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Labor unions slam government efforts to attract more foreign workers

Unions call for improved local labor conditions before bringing in more migrant workers

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Nov. 28, 2023 - 15:28

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Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon talks to foreign workers at HD Hyundai Heavy Industries headquarters in Ulsan on Nov. 24. (Yonhap) Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon talks to foreign workers at HD Hyundai Heavy Industries headquarters in Ulsan on Nov. 24. (Yonhap)

Two major umbrella unions in South Korea on Tuesday criticized the government’s latest efforts to bring more foreign workers into the country, saying that it should prioritize the “employment of Korean citizens.”

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which have an estimated 110,000 members combined, released separate statements protesting the government’s plan to increase the quota or E-9 visas for unskilled foreign workers.

“The government has given into employers’ wishes and demands to replace local jobs that face a chronic labor shortage with migrant workers,” the FKTU said.

“It is a decision that destroys and disrupts the local labor market instead of (looking for) ways to help Korean job seekers get new jobs,” it added.

The FKTU also criticized the current lack of protections for foreign workers here, saying that the latest plan overlooks the existing problems by merely focusing on bolstering the workforce without providing the necessary protections.

“The jobs that suffer from a labor shortage will be replaced with migrant workers, but there will be blind spots stemming from existing labor laws,” the FKTU explained.

The KCTU echoed its fellow umbrella union’s remarks, saying that the government’s employment policy update neglects the local labor community.

“We are expressing our concerns over the government’s latest move which turns a blind eye towards improving the wages and existing labor conditions for local workers in the industries struggling with a labor shortage,” it said in a statement.

“It is worrying that the government believes that simply hiring foreign workers will resolve the issue.”

Meanwhile, an expert recently forecast that Korea’s economy would see wider-reaching effects if it accepts an increased number of foreign workers without fully understanding the changes such an influx could bring.

“(Korea’s economy) will suffer bigger side effects when it accepts more unskilled migrant workers instead of utilizing the existing local workforce here,” said Kim Sun-bin, an economics professor at Yonsei University, during a lecture held at the Bank of Korea on Friday.

Kim's claims stem from data he compiled based on a prediction that an annual increase of 5 percent in the number of foreign workers aged between 25 to 44 will take place in the Korean workforce over the next 200 years.

He explained that Korea should fully consider the costs of accepting more migrant workers, including risks tied to the possibility of increased racial tensions.

“It’s a complicated issue because it involves a change in demographics. There are several costs that need to be considered.”

The Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Office for Government Policy Coordination on Monday announced its plans to launch a test trial to hire unskilled foreign workers in restaurants, forestry and the mining industry across Korea for the first time, starting next year.

The government also plans to increase its quota for E-9 visas for unskilled foreign workers next year by 37.5 percent to 165,000. The number represents the largest increase since Korea adopted the Employment Permit system in 2004 to address a chronic labor shortage.

Korea is currently grappling with the world's lowest birth rate and a rapidly aging population.