• Updated : 2019.5.27 월 16:15
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The 10 Years Old Employment Permit System in Korea: Problems and Prospects외국인고용허가제 10년 과제와 전망
신지원 사회학과 교수  |  tribune1968@cnumedia.com
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승인 2014.11.18  10:18:47
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▲ Foreign workers demonstrates for their rights in Ansan, a satellite city of Seoul.

    Having received migrant workers for two decades, Korea has become one of the top destination countries in Asia. About half of the registered foreign population whose numbers are estimated at 560,000 entered Korea through the Employment Permit System (hereafter, EPS), the Korean government’s labour migration policy recruiting low-skilled migrant workers, mainly from countries in Southeast Asia and China. And this year, the EPS celebrates its 10th anniversary.

    The EPS is a temporary and circular labour migration policy designed to supply a low-skilled foreign workforce for local firms which suffer labour shortages. This labour migration policy was introduced in response to rising labour demands of small and medium businesses that faced severe labour shortages since the late 1980s when the wage soared and domestic workers started avoiding 3D jobs. According to ‘the Act on Foreign Workers’ Employment, etc.’ legislated in August 2003, a ‘temporary foreign worker’ refers to a migrant worker who is allowed to stay in Korea only for a certain period of time and who works in a business or workplace located in Korea for a period allowed under the general Employment Permit System (E-9) and the Working Visit System (H-2), which offers special work permits for ethnic Koreans with foreign nationalities. Here, I mainly focus on the key issues related to the general EPS (E-9).
    Migrant workers who enter Korea through the EPS are granted an E-9 visa that allows them to work in non-professional areas. The designated industries opened for E-9 workers are restricted to manufacturing, construction, agriculture/stockbreeding, offshore/inshore fishery and fish breeding. The number of migrant workers categorized as non-professional workers (E-9) under the EPS stands at 264,112 and consist almost half of the total non-professional migrant workforce (560,853). Divided by nationalities, workers from Vietnam account for the largest share with 55,042, which is followed by Indonesia, Cambodia, Uzbekistan and the Philippines (Ministry of Justice, Korea Immigration Service, 2014). The contract period of the EPS is renewable by extending a contract on an annual basis. By renewing the contract, migrant workers are allowed to stay in Korea for the maximum of four years and ten months. With an introduction of re-entry employment system, a migrant worker is allowed to work for additional four years and ten months after departing and returning to Korea if his/her employer wants to extend the contract at the end of the initial contract. Migrant workers, in principle, can exercise three basic labour rights and enjoy equal benefits as Korean nationals under the Labour Standards Act, the Minimum Wages Act, the Industrial Safety and Health Act.

▲ Migrant Trade Unions protesting for their labor rights

Current Problems
Limits of mobility and social exclusion of migrant workers
    The current EPS has many limitations on realising its grounding principle of temporary circulation of migrant workers. If migrant workers want to extend their employment in Korea after their contract period is over, they have to first return home and come back to Korea. However, returning to Korea may not be as easy as it sounds for migrant workers who may have to endure a long waiting list to come back to Korea and are required to go through the EPS employment procedure again, such as sitting for a Korean language test. Although the Korean government introduced a separate quota system for re-entering EPS migrant workers in 2011, there are still limited opportunities for many migrant workers who wish to continue working in Korea. Due to such reasons, migrant workers who are under desperate situations may choose to overstay and work ‘illegally’. In this regard, more rigorous thoughts should be given to preventing overstay of migrant workers in respect of averting the exploitation of undocumented migrant workers and human rights violation and assisting them in voluntary return and reemployment.
    The nature of such employment patterns and lives of temporary migrant workers make them easily isolated from the host society, thereby making them one of the most vulnerable groups to social exclusion. As discussed above, migrant workers now take up a substantial share of workforce in small and medium firms and play indispensable roles in the Korean labour market. Nevertheless, their working conditions are not positively correlated with increasing importance. Despite apparent legal protections under domestic labour laws, migrant workers in Korea still experience a certain level of difficulties in workplaces and daily life. Migrant workers still engage in 3D jobs paid with low wages and long working hours. Under the EPS, migrant workers are strictly forbidden from extending their stay in Korea and accompanying their families to Korea. During their stay, migrant workers are not allowed to change their workplace at their own discretion. Such restriction could make migrant workers particularly vulnerable to the social exclusion from Korean society. Migrant workers tend to limit their social networks mainly to the fellow migrants from their home county, which further exclude them from the Korean mainstream society. Such exclusion and isolation of migrant workers will eventually lead to problems such as the violation of basic human rights and social conflict.

