[MINORITY VOICE]Treat foreign trainees fairlyThe government recently said it will modify the foreign industrial trainee system so that a trainee can be employed for two years after one year of training instead of the current one-year employment after two years of training. Seoul said the move is to improve the system, which was introduced to address a shortage of labor in demanding and dangerous jobs, as a way of strengthening our competitiveness and supporting ethnic Koreans of other nationalities. The new plan will also clarify the rights and responsibilities of those running the system and strengthen supervision over both the employers and suppliers of trainees, while preventing foreign trainees from becoming illegal immigrants, an emerging social issue.
But the new plan still ignores fundamental problems related to migrant workers. The international community criticizes the foreign trainee system as "modern slavery." One of the original purposes of the system － teaching foreign workers skills － is completely gone, and the system has been abused as a shortcut to exploit cheap labor. Under the system, foreign workers are discriminated against; their wages and working conditions are based on nationality and race, not ability. This abnormal approach is not addressed by the new plan and if it continues, the government's efforts will not result in a fundamental solution.
The plan only adjusts the length of the training period. It does not address the direct causes of human rights violations: low wages and problems involving the selection of trainees. To prevent problems in selecting trainees, the government plans to transfer the selection process from the manpower suppliers to interest groups such as the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business. Considering the way these interest groups work, the plan is unlikely to prevent problems from recurring. Also, there is no plan to address the problem of low wages, which is another reason for trainees to leave their workplace and work illegally. To prevent this "escape" of foreign workers, employers use inhumane measures such as forcing them to watch each other, controlling the movement of trainees and seizing their wages. There are now 350,000 foreign workers in Korea, among which are 80,000 trainees and 250,000 unregistered workers who are illegally staying here. Over 70 percent of the employers of these illegal immigrants want the government to come up with alternative measures so that they can hire these workers legally. Operating the foreign trainee system for the good of a small number of interest groups cannot solve the problems － these interest groups have been the beneficiaries of the abuses which have crept into the system over time.
The World Cup is looming and Korea is attracting the world's attention. To avoid criticism that we bring in foreign workers and exploit them like slaves, the government must abolish the foreign trainee system and introduce a licensed labor system. It should also be responsible for recruitment and management of foreign workers so they can be legitimately employed here.
The writer is chairman of the Joint Committee for Migrant Workers in Korea.
by Choi Eui-pal