[OverseasView]Korea needs to start welcoming immigrants

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[OverseasView]Korea needs to start welcoming immigrants

A true globalist pursues toleration of heterogeneity and intellectual heterodoxy. Globalization has spread everywhere. South Korea, being no exception, is relentlessly pursuing integration into the world economy ― becoming a hub of Asian as well as global commercial activities. Is this empty rhetoric?
The recent tragic death of immigrant workers in a fire in a detention camp in Yeosu paints a gloomy picture. A plethora of problems related to migration ― another facet of globalization ― surface.
Robert Holzmann of the World Bank warns, “Without further immigration, the total labor force in Europe and Russia, the high-income countries of East Asia and the Pacific, China, and, to a lesser extent, North America is projected to be reduced by 29 million by 2025 and by 244 million by 2050. In contrast, the labor force in the South is projected to add some 1.55 billion, predominantly in South and Central Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Jeffrey Williamson of Harvard University prognosticates that although the United States, Western Europe, Oceania and Canada have emerged as attractive immigrant destinations in the course of history, South-South migration, as opposed to South-North emigration, will be rising.
With the miraculous growth performance of the emerging economies, Mr. Williamson argues, the emigration surge from the Third World carries the potential for a convergence of living standards and the elimination of poverty.
However, migration might not necessarily work, as it depends on several adjustments in the host country’s institutions such as its work culture, language and cultural barriers. For instance, if any society wants a positively contributing migrant workforce it needs to be inclusive, embracing mixed ethnic groups and harnessing their inherent potential.
Otherwise, biases lead to dogma and impede fruitful economic exchanges based on division of labor.
Taking the South Korean experience, a recent polling of foreigners here by the Consumer Protection Board reveals that 41% were disgruntled due to unfair treatment.
The same report shows that although foreigners deserve a fair deal, they face exorbitant rents, ill treatment [at work] and inadequate international schools and medical facilities.
As Maarten Meijer noted (Feb. 16, 2007), typically “darker-skinned” people are “generally treated less politely” and with a condescendingly indifferent attitude, reflecting exclusivity.
Quite often, foreigners other than miguk saram [Americans] face strange attitudes.
Korean attitudes toward foreigners are influenced by the presenceof an air of sophistication, physical appearance and outward manifestations of status. People from Europe, North America, or Oceania are given implicit preference over people from Asia and Africa and Latinos, who possess the same innate qualities.
If one ever visits the immigration offices, one could easily sense an atmosphere of pervasive low trust in the treatment of even the skillful, competent and eligible “aliens,” as if they come from a distant planet.
Even with valid documentation, they experience an underlying sense of distrust from the officers.
Irrespective of reason, by instilling a sense of hatred and bad impressions on the foreigners’ psyches, this kind of behavior might lead to a backlash for Korea’s globalization effort.
The recent fire and death of nine workers at the Yeosu Immigration Office speaks volumes about the Third World migrant workers’ abysmal working conditions, without any proper balance between law and human rights.
They are exploited by employers with improperly low wages. As has been reported elsewhere, these workers suffer from inhumane working conditions, delayed payments, forced overtime work, physical and mental torture and deprivation.
Reportedly the National Human Rights Commission has already identified gross violations of human rights and mishandling of the detainees.
It also opined that despite their contribution to the Korean economy, the foreigners are not given due recognition, respect, and a feeling of rapprochement.
Failing to meet global standards in treating migrant workers will jeopardize Korea’s mission of joining the advanced nations’ club.
Proscribing a typical subset of work as something inferior and classifying them as “3D” meaning “dirty, dangerous, and difficult,” reserved primarily for low-paid foreigners, reflects Korea’s myopic view.
This is antithetical to the adage that “work is worship.”If a job in the workplace were perceived as despicable and dehumanizing, in utter bewilderment, none would contribute unless proper care, facilities and workplace safety were guaranteed.
Exposed to potential harm or injury, the workers feel like an endangered species. Workers, faced with such “dirty-difficult-dangerous” work conditions, will suffer from low productivity.
A holistic approach based on work ethics is imperative. Every profession is worthy of honor.
When the policy imperative is to maintain growth in the face of an aging population, the nation should be open to foreign-born talents and entrepreneurs. Otherwise, skewed economic patterns will spoil fair competition.
To curb imbalances, immigration must be an integral part of long-term economic strategy. Keeping low-wage workers out and welcoming only the highly skilled who have doctorates is not a wise strategy.
Extolling one sector at the expense of others, without paying them their due, is bound to disturb the social harmony.
South Korea needs to adopt pro-growth immigration policies to get higher returns in the long run.
Antipathy toward importing talent will be tantamount to “anti-globalization.”
The need of the hour is to cure the myopia by embracing human excellence based on universalism.
In my opinion, in order to become a hub, Korea needs to shed its jaundiced view of multi-ethnicity and pluralism.

*The writer is professor of economics at Hanyang University.

by Gouranga Gopal Das
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