Homogenous South Korea tested by migrant work force

Tue Feb 16, 2010 9:17pm EST
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Jon Herskovitz and Christine Kim

ANSAN, South Korea (Reuters Life!) - South Korea's future can be seen on a street in suburban Seoul where signs are written in Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese and the workers who power the local factories have come from 15 different countries.

With the lowest birth-rate in the developed world and an aging population, South Korea needs foreign workers to keep its economy going, but this has caused rifts in the homogenous state that has yet to decide if it can trust its future to foreigners.

Ansan, about 30 km (20 miles) southwest of Seoul and with a major industrial center, is at the frontline of the experiment South Korea has been conducting since 2004 to invite foreign workers in for low-paying jobs at small the medium sized firms.

"Foreign workers are a must for this city's survival and for the country's survival," said Kim Chang-mo, director of Ansan's Migrant Community Service Center.

Ansan has one of the highest concentrations of foreign labor in the country. Chinese butchers sell to Uzbek workers and banks have foreign remittance forms in 13 languages.

Its migrant service center is staffed with non-Koreans who speak the languages of foreign workers and last year it established a human rights measure for equal protection under South Korean law for migrants working legally and illegally.

Critics say the biggest problem is the central government, which treats migrants as temporary help and has not prepared for what economists say is the permanent presence of a foreign work force to keep the country competitive.

The program has led to numerous complaints from foreign workers, a scathing report from human rights group Amnesty International about exploitation and government crackdowns on foreign workers, but not employers, who stray from the system.   Continued...