One out of four foreign workers under the employment permit system whose visa has expired has become an illegal sojourner, the government revealed Friday.
Tougher regulations are expected but some experts said it was time to consider guaranteeing permanent residency for some skillful workers.
According to the ministries of employment and labor and justice, the number of people whose E-9 visas expired as of last year is 5,243. Of them, 3,775 have returned to their home country but 1,260 are assumed to be staying in Korea illegally.
Under the EPS, foreigners can stay in Korea for up to five years, which is the minimum sojourn period required to apply for permanent residency. Since the system’s adoption in 2004, the number of unregistered foreigners here has continued to soar.
The number of newly-recruited EPS workers for this year is set at 48,000, up about 14,000 from last year. If the current trend continues, more than 23,000 foreign workers may fall into illegal alien status in the next two years, the labor authorities estimate. Samsung Economic Research Institute previously made the prediction that the number could easily exceed 45,000 in the same period.
Illegal sojourners have become one of the most controversial issues in Korea. While they have been subject to crackdowns and criticism, they have also had sympathizers because of abuses by employers such as unpaid wages, passport confiscations and assaults.
Guaranteeing residency of their kin has also become a headache. From education to medical insurance and services, their legal status is a gray area.
In 2008, the government launched a five-year-plan to remove all illegal foreign workers. Last month, the labor ministry suggested even stricter regulations on businessmen who hire unregistered foreigners as they said the issue could not be resolved while some businesses hire illegal workers.
From July, Korean employers found to have foreign nationals working illegally will get a warning the first time they are caught, but will be handed a three-year ban on recruiting foreigners for a second offense.
The authorities will also reduce the quota for nationalities that violate their visa conditions in large numbers. Labor Minister Bahk Jae-wan met ambassadors of respective countries asking for support last month.
But others say the most practical way to solve the problem is to guarantee permanent residency for talented and skillful workers.
“EPS system does not guarantee job stability to foreigners who are willing to and are able to work in Korea for a longer period of time. If they refuse to go back to their countries, the system itself is meaningless,” Lee Han-sook, head of the Migration and Human Rights Institute, said in an interview with Yonhap News.
“If the government keeps receiving EPS workers without proper measures, the number of unregistered aliens will keep going up. It is better to acknowledge good workers as professionals and let them live without anxiety here,” she added.
By Bae Ji-sook (email@example.com