Visa amnesty creates a Korean ‘brawn drain’

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Visa amnesty creates a Korean ‘brawn drain’

An amnesty program for overstaying foreigners is having an unexpected consequence: Korea is suddenly short of nannies, restaurant help and construction workers.

In April, the Ministry of Justice announced an amnesty for people who overstayed their visas or illegally immigrated. It said that they could apply for overseas Korean visas, known as F-4, if they left Korea and went home in the next six months.

This was the first time the ministry has promised to allow all overstayers to apply for visas to return to Korea.

The amnesty is working. Over 12,000 foreigners who were in Korea illegally left the country from April to May, twice the 5,300 who left in the same period last year, according to the Ministry of Justice.

But some left behind jobs that Koreans are having trouble filling, particularly overstaying Chinese nationals of Korean descent.

Ms. Lee, a 42-year-old company employee and mother of two elementary school children, however, is on the receiving end.

A Korean-Chinese housekeeper has been helping with the housework and the kids for 10 years. She wants to take advantage of the amnesty and left Korea for China. She promised to return on her F-4 visa in September.

But Lee’s kids have vacation from July to August, and she’s going to have to stay home from work to take care of them.

“The children listened to the Korean-Chinese nanny very well, and she was like a member of the family since she worked here for 10 years,” Lee said.

“It’s difficult to find another housekeeper who can stay with us. So I decided it would be for the best if I take days off from work until she returns.”

Restaurants and construction sites, where many of the workers are Korean-Chinese, are suffering from the sudden “brawn drain” of foreign laborers illegally staying in the country.

“One of our Korean-Chinese workers quit a month ago, saying that he can work here legally if he goes back to China for a while,” said the owner of a chicken restaurant in Guro District, southwestern Seoul.

“Recently, many Korean-Chinese who were here illegally started quitting their jobs,” another restaurant owner in Daerim-dong, southwestern Seoul, said. “They quit so suddenly that it paralyzed the store and hit sales hard.”

Shin, head of an advertising company, had to unwillingly hire a part-time housekeeper because the Korean-Chinese worker suddenly quit. Shin was lucky to find a replacement. Online employment sites are filled with posts looking for babysitters and housekeepers.

The Ministry of Justice allowed immigrants who entered Korea illegally to apply for visas on the condition they confess their illegal stay and depart temporarily from the nation in March 2004, but that was limited to people whose illicit stays were less than a year.

The ministry decided to expand the policy to all immigrants here illegally to control the growing number, which increased from 167,780 in 2011 to 214,168 in 2015.

The people who are really happy about the amnesty are administrative agents, who take care of immigration procedures.

“After the ministry’s announcement, some six people a week visited the office since March. Before that, only two people visited per month,” said Yoon Sa-young, who works at an administrative agency in Daerim-dong. “The calls to the office have also increased from almost none to about six a day. They ask the qualifications needed to apply for visas.”

“When I went to Incheon airport at 5 a.m., the third floor was crowded with illegal immigrants waiting to leave,” said Lee Byung-chun, who works for the Han-a administrative agency.

BY CHE SEUNG-KI, KIM YOO-BIN [shin.sooyeon@joongang.co.kr]

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