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December 1996, Volume 3, Number 12

South Korea Contends with Foreign Workers

The South Korean government plans to import 1,500 skilled foreign workers from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines in 1997 for the construction of Inchon International Airport in northern South Korea. This will be the first time that skilled foreign workers have been admitted to South Korea by either a private or public agency.

South Korea plans to bring in 3,000 more skilled foreign laborers in 1998 and about 2,000 in 1999 to work on the airport.

South Korean businesses are struggling to find workers for the 3-D (dirty, difficult and dangerous) jobs. Up to 50 percent of an employer's workers can be industrial trainees. However, many of the trainees escape from their employers because they can earn more than trainee wages as illegal workers.

There are an estimated 170,000 foreign workers in Korea, including 70,000 to 110,000 illegal foreign laborers.

Korea plans a third crackdown on illegal foreign workers, after two previous crackdowns resulted in the removal of 8,500 illegal aliens over the past 12 months. The crackdown will focus on restaurants and places of entertainment, not factories, reflecting, an official said, recognition of labor shortages in manufacturing.

The national fishing cooperative says there are 53,000 coastal fishing jobs and only 42,000 Korean fisherman. The Korea Federation of Textile Industries cannot fill nearly 15 percent of its jobs, up from 12 percent in 1995. About 20 percent of heavy manufacturing jobs are vacant at small- and medium-size businesses. Some sectors, such as plastics and electrical machinery, are short 30 percent of their desired work force.

Foreign workers in South Korea complain that the biggest problems for them are poor living and working conditions, substandard wages and employer abuse. Koreans managers are notorious for mistreating workers, both at home and in Korean-owned factories abroad.

In August, 1996, a Korean manager of a Korean-owned shoe factory in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City received a suspended prison sentence for lining up and beating employees with an unfinished shoe. Corporal punishment was accepted in Korean work places until the 1970s.

The Korean government has announced plans to improve local training programs for foreigners, cracking down on immigrants who commit crimes and establishing a new system to track and supervise foreigners throughout their stay in Korea.

South Korea promised to change its labor laws when it joined the OECD in 1996 and became a full member of the ILO in 1991. A 1963 law limits each work place to one union, one union per industry and one national union confederation, the Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), thereby making the activities of the rival Korean Congress of Trade Unions unlawful.

A 1980 law bars non-employee organizers from assisting a plant union and a third law prevents teachers and civil servants from joining unions. Hundreds of union activists are in jail for violating these laws.

Korean employers complain that rigid labor laws limit their flexibility. Workers can be dismissed only "for cause" and discharged workers are entitled to 30 days severance pay per year of service.

South Korea is a country of 44 million, with a per capita GDP of about $11,000 in 1996. Seoul, which is only 30 miles from North Korea, is home to one-fourth of all South Koreans.

Pauline Jelinek, "Influx of foreign labor leads to harsh lessons for South Korean Bosses," Los Angeles Times, November 10, 1996. "South Korea to import skilled foreign workers," Xinhua News Agency, November 5, 1996. "Crackdown on illegal foreign workers looming," Agence France Presse, October 28, 1996.