Migrant workers to support Korea’s economic future

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September 9, 2022

SEOUL – Some old Koreans may remember the sight of a group of women from the provinces boarding a plane bound for Okinawa at Gimpo International Airport to work on a farm in the South Island of Japan – in the late 1950s. It was a milestone to celebrate as these young women represented the first South Korean female migrant workers to leave their homes to earn foreign money under a contract arranged by the government.

A few years later, the military government which took power in a coup d’etat undertook additional efforts to send young workers abroad as part of its economic development plan which needed as much foreign currency as possible. The first target was West Germany, another divided country like South Korea that was most successful in post-war economic growth in Europe in demanding a lot of foreign labor.

Between 1963 and 1977, as many as 80,000 Korean men and 11,000 Korean women were employed in West German coal mines and hospitals while the government in Bonn and German financial organizations provided public and commercial loans to ‘a total amount of about 150 million Deutschmarks to Seoul to help establish industrial facilities. There were rumors that payments to Korean miners and nurses served as collateral for German loans. However, the sum total of their salaries was up to 2% of Korea’s annual export volume during the period.

Time has passed and many things have changed, including the movement of workers across the ocean. South Korea now has about 2 million foreigners who are mostly hired by small industrial companies that need menial workers. The number was 3% lower than last year’s level, but is expected to rise when COVID-19 restrictions are eased globally.

Chinese nationals of Korean descent make up the largest portion of the 614,000, followed by 225,000 ethnic Chinese, 208,000 Vietnamese, 171,000 Thais, 78,000 Nepalese, 65,000 Uzbeks and smaller numbers from India, Pakistan , Cambodia and Indonesia, according to Statistics Korea.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s population recorded negative growth for the 13th quarter to June 30, when the country’s total birth rate hit an alarming 0.75, the lowest in the world – while around 2.1 ensures a stable population. A demographic crisis has arrived in this country already known for the highest or second highest divorce rate and suicide rate in the world, with now an extremely low proportion of women ready to give birth to babies.

In this country of 51 million people, the total number of newborns fell below 60,000 in the second quarter of 2022 for the first time and the number of births for the whole of the first half of the year stood at 128. 138, or 6%, or 8,116, less than last year. The birth rate of 0.75 means that almost half of Korean women of childbearing age do not want to give birth, as there are still women who give birth to two or more babies.

South Korea’s ever-increasing life expectancy, with quality medical care increasingly available, is somewhat slowing the pace of population reduction in recent years in statistical reports. The distorted population structure darkens the prospect for this country to maintain its pulse of social and economic activities. Fewer people have to sweat to feed more mouths. Agricultural mechanization is increasing agricultural productivity here, but we are seeing more and more imported groceries in our kitchens.

Scholars as well as clerics predict that the birth rate will eventually rebound, with some predicting it as early as the 2030s, as abstaining from marriage and childbirth is contrary to human nature of love and sexual desire for reproduction. Until then, the population will decrease and human resources will be insufficient for industries and national defense. So how are we prepared to open up our workplaces more widely to outsiders?

Since 2018, freelance writer Woo Choon-hee has been following the life in Korea of ​​a Cambodian woman in her twenties who worked on a farm in North Gyeongsang Province, picking leaves from sesame plants, or “kkaennip.” , often served as a side dish. plate. In her recently published report, “The Struggle with Kkaennip – 1,500 Days with Cambodian Migrant Workers”, Woo reports how the woman named Nimol fought back against her Korean employer’s plans to pay less for more work.

With an official work permit from the Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor, Nimol had a contract with his employer for an eight-hour workday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., including a three-hour break to receive 40,000 won. per day. In practice, she had to work 11 hours and 20 minutes to reach the required volume of edible leaves. His unpaid salary was 20 million won, of which only 7.5 million won was recovered through the intervention of ministry officials.

Complaints can lead to dismissal by the farm owner, which means possible eviction. The situation for Nimol’s colleagues in Thailand who overstayed their work permits was even worse because they could not discuss working conditions with their employers or ask them about the difference between their wages and the official minimum wage, Woo writes.

They seek advice from the Global Citizens’ Terminal, a group of current and former migrant workers with more secure residence status, which teaches visitors how to prepare for disputes with employers. Nimol’s cellphone photo gallery contains photos from her digital watch showing her working before the 7 a.m. schedule alongside the package of kkaennip she had already chosen. She was working 330 hours a month, 100 hours beyond what was required by her contract, and her salary was behind.

However, these individual cases cited by Woo in his story would not stop many young Asians from harboring their “Korean dream”. They will continue to come here in increasing numbers in the days to come to take jobs that require nimble hands but are shunned by educated Koreans.

As we remember, it was fortunate that West German employers left few stories of injustice against the workers of a distant and impoverished Asian country and the two peoples remained friendly over the following decades. There may be issues with migrant workers from Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and China, but hosts must ensure fair treatment for those who are essential to supporting the Korean economy. And why not have many pro-Korean citizens and families in these developing countries?

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