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Korea scrambles to contain outbreaks among migrant workers

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)
The South Korean government is speeding up the process of testing foreign workers for COVID-19 as the number of confirmed cases rises, but language barriers and the presence of significant numbers of unregistered migrant workers are hampering its efforts.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun expressed concerns on Tuesday about the mass outbreaks reported at workplaces where many foreigners work, saying they could lead to a fourth wave of the pandemic.

He called on foreign workers to cooperate with the government’s inspections of quarantine conditions at workplaces, saying there would be no disadvantages for doing so even if they were not registered workers.

Gyeonggi Province, which has the largest number of foreign workers in Korea, issued an administrative order on Monday for foreign workers in the province and their employers to be tested for COVID-19 from March 8 to March 22.

Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung called for cooperation to increase the effectiveness of the quarantine, saying mass outbreaks continued to occur among foreign workers despite the efforts of the quarantine authorities.

In the province, mass infections of foreign workers have continued to occur in Yeoju, Gwangju, Pyeongtaek, Yangju and Dongducheon, starting with Namyangju in the middle of last month. As of Tuesday, foreigners accounted for 1,466 out of the 10,428 confirmed cases in Gyeonggi Province this year, or 14.1 percent, up 83.1 percent from the previous year.

About 85,000 foreign workers at 25,000 workplaces are subject to the administrative order.

Unregistered migrants will not be penalized for staying here illegally if they comply with the administrative order and undergo COVID-19 tests and isolation treatment during the specified period, the government said.

But if they violate the administrative order, they can face fines of 2 million won ($1,753) to 3 million won under the Infectious Diseases Prevention Act.

The spread of COVID-19 among foreigners is also on the rise in North Chungcheong Province. Since last month, 134 of the 361 COVID-19 patients in the province have been foreigners.

Mass outbreaks among foreigners have been reported at the region’s meat processing companies in Eumseong and Yeongdong since last month. Most of the workers are vulnerable to infection because they live in groups and work in enclosed, crowded environments.

The city government plans to conduct diagnostic tests on all foreign workers working in the province. There are 13,000 migrant workers in the region, and about 65 percent of them have been tested.

But the figure would probably surpass 20,000 if unregistered foreigners working at construction sites, farms and restaurants were included.

A city government official said, “Although we can’t test every foreign worker, we are trying to do for as many foreign workers as possible while overlooking whether they illegally stay. We plan to finish the inspection by this week by mobilizing all available personnel.”

Testing migrant workers will require more time and more personnel due to language differences.

Lee Soo-hyun, an official of North Chungcheong Province’s infection disease control division, said, “Because many workers are from various nationalities, we face difficulties in communication. We are conducting epidemiological surveys through interpretations and various channels.”

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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