Exploitation and forced labour: abusive working conditions in the agricultural sector
    On October 20th, Amnesty International (AI) released the 87-page report, “Bitter Harvest”, which exposes that ‘the EPS directly contributes to the serious exploitation of migrant agricultural workers’. There are approximately 20,000 migrant agricultural workers in Korea, with many arriving from Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam under the EPS migrant workers scheme. The report, based on interviews with migrant agricultural workers across Korea, discloses a range of exploitation, including incidents of contractual deception, intimidation, trafficking, violence, squalid accommodation, excessive working hours with no weekly rest days and unpaid overtime. The report shows that migrants are compelled to work in conditions that they did not agree to, under threat of some form of punishment, which amounts to forced labour. AI urges that the Korean government must end the exploitation and widespread use of forced labour of migrant agricultural workers. And it argues that “the exploitation of migrant farm workers in South Korea is a stain on the country.”

Burden of social costs on Sending Countries
    One of the negative aspects of emigration, from the sending country’s point of view, is that family members left behind and a local community may have to deal with social costs, such as family separation, children left behind and an aging population, due to the constant move-out of people. Such problems imply that circular migration is not a direct answer to the national development of sending countries. If remittance is the only buttress of the livelihood and consumption of family members left behind, families in the home country are likely to become over dependent on remittance and from the workers’ standpoint, burdened by the obligation to send money home, will not be able to save money for their own future. This very fact is what makes migrant workers choose not to return home and extend their employment contract or re-migrate searching for overseas employment.

Concluding Remarks and Prospects
    The Korean government could proudly claim that with the official statistical figure of ‘illegal migrants’ in the country as only about 11% of the total foreign population, the government is doing reasonably well to maintain its strict immigration control. Nevertheless, migration policy is not all about statistical figures and ‘well-managed’ processes. It concerns ‘people’, i.e., individuals, families and children, and their dreams and hopes. Korea has to dwell on the historical experience of temporary circular migration in Europe, which showed us that the temporary sojourn of migrant workers could end up becoming permanent settlement. In the 1970s policymakers in Western Europe were confronted with the integration question when they had to cope with the ‘quasi settlement’ of migrant workers after they had closed the borders to further labour migration during the economic recession. ‘Once the intended temporary migration took on permanent settlement features, they found themselves in terra incognita as far as the analysis of the causes, characteristics, ramifications as well as of appropriate solutions were concerned.’ This empirical case illustrates that integration becomes relevant to temporary labour migration in a profound sense ‘when the temporariness gives way to a lasting stay’ .
    Despite the diversity of the migrant population in Korea, the current policies and social services concerning the integration (or, more correctly, assimilation) of migrants chiefly focuses on marriage migrants and their families who are assumed as ‘permanent residents’ in the country. Considering the substantial number of migrant workers among the overall migrant population in Korea, it is urged to consider the ways in which the country’s migration policy could embrace human, labour and social rights of temporary migrant workers and their children.
    As repeated and circular international labor migration increases, migrants consistently interact with different cultures and, despite their temporary stay in the destination country, this mutual interaction significantly influences both societies of sending and receiving countries. The nature of international migratory processes, therefore, requires us to look beyond the perspective of a receiving country when considering the issue of integrating migrant workers. Rather than taking labour migration as a mere economic issue to balance the supply and demand of labour, a holistic approach needs to be taken to promote mutual benefits of all the related parties – countries of origin and destination and migrants. Approaching the issue of integrating migrant workers only within the boundaries of a receiving country can bring down the efficiency of the relevant policies. In other words, the integration policy of migrant workers needs to reflect the viewpoints of both countries of origin and destination and those of migrants themselves. The empowerment of migrant workers and transnational cooperation can be important tools to help realise such policy of integrating migrant workers.

By Julia Jiwon Shin, Professor, Department of Sociology

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