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[Herald Interview] What would Yoon presidency mean for migrant workers?

Group leader calls out incoming president’s lack of interest in plight of foreign laborers

Domestic news is all about President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol and his plans for the next five years at South Korea’s helm.

But Udaya Rai, who leads Migrants’ Trade Union in Korea, finds little clues as to how the country would be different for his fellow migrant workers who fill the “3D” jobs -- dirty, dangerous and difficult -- which are often shunned by locals.

The president-elect’s image as being anti-foreigner and his apparent lack of interest in their rights doesn’t help create anticipation for the incoming leader among immigrant communities here, he said.

“There is a concern (among the immigrant workers) that Yoon administration may be more pro-business (compared to Moon Jae-in administration), which could lead to a deterioration in workers’ rights,” Rai told The Korea Herald in an interview.

Yoon, a political novice who won the election on the conservative opposition People Power Party’s platform, has made a strong impression among foreign residents here when he said on social media that he would “resolve the issue of foreigners laying their spoon on a dinner table set by Koreans.”

He used the phrase to call out subscribers to the National Health Insurance Service who unfairly benefit from the scheme by registering their foreign family members living outside Korea as beneficiaries.

Concerns about foreign nationals, typically of Korean descent, coming to Korea to use its public health insurance and leaving immediately after treatment has long been a gripe among some in Korea.

Legislation passed in 2019 sought to stop this by requiring foreign subscribers to live in Korea for six months before being able to sign up, among other measures.

Yoon said he would plug a loophole in the 2019 law that still allowed immediate coverage for dependents.

But new dependents are a tiny minority of foreign subscribers.

Overall, data shows that foreign nationals were net contributors to the national insurance scheme, paying an accumulated 1.19 trillion won ($980 million) more than the amount they received in benefit in the space of 2018 to 2020.

Yoon has not retracted this pledge, nor has issued a statement.

Rai said by saying such a thing, Yoon may have intended to “alienate immigrant workers” from Koreans and to “increase his support to get elected.”

Yoon’s controversial pledge to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is also an immigration issue.

As well as advocating for women’s rights, the ministry has been overseeing support for multicultural families.

It is unclear how Yoon plans to realize the pledge. After an announcement that the abolishment plan was on hold, Yoon nominated Kim Hyun-sook, a member of his transition team, to be the new gender minister on Sunday. 

Members of the Migrants’ Trade Union hold a protest for enactment of the anti-discrimination law in Seoul in this March 20 file photo. (Yonhap)
Members of the Migrants’ Trade Union hold a protest for enactment of the anti-discrimination law in Seoul in this March 20 file photo. (Yonhap)


Last week, amid discussion about what to do with the ministry, the National Multicultural Cities Council comprising 24 governors and mayors in Korea recommended to the presidential transition committee that a new government organization be created to focus on affairs related to the foreigners and immigrant community in the country.

This would include comprehensive supervision of policies for multicultural families and immigrant workers, which are currently divided between the Gender Equality Ministry and the Ministry of Employment and Labor.

The council said in its recommendation that it hopes the new body, if created, would work to eliminate the negative perception toward and discrimination against immigrants in Korea.

According to the Ministry of Interior and Safety, the total number of immigrants in the country was tallied at 2.14 million as of 2020. This includes 1.69 million people without Korean citizenship, 199,128 people who have acquired citizenship and 251,977 children born to immigrant parents. South Korean law states that those born in the country to non-Korean parents must go through the naturalization process after becoming an adult to acquire Korean citizenship.

The number of immigrant workers in 2021 was 850,500, according to Statistics Korea, compared to 21 million Korean workers.

In the interest of eliminating discrimination against the immigrant population, the migrant workers’ union, along with many other minority groups and local human rights advocates, has been calling for the enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law.

“In order to stop hatred against the immigrants, there needs to be a legal definition of what is considered a discrimination, but there isn’t. Immigrant hate (in Korea) is getting worse each year, and there must be legal systems to stop racial hate and discrimination,” Rai said, stressing the importance of a social system and bill against unfair treatment of immigrants.

Four bills are currently pending at the National Assembly that intend to specify the definition and punishment against discrimination based on race, gender, country or place of origin and ethnicity. But none are being discussed by lawmakers, and bills in previous Assemblies have failed to make headway.

Yoon’s presidency is unlikely to provide any momentum to their passage.

The former public prosecutor has opposed the idea of enacting a law to punish discrimination on several occasions, saying such a law could have a negative impact on local jobs or individual freedom of expression.

According to a 2020 report by the National Human Rights Commission, 44.7 percent of immigrants in Korea experienced some level of discrimination based on their race, but it showed that 48.9 percent of them refrained from taking any action.

“This shows that they (immigrants) feel that the structural discrimination of the society works against them, and there is no reliable process to help them,” the report said.

Rai pointed at the November ruling of the Constitutional Court that upheld the requirement of workers under the Employment Permit System to get consent from their employers before switching workplaces. He said the system undermined foreign workers’ rights.

“Employers know that immigrant workers must stay at their workplace no matter what, without their consent. They have all the rights while immigrant workers have only the responsibility to work,” he said.

Rai stressed that the immigrant workers will continue to push for enactment of the anti-discrimination bill and abolishment of the Employment Permit System during the Yoon administration.

“Our demands remain the same: to be able to live as people, as workers, with our due rights. The discriminatory system must change and the new law must be enacted,” he said. “I don’t think South Korea can truly be considered a ‘developing country’ based on (the state’s) wealth alone. All members of the society must have their due rights, and be able to live equally.” 


By Yoon Min-sik
(minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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