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.
The biggest winners seem to be the factories who can hire labor at cut-rate wages for what are known as 3-D jobs — short for dangerous, dirty and difficult.
“Thousands of migrant workers find themselves at the mercy of employers and the authorities who mistreat them knowing their victims have few legal rights and are unable to access justice or seek compensation for the abuse,” Amnesty International said in a report issued last year.
The country underwent soul searching over its treatment of migrant labor about three years ago when a fire swept through a detention center for foreigners in Yeosu, killing 10 people in custody. But critics say little changed after that.
The migrant workers typically receive salaries that are far better than what they would get paid at home.
Their main complaints are less about their wages than about employers taking advantage of their vulnerability and being unable to seek remedies in a system that they say is rigged to favor Korean employers.
“My employer is holding back on my salary. I’m not being paid overtime and I may have my contract revoked just before the one-year mark because my employer does not want to pay social security tax that starts then,” said a migrant worker from Pakistan who asked to be called Hussain.
South Korea allowed in 34,000 migrant workers last year, the labor ministry said, with half being ethnic Koreans living abroad and the others from countries with which South Korea has reached agreements on guest labor.
“The main goal is to fix the lack of manpower with small and medium sized enterprises and to have better relations with the 15 countries that have migrant worker agreements with South Korea,” said Kim Yoon-hye of the ministry’s foreign work force division.
But information provided by the ministry to Korean firms on the various ethnic groups they hire could accentuate racial bias.
The ministry tells employers that Mongolians are: “very independent, simple and tend to be relaxed,” and “they have a tendency to drink more than other laborers from other regions.”
Thai workers are: “submissive and friendly.” “They have calm dispositions and may not easily show their anger, but care must be taken as to not insult or anger them.”
While few employers have been hit with stiff punishments for violating work rules, the government has often raided factories looking for illegal foreign workers and deporting those in violation of their employment agreements.
The government maintains checks on working conditions, runs counseling centers and says disgruntled workers are free to take their grievances to court.
But the migrants usually do not have access to legal services and are not in the country long enough to see a suit through.
“The government and employers are telling workers to be grateful and be quiet,” said Lee Jeong-woo, who works with migrant labor for the major KCTU umbrella labor group.
Editing by Miral Fahmy