It's no secret that Korea is facing stark demographic challenges: statistics show that it will become the worlds most aged society by 2067. Just last year, the country's birthrate hit a new low (0.92) and the possibility of these numbers dramatically improving are unlikely for the foreseeable future.
Given this trend, the country will likely need to bring in labor from abroad to ensure continuous economic growth. But what can we learn from past experiences of migrant workers in Korea?
In reality, Korea is already bringing in migrant laborers (mainly from Southeast Asian countries) to work in agriculture, fishery, construction, manufacturing and other labor-intensive sectors through its much-lauded employment permit system (EPS) program. However, the results of this program have been questionable and even concerning.
Launched in 2004, the EPS has been bringing in a steady supply of foreign workers from sixteen countries for over a decade to fill low-skilled job positions. The government annually reviews labor shortages in each industry and then sets quotas to take in foreign workers based on employers' needs. These workers arrive in Korea with a contract, which initially allows them to work for up to three years, with the possibility of extension.
Legally, these workers are supposed to be treated the same as native Koreans. According to the EPS website, the "National Labor Relations Acts such as the Labor Standards Act, Minimum Wage Act, Industrial Safety and Health Act are applied to foreign workers and native Koreans equally." It also states that "Discrimination against foreign workers is banned as per Article 22 of the Act (Prohibition of Discrimination)."
But although this might sound good on paper, the EPS is riddled with problems and dangerous loopholes that have put migrant workers in vulnerable situations. According to the system, workers can only change workplace if they receive permission from their boss and those who leave their jobs without their employers' consent can be reported to the police as illegal immigrants which could result in them being deported.
Such rules have resulted in the abuse (physical, verbal, emotional) of many migrant workers over the years with some even referring to their plight as modern-day slavery. There are plenty of stories of migrant workers having their bank books kept by their employers, being paid less than they are owed, not being allowed to quit, being deprived of food, and many more terrible stories.
So, if Korea urgently needs these people, why are so many employers treating them so badly? To understand this, it's necessary to take a closer look at Korean society today. According to a study by Statistics Korea, Korean people hold a much more negative impression of mainland Chinese and Southeast Asian people than they do of westerners. This is a significant problem given that the vast majority of migrants come from other Asian countries.
According to the study, Koreans would prefer to see highly qualified immigrants from developed Western countries ― mainly Americans and Europeans. This approach is reflected in the existing legislation on naturalization, which makes it a much easier procedure for people who are highly educated and earn relatively high incomes.
These perceptions and legal rules, together with the EPS loopholes, are the main obstacles preventing Korea from being able to successfully run an ethical and effective labor immigration system. A major shift needs to happen in Korean society to stop racist behavior against foreigners ― no matter their country of origin ― in order to make programs like the EPS less likely to fail.
At the end of the day, migrants may suffer temporarily in Korea but it will be Koreans themselves who will suffer the long-term economic consequences of their intolerant behavior. This not only hurts the overall national economy but also negatively impacts Korea's soft power abroad. As more news stories about human rights abuses against foreign workers in Korea make their way to foreign media outlets, the image the world has of Korea could very well be stained.
Given the very high stakes, the government must put much more effort in educating its citizens about the benefits of diversity, a multicultural society, and the great benefits foreigners can bring to Korea. A simple way to start would be to offer compulsory education programs to future employers of migrant workers to make their legal obligations abundantly clear as well as implementing regular inspections at workplaces to ensure the safety and satisfaction of these workers.
If Koreans do not become more educated on the benefits of diversity their ignorance will continue to impede the long-term economic development of the country.
Gabriela Bernal is a student at the University of North Korean Studies.