The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Policy on foreign workers

Government to allow more migrant workers amid concerns over side effects, labor issues

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 30, 2023 - 05:30

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The South Korean government plans to allow a record 165,000 nonprofessional migrant workers in 2024, in a bid to tackle the growing labor shortage across various industrial sectors. But the expansion should be implemented together with proper measures to minimize side effects.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor announced the plan based on the Employment Permit System on Monday in response to the deepening labor shortage problems in a wide range of fields.

Under the plan, the government will expand the industries where foreign workers arriving here on the E-9 visa can work. Nonprofessional E-9 visa holders will be allowed to work in the restaurant, mining and forestry sectors from next year. Until now, their workplaces have been limited to the agriculture, fishing, manufacturing and construction sectors.

The government has been trying to meet rising demand for migrant workers in recent years. The number of foreign workers entering Korea as E-9 visa holders stood at 52,000 in 2021, before substantially rising to 69,000 in 2022 and 120,000 this year.

The government’s decision to allow for 165,000 nonprofessional migrant workers next year -- almost tripling the number in three years -- illustrates the depth of the labor shortage, especially for small and medium-sized companies.

As of September, there were 215,000 unfilled jobs. The manufacturing sector, for instance, needed some 57,000 new workers. The shipbuilding sector, which is seeing decade-highs in new orders, is desperately seeking to hire workers -- so much so that shipbuilding firms are reportedly considering building factories overseas.

The retail sector is also in a similarly severe labor shortage, with the government data suggesting that 20,000 workers should be newly hired. The trend indicates the labor shortage is quickly spreading throughout the industrial and service sectors.

The share of migrant workers in domestic industries is expected to rise in the coming years due to a shortage of local workers, reflecting a demographic shift marked by a plunging birth rate and rapidly aging population. The influx of migrant workers is inevitable, as demonstrated by the same phenomenon in Japan, which has sought to attract foreign laborers since 2019.

But there are important issues that policymakers have to resolve in connection with the expansion of E-9 visa holders. The Employment Permit System is largely designed to fill job vacancies in sectors where working conditions are challenging and remuneration is relatively low. Some critics say the government is trying to prescribe a quick fix rather than implementing a long-term initiative such as improving labor conditions in the related sectors to draw more local job seekers.

There is no doubt that more Korean workers could apply for the previously shunned workplaces if working conditions, including safety standards, improve and higher pay is offered.

The labor market should be nurtured in a way that strikes a balance between local and foreign workers. If small enterprises rush to hire migrant workers to cut labor costs only, their long-term productivity is bound to suffer.

After all, many E-9 visa holders tend to work in poor labor environments with low pay, and they leave their initial registered workplaces as soon as they find a new job with better pay -- even in violation of legitimate contracts and the Employment Permit System.

This is why policymakers have to deal with the surging number of unregistered migrant workers. There are reportedly around 430,000 migrants working here illegally, amid concerns about labor law violations, human rights infringement and social conflicts.

Korea is set to become a multiracial country in 2024, as the percentage of foreign residents will reach 5.1 percent, according to a report released last month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The government must introduce long-term policies to improve overall working conditions, enhance public perception about foreign workers and embrace them as members of a multiracial and multicultural Korean society.