[VIEWPOINT]Work for flexible laborThere are only two countries on Earth where 99.9 percent of the population has the same ethnic background: South Korea and North Korea. Although Korean society has quite a few sources of discord, it still has less trouble than multiethnic societies. However, over 1 million foreigners are living in Korea, and that number is expected to grow as Korea becomes an older and more globalized society. Therefore, it is about time Koreans prepared for a multiethnic society.
The foreign industrial trainee system, which had been adopted as an expediential means to solve the shortage of labor in “3D jobs” ― dirty, dangerous or difficult ― created various social problems such as corruption in the course of selecting and bringing in foreign workers, human rights issues, illegal residence and unpaid wages. So two years ago, the government introduced a work permit system in order to bring the employment of migrant workers to light.
The government claims that the law enhanced the reputation of the country by protecting human rights and prepared a systematic mechanism to hire quality workers legally by simplifying the process of issuing work permits to foreigners.
Nevertheless, the workers say that corruption continues to increase, and the number of illegal immigrants has not yet gone down. The employers also complain that they still cannot select and hire the workers they want although the procedure has been greatly improved. How should we evaluate the work permit system, which is now two years old?
What I would like to point out first is that the problem at the root of the work permit system for foreign workers is not discord between the employees and the employers but conflict between the employers and the government.
Generally, Korean workers shun 3D jobs, for which most of the migrant workers are hired, and the human rights issue has been improved in large part and is a secondary problem. The core of the problem is trouble between the employers, who hope to hire quality foreign labor easily to improve competitiveness, and the government, which sets regulations to minimize social discord.
In the long term, an increase in the number of unskilled foreign laborers will have social costs such as the risk of international terrorism, organized crime and cultural discord. Thus the government has to regulate the foreign workforce. After all, it is a matter of choosing between prioritizing short-term corporate efficiency and minimizing long-term social conflict. The decision should be made based on a social consensus after more research and discussion.
Second, the required Korean language examination needs to be abolished. You can always learn a foreign language if you live in the country that speaks the language. Workers from developing countries are spending a large amount of money and a lot of time to learn Korean, and in the course of study and testing, various irregularities are involved. Most desirably, the government should allow foreign workers to come to Korea and provide a chance to learn Korean for a certain period of time through a language institute by taking evening or online classes while working. The workers would also be required to take and pass a mandatory test managed by the government.
Last, I do agree with the principles of the work permit system but do not approve of the government’s monopoly on the selection and invitation of foreign workers. The government might think that it has to take charge because civilian organizations are prone to irregularities, but such a perception reveals a bias against the market.
An alternative is to keep the existing system and have the employers choose among the candidates recommended by the government, and also allow them to personally go abroad to select the workers themselves. The smaller a company, the greater the proportion of labor costs in total expenditures. The success of smaller companies often depends on hiring quality workers, and therefore they prefer choosing the workers themselves. The government can find ways for employers to select their workers directly by establishing offices abroad through a joint investment with an employers’ group, and should also actively help smaller employers by subsidizing travel costs and providing interpretation services.
The government would still have the authority to grant E-9 working visas and would still be in charge of immigration procedures, so this prescription does not go against the principle of preventing foreign workers from illegally settling down in the country. Instead, allowing companies to select workers would help reduce the number of illegal immigrants. With 1 million foreign workers, this is the proper thing to do.
* The writer is a professor of economics at Chung-Ang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Seung-wook