Foreign workers in many parts of South Korea are still being required to undergo COVID-19 testing even after Seoul withdrew its own order Friday.
Testing mandates remain in force in other regions, apparently due to less influence from white-collar foreign workers, who tend to be more vocal and active on social issues.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government on Friday withdrew its earlier order to require coronavirus testing for all foreign workers after facing backlash from diplomatic circles, communities of foreign residents and the human rights commission for being discriminatory.
Incheon on Saturday also backed down from its original mandate to have all foreign workers tested, instead recommending COVID-19 tests for foreign workers at business sites with five or more workers.
But Seoul and Incheon are the only regional governments to have withdrawn their testing mandates, and similar rules now require foreign workers to be tested by certain dates in several other regions across Korea.
The list includes the cities of Gwangju, Daegu and Ulsan as well as Gyeonggi, Gangwon, North Gyeongsang and South Jeolla provinces. Many of these areas depend largely on low-wage migrant workers to run their factories and farms.
These regions have not withdrawn their mandates yet, citing high risks of infection among foreign workers. They are enforcing the policies in opposition to what the state-run human rights commission recommended in criticizing mandates based on nationality.
“Policies that exclude or separate immigrants can cause negative perceptions and discrimination against immigrants, shake the foundation of social integration, solidarity and trust, and even lead to hate crimes based on race,” the National Human Rights Commission said in a statement Friday.
And deadlines are approaching for foreign workers in these regions, with heavy fines or other penalties in store for violators.
The closest deadline is in Gyeonggi Province, where close to 85,000 foreign workers were required to be tested by the end of Monday. The province had warned that violators could face fines of up to 3 million won ($2,660) and be held responsible for coronavirus transmissions and related costs.
Areas outside the capital region have also largely avoided media attention in enforcing these mandates. Relatively free from public criticism from media outlets and the international community, they are on track to test all their foreign workers by the end of this month.
Data shows that such mandates in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province came under greater attention due to the lower proportion of E-9 visa holders, or those employed “in fields that do not require people with qualifications or past careers,” according to the Justice Ministry.
E-9 visas are intended for workers who are here to perform manual labor to support industries and enterprises short of laborers, as many Koreans and Westerners avoid manual work.
The voices of these visa holders are also less likely to be heard, as most come from non-English-speaking communities. The E-9 visa is available to applicants from 15 countries throughout Central and Southeast Asia.
According to Statistics Korea data, 16 percent of E-9 visa holders are located in Greater Seoul, with Gyeonggi Province holding the most. They accounted for 1.2 percent of the foreign population in Seoul, 18.7 percent in Incheon and 25.7 percent in Gyeonggi Province.
E-9 visa holders accounted for 29.2 percent of all foreigners in other regions combined. Provinces with more rural areas had higher proportions of E-9 visa holders.
In response to the latest controversy, the government said it had asked local governments to ensure that no discriminatory practices or violations of human rights occur while running checks on foreign workers, but made no official order to adjust testing mandates on foreign workers.
“There are cases of work environments being too congested or infection risks being high from foreigner communities in certain areas,” said Son Young-rae, a senior Health Ministry official, in a press briefing Sunday.
“We are requesting that local governments test high-risk populations by considering the infection situation and vulnerability of each worksite.”
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org