Seoul calls foreign domestic labor a cheap remedy to the low birth rate – critics say it’s exploitation

Posted on : 2023-05-10 16:34 KST Modified on : 2023-05-10 16:34 KST
A plan to include domestic helpers in the E-9 visa category opens up an exploitative system to more migrant women, argue experts
(Getty Images Bank)
(Getty Images Bank)

A plan being pursued by the governments of South Korea and Seoul to introduce foreign national domestic helpers has ignited outrage from women’s rights groups and civil society. The plan to refer minimum wage, commuting helpers to families in Seoul, critics argue, is tantamount to legalizing the exploitation of working migrant women and devaluing care work.

Some have also pointed out that merely relieving the burden of childcare for families is not a viable plan to solve Korea’s dismally low birth rate, the purported objective of the policy plan.

According to Hankyoreh’s coverage on Tuesday, the Ministry of Employment, Labor and Welfare and the Seoul metropolitan government plan to add domestic workers to the E-9 visa, a non-professional work visa, and recruit applicants from Southeast Asia to work in Korea as early as the second half of 2023.

Currently, the E-9 visa only allows workers to work in the manufacturing, construction, and agricultural industries. However, Chinese compatriots can work as domestic helpers on the H-2 visa.

“The Ministry of Labor will create the policy model and the city of Seoul will cooperate,” said a Seoul government official, adding, “We are discussing ways to support the helpers, including paying for transportation so they can commute to and from work.”

The pilot program for this policy will involve 100 domestic workers. Whether they will be employed by the city, a private organization, or contracted directly with the families they’ll work for is yet to be determined.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon is the most enthusiastic advocate of this proposal, expressing a strong desire to introduce foreign domestic helpers. Writing on Facebook on April 26, the mayor cited remarks by University of Chicago professor Michael Kremer on possible ways to address Korea’s low birth rate, writing, “I agree with his idea that special visa programs for care work already in place in Hong Kong and Singapore constitute successful immigration policies.”

But women’s rights groups and civil society do not share that enthusiasm. The main reason is that it is difficult to see how the policy will help rectify South Korea’s low birth rate. In fact, Hong Kong and Singapore have some of the world’s lowest birth rates.

According to the total fertility rate of 238 countries in the world as of 2021 (as can be seen in the United Nations 2022 World Population Prospects), Hong Kong has the lowest rate, at 0.75, and Singapore has the fifth-lowest rate, at 1.02.

“Singapore’s birth rate is also falling,” said Lee Kyu-yong, a research fellow at the Korea Labor Institute. “If Korea were to follow the Singapore model and pay the workers minimum wage and make them commute to work, [the workers] will not be able to save anything after they pay for rent and transportation.”

“Whether anyone will be willing to do such work is doubtful, and whether there will be much demand is also a question, considering the poor quality of service that will come with paying the workers minimum wage,” Lee added.

In addition, in a 2020 study on the life perspectives of young people by the Korea Women’s Development Institute, young women cited their partner’s participation in child-rearing, an equal division of household labor, and their partner’s paternity and parental leave as prerequisites for having children. This means that the priority is not to outsource domestic work to another woman, but to create an environment where domestic work can be shared equally regardless of gender.

Some have also cited the example of poor treatment of Chinese domestic workers and migrant women working in rural areas on E-9 visas to show that the policy will only increase the number of exploited workers.

In a 2017 report titled “Labor Rights of Migrant Domestic Workers and Policy Measures,” authored by the Korea Homecare Workers Association with funding from the Seoul Labor Center, many surveyed Chinese domestic workers said they work more than 16 hours a day, six days a week, and earn less than 2 million won a month (US$1,500).

These women reported that they were treated with disrespect because they were “not Korean” and because employers believed “domestic workers could be treated unfairly.” Female migrant workers employed in rural areas on E-9 visas also reported being “fired or forced to terminate their pregnancies (have an abortion) if they became pregnant.” (“Migrant Women’s Diversity and Policy Approach,” Korea Women’s Development Institute)

“There is a great concern that a system that ignores low wages, labor exploitation, and human rights violations will be extended to domestic work,” pointed out Yoon Ji-young, a lawyer at the Gonggam Human Rights Law Foundation.

Yang Nan-joo, a professor of social work at Daegu National University, said, “It is questionable whether bringing in [labor] from anywhere at a cheaper price without thinking about developing the care labor market and making it a good job can be sustainable.”

Experts say there is no effective prescription for the declining birth rate other than addressing gender inequality in the labor market and reducing working hours.

“[This policy] shows that there is no effort being made to hold companies and governments more accountable in terms of redistributing domestic and care work equitably,” said Kim Hyun-mee, a professor of cultural anthropology at Yonsei University.

By Park Da-hae, staff reporter; Son Ji-min, staff reporter

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