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Farmers facing serious shortage of seasonal workers

Restrictions due to virus leave thousands unable to travel

Mar 17,2020
Only one check-in counter at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport for flights bound for Korea is occupied amid travel restrictions over the coronavirus outbreak. [YONHAP]
A somewhat unexpected side effect of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Korea is the impact it’s had on the country’s agricultural industry which is suffering due to a lack of seasonal migrant workers who are facing tough travels restrictions.

“I don’t know what I have to do to make up for the lack of field hands,” said a farmer surnamed Jeong, who owns 6,100 square meters (1.5 acres) of farmland in Yeongyang County in North Gyeongsang.

Jeong had previously requested six migrant workers through a government program to work on his farm where he grows crops including Korean chili peppers and watermelons. If all had gone according to plan, the migrant workers would have arrived from Vietnam in April and worked in Korea for five months.

But with the outbreak of the new coronavirus, Vietnam had imposed travel restrictions on Korea, including a suspension of visa-free travel, a 14-day quarantine for anyone traveling from Korea and a travel ban on visitors from Daegu and North Gyeongsang. Due to these restrictions, flights from Korean airlines to major airports in Vietnam are effectively blocked.

The restrictions have led to the cancellation of flights, too.

Since March 7, Vietnam Airlines temporarily suspended flights to and from Korea, and as a result many seasonal migrant workers have been left without any travel options, forcing them to cancel their work plans in Korea.

Over 100 countries have either some kind of ban or quarantine measure on travelers from Korea.

Farmers like Jeong are dependent on these seasonal migrant workers, who often come from countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, and work for a short term during seeding and harvesting seasons.

In 2019, a total of 3,479 seasonal migrant workers arrived in Korea for short-term work in the agricultural industry. Out of these, 1,535 were from Vietnam, 1,142 were from the Philippines, and 233 were from China.

However, even before the coronavirus outbreak, the agricultural sector was continually troubled by labor shortages.

On Feb. 6, the Ministry of Justice formed a committee to screen and allocate migrant workers. The committee includes officials from the Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and is aimed at providing a solution to labor shortage in the agricultural sector.

Initially, before the first cluster outbreak of the coronavirus in Korea late February, the committee allocated 4,797 migrants across 48 communities around Korea. However, the migrant workers still have not been dispatched to Korea and their work visas are yet to be dispatched.

When the coronavirus outbreak actually hit Korea, it did not take Jeong and the other farmers long to realize the impending labor shortages and the consequences that could occur.

“In the spring planting period, I need a minimum of 20 workers,” Jeong said, “But due to the shortage I have no choice but to drastically reduce the output of the farm.”

The trend of illegal immigrants returning to their home countries due to the coronavirus scare has only strained farms further. According to Jeong, there are some farms that have halved their output to cope with this labor shortage.

If this problem persists for a long time, output will shrink but labor costs will rise. According to Jeong, in this scenario, there is no choice but for the price of crops to surge. Korea’s Ministry of Justice said it is aware of the labor shortage problems in the agricultural industry and the harm this issue could cause. The ministry has stated that it is currently working on a solution with all relevant authorities.

The first step will be figuring out how to get these workers to Korea.

Vietnam Airlines said in an official statement at the beginning of March, “We will resume flights to South Korean destinations when the epidemic is better controlled.”

Yeongju, a city in North Gyeongsang, was expecting a total of 93 seasonal migrant workers from the Thai Binh Province in Vietnam. When the representatives contacted officials in Thai Binh, asking when they would be able to send the laborers, the province responded that, “We plan on making the decision once we observe the coronavirus situation in Korea further.”

While Daegu and North Gyeongsang have been hit especially hard due to the travel bans placed on these areas, other areas in Korea are also on high alert due to the agricultural labor shortage.

North Chungcheong was expecting to hire a total of 548 laborers from Vietnam and 201 laborers from China to work in its fields this year. But with travel essentially suspended between Korea and Vietnam, along with China where the outbreak began, the agricultural industry in North Chungcheong is struggling with a labor shortage as well.

In the case of Jecheon in North Chungcheong, the city was expecting 96 laborers from Vietnam, the Philippines and Laos, but plans were suspended. Jecheon is home to a total of 51 farms, with cucumbers, apples and tobacco as staples in its economy.

Nam Dong-hyun, the head of the Jecheon government’s agricultural policy team, had noted that they are currently looking for laborers to replace the foreign migrant workers.

“Already, we can probably start expecting repercussions throughout our agricultural industry,” Nam said.

An agricultural association in North Gyeongsang said, “We have put out recruitment ads, but we still lack the necessary number of farmhands.”

Korean and Chinese farmers have historically developed an affinity for each other’s working style, leading many Korean farmers to prefer migrants from China. However, as the Korean agricultural industry can no longer rely on the usual countries such as China and Vietnam, it is now turning to other countries to bridge the labor shortage.

Some areas, such as Goesan County in North Chungcheong, have turned to Cambodia. It has recently requested 100 migrants to come and work on Korean farms.

But “because of the tight schedule, there is no guarantee that we will get all the workers that we need on time,” said a representative in the Goesan agricultural industry. “We might have to start calling each of the families in Cambodia individually.”

BY PARK JIN-HO, CHOI JONG-KWON [lee.joongi@joongang.co.kr]


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