A Chilly Reception For Guest Workers in South Korea

Will Korea relax limits on the foreign labor it so desperately needs?

Daya Ranjana Wijetunga's happiest moments these days are when he's at work painting TV sets at a tiny workshop in Ansan, south of Seoul. That's because during his free time the 37-year-old Sri Lankan has little to do but fret about his loved ones at home, some of whom he fears died in the recent tsunami. "I want to visit home," Wijetunga says. "But if I leave Korea, I don't have the visa to come back."

Wijetunga is one of some 185,000 foreigners living illegally in South Korea, a group of workers that Koreans both scorn and depend on. A further 235,000 foreigners are in Korea legally. The illegal laborers, like Wijetunga, perform "3D" jobs -- those considered so difficult, dirty, and dangerous that increasingly affluent Koreans won't do them. But this ethnically homogeneous nation of 48 million can't bring itself to grant permanent resident status to these immigrants. The result is a new underclass of workers who can't join unions, own property, or, in some cases, send their children to Korean schools. "The current policy simply magnifies problems," says Park Chun Ung, a human-rights activist who runs a migrant shelter in Ansan.

Indeed, a government policy that discourages legal immigration makes no sense for modern South Korea. The country's fertility rate has dropped at an alarming rate, from an average of 1.78 children per woman in 1992 to 1.19 now -- the lowest among Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) countries. Government think tanks warn that a secondary impact of Korea's graying population is that the national pension system will run out of money by 2047.

To address its labor shortage, Seoul in 1994 introduced a so-called industrial training program, which has brought 240,000 workers from 15 countries ranging from Bangladesh and Pakistan to Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Despite its name, the program was designed largely to provide low-wage workers to small manufacturing companies and farms. The visas for such workers expire after three years, but many of them stay on illegally.


Wijetunga was one of those. He came to Korea from Sri Lanka on one of the first industrial training visas in 1994. His initial salary making motor bike helmets was $162 a month. Now illegal, he earns $1,250 a month at his painting job -- 10 times what he could earn at home.

Korean officials have only slowly come to realize that they need men like Wijetunga as much as the illegals need their Korean jobs. Some legislators and economists are calling for a new policy that recognizes the worker shortage and seeks to integrate foreign laborers rather than ghettoize them. "Foreigners are a complementary workforce fueling economic growth," says Moon Hwy Chang, an economics professor at Seoul National University. Business executives agree. "We simply can't find Koreans willing to do the jobs foreign workers are doing," says Kim Hak Jong, deputy general manager at Na Young Sik Industry, a textile dyeing company that employs 15 legal foreign workers. "Restrictions must be lifted."

The government of President Roh Moo Hyun, however, is wary of the issue. Last year it introduced a new work permit system that is operating alongside the trainee program. In the new program, foreign workers are recruited by the government rather than by brokers who frequently exploit them. But otherwise the new program is as restrictive as the old. Foreign workers can still stay in Korea legally only for three years, and must stay with a single company -- to make sure they don't move on and take a new job that a Korean might want. Politicians recognize that this won't solve the country's growing population and pension crisis. When they are finally forced to address the issue head on, maybe Daya Ranjana Wijetunga will get a chance to visit home.

Moon Ihlwan in Ansan, South Korea

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