[VIEWPOINT]Illegal work force a balancing act

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[VIEWPOINT]Illegal work force a balancing act

Of the 330,000 foreigners in Korea at the end of February, 260,000, or 78 percent, were illegal aliens. Most of the illegal aliens were presumed to be illegal employees. And 76,000 illegal aliens were presumed to be Korean-Chinese. The number of illegal foreign employees has grown sharply from 100,000 at the end of 1998. In order to solve the illegal foreign employee problem, we first need to know the reasons why the number of illegal foreign employees has dramatically increased, and then take measures based on those reasons.

First, the increase in the number of illegal foreign employees is caused by Korea's unbalanced labor supply and demand. As the national income has grown, domestic workers have become reluctant to take so-called "3D" jobs ?dirty, dangerous or difficult ones. Accordingly, small and medium companies are suffering problems in securing a work force. Those firms are solving their problems by moving their plants abroad or employing foreign workers in Korea.

On the other hand, a lot of foreigners are willing to risk illegal employment in Korea because here they can receive wages 10 times higher than they can get in their own countries. For those reasons, the demand and supply of the foreign work force in Korea has expanded greatly. Yet there is no system in Korea for letting the supply of foreign blue-collar workers meet that demand, except through the industrial trainee system or the employment-after-training system.

Domestic and foreign observers have been critical of the industrial trainee system, saying it is not actually a system for training but an expedient for putting the foreign work force into the domestic industrial sector. Because foreign industrial trainees are de facto workers, small and medium companies are requesting that the government allow them to hire more foreign trainees. But it seems very difficult for the government to accept those requests.

The employment-after-training system allows a foreigner to work as a regular employee for two years after finishing one year of training. It is a unique system that allows foreign blue-collar workers to take jobs legally in Korea. But the employment-after-training system is an extension of the industrial trainee system. Hence, the supply of foreign blue-collar workers through the employment-after-training system is limited. It is impossible to supply a foreign work force solely through the industrial trainee system and the employment-after-training system.

If the legal supply of a foreign work force is limited despite the surging demand for blue-collar workers, the illegal employment of foreign workers will naturally expand according to market principles. That being so, the government should introduce systems that allow domestic small and medium companies to easily employ foreign workers, in order to help those companies solve labor shortage problems and to protect foreign workers according to Korean laws.

While balancing the demand and supply of a foreign work force through the legal employment system, the government should abide by the principle that illegal foreign employees and domestic employers should be identified and punished, in order to solve the illegal foreign employee problem. If the system for legally employing and supervising foreign workers is introduced, the problem of illegal employment of Korean-Chinese, which recently attracted the public's attention through a hunger strike initiated by illegal Korean-Chinese employees, will be naturally solved. It will help Seoul escape a potential diplomatic dispute with China.

Even after the new system that allows legal employment of foreign laborers is introduced, the government needs to maintain the industrial trainee system and employment-after-training system, so that domestic companies can choose a way of employment that is most beneficial to them. Since the employment of foreign workers is done to solve the labor shortage problems of domestic small and medium companies, the illegal foreign employee problem would be better seen from these companies' position.

Some people are afraid that if the foreign blue-collar work force is legally employed, their wages will jump. But the wages of foreign workers have already been set at the domestic wage level.


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The writer is the head of Employment Research Center of the Korea Labor Institute.

by Yoo Kil-sang

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