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Why S. Korea has almost 400,000 undocumented foreign workers Updated: 2022-08-12 10:04:14 KST

Nearly 400-thousand foreign laborers here in South Korea are reportedly undocumented.
Our National Assembly Correspondent Kim Bo-kyoung has more on this reality its repercussions and possible resolutions.

"During the recently-held three-day questioning session at the parliament, lawmakers asked government officials about a wide range of matters. One lawmaker brought up the issue of undocumented foreign workers."

As of April this year, some 393-thousand foreign workers are undocumented. That's almost 20 percent of the total number of foreigners in South Korea.
The usual protocol would be to send such workers back to their home countries, but given that most of the undocumented foreign workers are at short-handed workplaces in the agricultural and fisheries sector, both sides in parliament agreed that this wouldn't be the best way to tackle the problem.

"I think this is an urgent situation. If we do not solve the problem now, I believe the hatred toward foreign workers that's gradually surfacing will soon explode. Catching and deporting them is not the right answer. Don't you agree?

"Yes, that's not the stance we are taking either."

While it is possible that some of the undocumented workers entered the country by abusing policies such as visa-free agreements, many originally arrived in Korea on visas that are tied to their workplace.

Most of those who work in basic key industries get a Non-professional E-9 visa.
If extended, they can stay for up to four years and ten months.
However, not only can they not change industry category, they also can't change jobs without their employer's permission.
The only exceptions to this are if the company has gone out of business, if they could not get paid, or if they have proof of violence or harassment.


"Most of the time, the work they do here in South Korea is tough. Due to lots of problems at their workplace there are some who ask to move somewhere else. When they cannot get permission, they leave and become undocumented"


Another program that has seen problems is the seasonal worker program.
It is a program through which local governments invite temporary workers to work in farming and fishing villages during the busiest times of the year.
They can only stay in the country for up to five months.
Experts say this is UNREALISTIC.


"We designate working place very specific, but once they land in Korea and realize that they can earn more by moving different places, who can resist that temptation? If we say you can come here only for work six months, three months, it becomes very unrealistic because in many countries they have to pay high brokers' fee to get a visa to Korea."

This can lead to an ironic situation where local farms short on labor have little choice but to hire undocumented foreign workers, risking a fine.
Once a worker's status becomes illegal or undocumented, they do not have any way to get their legal status back, and can end up having to endure life-threatening living conditions.


"As undocumented foreign worker, what is the most difficult thing while living in Korea?"


"When we get sick, we have no insurance and we avoid police, we avoid immigration, we are always hiding.
Even we are sick, we have to work."

Medical care is not the only thing they cannot easily access.


"They finished working at the company they have recently been at for five years. They did not get the severance pay. It is common for business owners to pocket the money."


"It is impossible for undocumented foreign workers to be part of the basic social security system. They cannot get health insurance, having to pay too much money at clinics, neither can they have minimum living expenses guaranteed if they lose their job."

The Justice Ministry is looking at ways to tackle the issue.
It aims to first set up a new control tower for border, migration and immigration policies.
It also plans to establish region-specific visa categories, and introduce fast-track programs for science and technology talents, giving them a pathway to an F-2 visa.

The lawmaker who brought up the issue says he agrees with ministry's plan to establish a control tower that can coordinate with various ministries and agencies for a more holistic approach to the issue.


"Laborers are not robots. They are coming here not just for eight hours of working they come in and they live in Korea 24 hours. Sometimes they meet their spouses in Korea. Where they live, what they do after work, all should be part of our labor policy."


"As the lawmaker points out, the issue is wider than just work and employment, and the country needs to start a candid conversation with different stakeholders in our society. Kim Bo-kyoung, Arirang News."
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