Two migrant workers from Myanmar speak with an assistant at the Uijeongbu Support Center for Foreign Workers in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, on Nov. 12. (Lee Jun-hee/The Hankyoreh)
Asian countries that have signed employment permit agreements with South Korea have sent an official letter to the government expressing their concerns about the closure of support centers for foreign workers after the government entirely eliminated the budget for such centers.
According to coverage by the Hankyoreh on Wednesday, in late September, the Ministry of Employment and Labor received an official letter from multiple Asian countries that have signed non-professional work (E-9) visa agreements with South Korea regarding the budget cuts to foreign worker support centers.
This was about two weeks after the government submitted a proposal to completely slash the budget for the centers to the National Assembly.
An official from the ministry stated that “the embassies of eight Asian countries sent the letter after hearing about the budget cuts,” while calling the letter “more a call for a proper explanation rather than an expression of concern.”
The letter raised questions such as whether the centers would be closing and if other alternatives to such facilities existed.
However, a representative from the embassy of one of the Asian countries that sent the letter has claimed that the document was, indeed, an expression of concern.
Upon hearing about the closure of the support centers, the labor officers at the embassies of the 16 Asian countries that have non-professional work visa agreements with South Korea discussed the matter together and concluded that there were problems to be addressed.
Countries with non-professional work visa agreements with South Korea include Nepal, Timor-Leste, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, China, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Pakistan and the Philippines. Eight of these countries agreed to send an official document directly to the South Korean government.
It is highly unusual for foreign embassies to collectively weigh in on a budget proposal made by their host country’s government.
A Ministry of Justice worker puts a migrant worker woman in a headlock during a crackdown on undocumented migrants at a factory in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, on Nov. 7. (still from video)
One official from one of the eight embassies that sent the document, who wished to stay anonymous, stated, “It’s very rare for us to officially dispatch a document on South Korean government policy,” adding that “the concerns we harbor about the problems that will arise when the support centers no longer exist are that grave.”
When asked about the Ministry of Employment and Labor claiming that the letter merely asked questions about the decision, the official stated, “The claim is unreasonable. We clearly expressed our opposition to the decision.”
The Yoon administration’s migration policy, which involves increasing the number of migrant workers but eliminating support, is causing a lot of anxiety.
On Monday, the government confirmed that it would raise the quota for the employment permit system in 2024 to 165,000 foreign workers, an increase of 45,000 from 2023. The government also expanded the scope of non-professional work visas to include the restaurant industry.
“The number of migrant workers coming to Korea will continue to increase, but I fail to see how they will handle the demand for counseling and support,” commented another official from one of the eight embassies. “The South Korean government alleges that they don’t have the budget, but I can’t help but think that this is a matter of whether they want to support migrant workers or not.”
The budget for the 40 foreign worker support centers nationwide that the government cut was 7.18 billion won in 2023, or around US$5.5 million.
Some say the government’s attitude toward migrant workers as “cheap labor” is contributing to the deterioration of public opinion among Asians in South Korea and abroad.
Noi, a 44-year-old civil servant in Bangkok, Thailand, told the Hankyoreh, “Most Thai people go to South Korea legally on work visas only to become undocumented because of the poor working conditions. Recently, videos of South Korean police brutalizing Thai workers were posted on YouTube, so the public sentiment is far from friendly.”
Hong Nhung, a 28-year-old who worked for a South Korean company in Hanoi, Vietnam, said, “Vietnamese people don’t prefer to work in South Korea these days. They try hard to go to Japan, where the working environment is much better.”
By Lee Jun-hee, staff reporter
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