It has been 10 years since the employment permit system was introduced to solve problems with the previous scheme for allowing low-skilled foreign laborers to work in Korea. As of June, about 470,000 foreigners were working here legally under the system adopted in August 2004.
It has let public institutions in 15 countries that signed an agreement with the Korean government select and send workers here, replacing the industrial trainee system run by private agencies. Under the previous scheme, which was put into practice a decade earlier, applicants had to pay excessive fees to get an opportunity to work in Korea, increasing the number of illegal workers here.
The employment permit system has resulted in lower costs for foreign laborers and greater protection from other types of exploitation. Over the past decade, the proportion of foreign workers who ended up staying illegally in the country also decreased from 80 percent to 15.7 percent.
Immigrant laborers have filled difficult and low-paid positions shunned by local workers, becoming a key part of the work force and helping shore up the Korean economy. While most of them are hired by small and medium-sized manufacturing companies, their role is also growing in agricultural and fisheries sectors.
It is welcome that a growing number of foreign workers have achieved the Korean dream, consolidating the foundation of a bright future for themselves and their families back home through their work here.
The employment permit system deserves some credit for this desirable phenomenon. Still, a stronger effort is needed to maximize the benefits foreign workers bring to the economy and enhance their working conditions and treatment.
More incentives should be given to encourage foreign laborers to stay at a workplace for a longer period, rather than job-hopping during their stay here. It is also necessary to strengthen education on the Korean language and customs before they come to Korea.
The country has reached a point of considering accepting immigrant workers more aggressively as its workforce is projected to shrink in the coming decades, with its birthrate plunging and population aging at the fastest pace in the world. It is forecast that by 2030 each elderly person in Korea will be supported by 2.7 workers. This circumstance calls for a more active immigration policy beyond just increasing the number of foreign workers entering the country for a certain period of employment.