[Viewpoint] Foreign workforce a valuable assetA new low-budget movie that received little publicity has been generating buzz, attracting nearly one million viewers. “Banga? Banga!” is a heartwarming comedy about Mr. Bang, a young unemployed Korean disguised as a migrant worker from Bhutan who comes here to get a job. The film does not have star casting or fancy PR or marketing. However, with its warm portrayal of foreign workers, the movie is growing more popular and has become a must-see flick.
There are about 700,000 foreign workers in Korea, including illegal ones, and their presence has become a common sight in a country traditionally made up of a single ethnic group. But the Constitutional Court faces a dilemma on the issue. On Oct. 14, there was a heated legal debate over the freedom of foreign workers to change work sites.
The current employment system limits the number of times each worker can change jobs to three. If a foreign worker violates the rule, he or she will be deported. But the labor law prohibits discriminatory treatment based on nationality. Scholars of the Constitution also believe that the right to equality should apply to foreigners, too.
It is true that the Foreign Workers Employment Act has some discriminatory aspects. The government last year revised the six-year employment limit, and the law now only allows three years of employment with a chance of extension for two more years. The law, and its revision, is meant to prevent a foreigner from settling down in Korea, since residing here for more than five years would allow the workers to be eligible to apply for permanent residence.
The type of jobs that foreign workers are allowed to take are also restricted. Min Gil-su, director of the foreign workforce policy at the Department of Labor, said it is the “minimum safety measure to protect Korean workers.” It is clear that the government considers foreign workers as a policy target.
Initially, the limitations on job transfers were included with a good purpose in mind. Under the old system, changing the work site itself was prohibited. Korea is now one of the only countries in Asia that allows foreign workers to move to another type of employment. The United States is a country of immigrants, but foreign workers are subject to deportation if they change employment. Yet the clause is under harsh criticism and its constitutionality is being questioned.
There are several reasons why the Constitutional Court is in a dilemma. If the restriction is removed, small and midsize businesses will have a harder time securing workers, which is the original purpose of the employment permit system. Most foreign workers are employed by small and midsize businesses with 10 to 19 employees. If the limitation on the number of job changes is ruled unconstitutional, the restriction on job criteria would be lifted, too.
The government’s policy has changed in the last 10 years. The employment permit system has led to corruption in relation to the import of labor. Also, the minimum wage is guaranteed to foreign workers.
The International Labor Organization considers Korea a success story. Still, living conditions for foreign workers are generally inadequate - some even live in make-shift dormitory rooms.
However, they make an average of 1.3 million won ($1,100) per month - including extra pay for overtime and the night shift - which is nearly double the pay in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
To workers from underdeveloped Asian countries, the opportunity to work in Korea is like winning the lottery.
Not so long ago, more than 40,000 people applied to take a Korean exam in Nepal, and police had to be mobilized to keep order.
The foreign workforce is a valuable asset in Korea.
Small and midsize businesses are frantically working to bring in foreign workers. Some companies cut corners and divide their workforce into smaller units so they can get more foreign workers.
In the long run, Korea should strive to become more of an immigrant community, as it would help increase the fertility rate.
Nevertheless, I cannot shake the feeling that it is too early to unlock the door completely.
The Constitutional Court and Korean society are standing at a crossroads that involves making a choice between human rights and reality.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Chul-ho