F. They can’t fail. The school needs them too much to let that happen.”
“After working a 12-hour graveyard shift every night, from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., I don’t have much energy left,” Cương said. When he has the energy to attend class, he puts in whatever effort he can, but his first priority will always be his job.
Cương arrived in South Korea in February of 2017, and in that same month that he arrived, he found a job at a factory that makes parts for air conditioners. The job is in an industrial park in nearby Gwangju. All of his co-workers, save the factory owner, are Vietnamese students, enrolled in other rural universities near Gwangju.
He doesn’t worry too much about being caught. The punishment is just a fine, not deportation, and the police don’t give him any reason for concern. “The police know about our factory but don’t care. A crackdown would only happen if a citizen files a complaint about illegal workers at our factory.”
All sources in this story spoke on the condition of anonymity both for themselves and their respective schools. Cương spoke through an interpreter.
Cover image: A university campus in Seoul (of no relation to this story). (Credit: Eugene Lee)