Number of foreign workers in South Korea nearing 1 million

Posted on : 2016-10-23 08:58 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Workers from overseas are generally young, and employed in low-paying, unskilled jobs
Total number and portion of foreign workers in South Korea
Total number and portion of foreign workers in South Korea

The number of foreigners employed in the South Korean labor market is nearing 1 million. Four out of 100 people working in the country are noncitizens. For the most part, foreigners employed in the country are working at small companies in poorly remunerated jobs. The increasing number of working foreigners is also having a considerable effect on wages and other labor conditions in the low-paying job market.

According to a study of foreigner employment in 2016 published by the South Korean government’s office of statistics on Oct. 20, the number of foreigners employed in South Korea as of May 2016 was 962,000, which was up 24,000 from the previous year. The number of foreigners working in South Korea has increased every year since the figure was first recorded in 2012 (790,000), with the exception of a single year, 2013 (760,000).

Now South Korea is on the verge of reaching 1 million foreign workers. Including unemployed foreigners, the economically active foreign population surpassed 1 million for the first time this year. That represented a year-on-year increase of 39,000.

Foreign workers account for 3.64% of the total working population in South Korea. This represents a 0.06 percentage point increase from the year before. In other words, 36 out of every 1,000 people working in the country are noncitizens. The foreign share of the working population has been steadily increasing, from 2.99% in 2013 to 3.30% in 2014 and 3.58% in 2015.

Foreigners generally work in low-paying jobs at small companies. Of the 962,000 total foreign workers, 257,000 are working at companies with 10-29 employees. There are also 216,000 foreigners employed at companies with only 1-4 employees. This means that there is a considerable number of companies in South Korea that are entirely composed of foreign employees. In contrast, there were 29,000 foreigners earning a living at large companies (with at least 300 employees). This was 5,000 fewer than the year before (34,000).

Most of foreigners who are wage earners are employed at companies that pay just over 1 million won a month (US$884). Among the 919,000 foreign wage earners, around half (447,000) were working for companies of this sort. 349,000 foreigners were working at companies that pay between 2 and 3 million won.

Foreign workers also tend to be young, with 250,000 in their twenties and 280,000 in their thirties. There are also around 3,000 foreign teenagers in the workforce. When these categories are combined, more than half (55.8%) of all foreign workers are 39 years old or below.

This marks a contrast with the overall South Korean employment market, which is tilted toward middle-aged workers. The most recent survey of the economically active population (from May) shows that 36.6% of workers in South Korea are 39 years old or below.

The increasing percentage of foreign workers is having a significant impact on the employment market as a whole. Considering that foreigners are generally working in unskilled jobs for low wages, the effect that they are having on such jobs is especially large.

According to a 2013 paper published by Choi Gyeong-su, head analyst for human resources at the Korea Development Institute (KDI), the rate of increase for wages at jobs for unskilled men (30-34 years old) between 2000 and 2008 would have been about 9% if not for the influx of foreigners, but this influx depressed the rate to 7%.

By Kim Kyung-rok, staff reporter

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