[VIEWPOINT]Better status for foreign workersThe Korean National Red Cross held a Lunar New Year feast for foreign workers on Jan. 26 along with civic groups helping ethnic Koreans from China and other foreign workers.
About 5,000 foreign workers from 23 countries took part in the feast, and they enjoyed themselves by staging their own traditional performances and exchanging gifts with each other. Domestic popular singers also performed.
In addition to those performances, the Red Cross gave artificial limbs to foreign workers who were victims of industrial accidents. The Red Cross wanted to give a little comfort to the foreign workers who lost their hands or legs in a remote, alien country.
South Korea began to import foreign workers under the industrial trainee system only about 10 years ago. The number of foreign workers, both legal and illegal, is estimated to exceed 500,000. South Korea, however, prohibits Korean employers from hiring unskilled foreign workers -- only technicians who have specialties. The legal distinction between workers and trainees under the industrial trainee system has been the cause of many problems.
Now it is time to turn our eyes to fundamental changes in dealing with foreign workers who are staying here legally or illegally and who face many problems in their daily lives.
As an example of medical services, the Red Cross has tried to raise the quality of services for foreign workers by cooperating with many civic groups. But our civilian capacity cannot meet their demands. Foreign workers are crying for medical services -- not only industrial accident victims or those with acute diseases, but also those requiring medical care for childbirth, infant-care, rehabilitation, cancer, tuberculosis, hepatitis and AIDS.
What are other countries with longer histories of migrant workers than South Korea doing?
Germany strictly regulated grants of citizenship to migrant workers in the 1950s and '60s and had discriminatory migration policies. But recently Germany has been issuing work permits to foreign workers under an employment promotion act. Germany also allowed skilled workers to stay there with no time limit when employers demand it and to be accompanied by their families to ease humanitarian concerns. Asian countries like Singapore and Taiwan also introduced a work permit system for migrant workers in order to fill manpower vacancies in hard-to-fill jobs, both those that their citizens shunned and those requiring special technical expertise.
The industrial trainee system in South Korea, however, allows migrant workers to stay here one year as a trainee and then permits only those who pass a qualification test to work for two more years with a worker's visa. Under the industrial trainee system, foreign workers who enter Korea as industrial trainees indeed fill jobs for fully qualified workers.
That is a contradiction. Those trainees are in a disadvantageous position in terms of wages and working hours, and they are less protected by labor-related law, than illegal migrant workers.
To resolve this contradiction, a work permit system should be introduced as soon as possible. It is very encouraging that the presidential transition committee is studying a plan to enact a work permit system in the second half of this year.
South Korea did not ratify the International Convention on the Protection of Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which was enacted in 1990 by the United Nations. This country should ratify that pact as soon as possible.
And Koreans need to change their perceptions of migrant workers. Some people, if not all Koreans, regard foreign workers as disposable people whom they can use and dispose of at any time. Foreign workers are humans who have the same human rights as we do.
I really hope that all these discriminatory prejudices prevailing among people here can be removed and migrant workers can escape from discrimination and oppression.
Therefore, I hope I can see the day when South Korea can be a warm light, even though it is not the glowing light of the East as Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate for literature in 1913, predicted.
* The writer is director of social welfare and health affairs at the Korean National Red Cross.
by Joung Kwi-ok