Government figures put the number of immigrant workers in Korea at about 710,000, including some 170,000 with illegitimate status. Without them, it would be difficult or even impossible to run factories of small manufacturers, farms and restaurants around the country.
Immigrant laborers, who usually work long hours under difficult conditions, should be regarded and treated as indispensable members of our society, not as mere foreign visitors. It is regrettable that many of them still suffer from delayed payment of wages and abusive treatment.
During the Lunar New Year holiday this week, immigrant laborers may feel more lonely, seeing their Korean colleagues spending time with family members and celebrating festively. This holiday season may serve as an occasion to reflect on the roles of foreign workers and the way they are treated.
In this regard, the story of a hospital exclusively for immigrant laborers in Seoul is encouraging. The hospital, run by volunteer medical doctors, has treated more than 400,000 workers for free over the past decade since opening in 2004. Initially, a church donated 300 million won ($278,000) to purchase the hospital building, an interior design company did the renovation work for free and a pediatrician closed his hospital to take charge of the facility.
Dozens of medical doctors have since volunteered there on alternate day and night shifts. They will continue to treat sick and wounded immigrant workers throughout the holidays.
This compassionate and accommodating attitude toward people who have different languages and appearances is what Korean society needs as it becomes increasingly multicultural. The number of foreign residents in the country, which has exceeded 1.4 million, is projected to reach 5 million by 2050, accounting for more than 10 percent of the population, according to government statistics.
The due treatment of immigrant workers will help enhance Korea’s image in their home countries. In this regard, Korean companies operating production facilities abroad, especially in less developed nations, must also improve their working conditions to meet global standards.