WANJU, North Jeolla Province -- Jossa Gomez Lobo, a 29-year-old from the Philippines came to Korea last month for a six-month seasonal working program at a strawberry farm in Wanju, North Jeolla Province.
"I came here to earn money. I can only earn 450 Philippine pesos ($8.22) per day as a daily wage in the Philippines, but in Korea, I can earn the same amount of money in an hour. That's why I came to Korea,” she said while picking strawberries.
Her wish to make money matched well with Wanju’s demand for workers, as the farming county has been struggling with a manpower shortage. Young Koreans left the town for cities, and the town has no future generation to carry on its farming business. According to the North Jeolla Office of Education, 23 elementary, middle and high schools in the province had zero first-year students this year. In addition, 27 schools also had fewer than 10 first-year students.
Jossa is one of the 25 foreign seasonal workers who came to Wanju in February through agreements signed between the county and several Filipino cities.
While in Wanju, she has agreed to live in the strawberry farm owner’s house by July with a monthly salary of 2 million won, in addition to accommodation and meals.
The farm owner, Kwon Seung-hwan, said he is happy to get a foreign seasonal worker this time, because they are really difficult to hire -- at least through legitimate and state-backed channels.
“Wanju has only old people now and young Koreans in the city do not want to work in rural areas. Without foreign seasonal workers, harvesting is almost impossible,” he said.
According to the Justice Ministry, there were 3,612 foreign seasonal workers in 2019, but that skyrocketed to 19,718 in 2022. The Justice Ministry allocated 26,788 people in the first half of this year, which is 2.2 times more than last year's 12,330.
Wanju plans to bring 131 additional seasonal workers in the first half of this year, including Jossa's group which had 25.
Farmers in Wanju, want even more workers than that. But officials say it’s difficult to quickly increase the number of seasonal workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the flow of workers to South Korea, and a lack of administrative capacity makes the job still harder. At municipalities in Korea, just one or two civil servants take responsibility for as many as hundreds of foreign seasonal workers.
But the most serious problem is that even in the state-sponsored program, the involvement of brokers often results in the workers absconding, according to insiders.
"Most of the municipalities have signed MOUs with local governments from sending countries overseas, but since they are developing countries, brokers are involved during the selection process due to corrupt civil servants (there)," a municipality official said on condition of anonymity.
He cited the example of a Filipino worker in his district who absconded last year. It turned out that he had to pay a broker about 10 million won as a down payment to come to Korea as a seasonal worker, he said.
"Even if he worked as a seasonal worker for five months, he could barely make the down payment," he added, pointing out that by working illegally, he can stay longer and charge up to 4 million won per month -- double the wage farms have to pay in accordance with the local authority agreements.
According to Rep. Cho Jung-hoon, 56.5 percent of foreign seasonal workers who entered South Korea last year absconded.
A foreign resident in Seoul who has worked with migrants on immigration issues said he had seen firsthand brokers' involvement in seasonal workers. He said workers who abscond to pay brokers' down payment usually spend years in Korea.
"They become illegal residents automatically, but can also seek refugee status, which also has brokers involved in the application process," he said.
Therefore, experts point out that specialized centers dedicated to recruiting foreign seasonal workers is needed so that brokers cannot get involved.
To tackle the rapid population decline in rural areas, the Justice Ministry launched another visa system to revitalize the countryside last year -- the Regional Specialized Visa. The new visa system supports foreigners' settlement in depopulated rural regions, but the visa holders can’t move around for the first five years.
When they reside for more than five years, maintaining their jobs in the designated area, a resident visa can be issued. It allows them to continue living in South Korea. Currently, it is implemented in nine cities and provinces and 28 counties. North Jeolla is the most active province to issue.
“It seems to be there is no alternative but to revitalize the rural regions with foreign immigrants in reality," an immigration officer spoke to the Korea Herald on condition of anonymity.
The officer also added that those immigrants who entered South Korea with regional specialized visas are expected to eventually move to larger metropolitan cities after the mandatory residence period ends, to be replaced by other foreign workers.
"Korea's agricultural, manufacturing, and service industries do not work well without immigrant workers. Korea is rapidly changing into an immigration state regardless Korean people want it or not."
This is the first installment of a series of features, analysis and interviews exploring the challenges faced by Koreans and foreigners in creating a more diverse society in South Korea rapidly shifting away from its homogenous past. The series will look into the experiences of growing immigrant communities, policy and private efforts being made to integrate them into Korean society. – Ed.