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S. Korea migrant worker population increases by 50,000 in 2018

Hankyoreh, South Korea, 1 January 2019 - South Korea’s number of foreign workers in 2018 rose by 50,000 from the year before, thanks largely to jobs in manufacturing and temporary or day labor positions.

While some improvements were found from 2017 in long working hours and wage conditions, a considerable percentage of workers continue to face workweeks of 50 or more hours and wages of less than 2 million won (US$1,770).

On Dec. 19, Statistics Korea and the Ministry of Justice published findings from a 2018 survey of immigrant sojourn conditions and employment. The results showed a total of 884,000 international residents employed as May 2018, up by 50,000 (6%) from the year before. At the same time, the size of South Korea’s foreign population was found to be increasing at an even faster rate, resulting in the employment rate declining by 0.1 percentage points from its 2017 level to 68%.

While the number of international residents looking for jobs has increased, finding work has become more difficult amid a general slowdown in the labor market, with the number of unemployed foreign residents calculated at 45,000 – up by 10,000 (29.9%) from the year before. At 4.8%, the unemployment rate for international residents was higher than the 4.0% rate for the job market as a whole last May.

Increased employment for migrant workers was found mainly in the areas of temporary and day labor and manufacturing positions, which showed a decline in terms of the overall job market. The number of migrant workers in temporary and day labor positions rose by 43,000 from the year before, while the number of full-time employees and self-employed/other non-salaried workers rose by just 4,000 and 3,000, respectively.

By industry, most of the gains were accounted for by mining/manufacturing (22,000) and construction (20,000), while the number of international residents employed in wholesale/retail sales, food service, and hospitality positions rose by 9,000. In terms of general employment indicators, the same industries showed a decline of 179,000 positions last May.

“Because of sample differences and differences in age distribution for migrant workers and all workers, it is difficult to tell from the current indicators whether this means [employers] are hiring more foreign workers and fewer domestic ones,” said Bin Hyeon-joon, director of Statistics Korea’s employment statistics division.

Small improvements in job quality and working conditions

The quality of jobs for migrant workers was found to have improved somewhat from the year before, but many continued to work in low-paid positions with long hours. As many of the jobs held by migrant workers are classified as unskilled labor, the working conditions they face have an impact on job quality for domestic unskilled workers in addition to foreign ones. In terms of working hours, the number of international residents working 60 or more hours a week declined by 49,000 from 2017, but still accounted for 21.6% of all international employment, or 191,000 positions. A total of 174,000 international residents worked 50 to 60 hours a week – an increase of 5,000 from the 2017 level.

In terms of wages, the number of migrant wage earners making 1,000,000–1,999,999 won (US$886–1,772) a month declined by 21,000 from last year to 288,000 while the number making 2,000,000–2,999,999 (US$1,772–2,658) a month rose by 43,000 to 418,000 due to a rise in the minimum wage and other factors. But the proportion of workers earning less than 2 million won remained relatively high at 37.9%.

Low rates of insurance enrollment

With many migrant workers exempt from mandatory employment insurance enrollment, the percentage of enrollees remained low at 35.6%. The percentage enrolled in industrial accident insurance – which migrant workers are also required to have – was also relatively low at 62.4%. A total of 7.8% of migrant workers reported being unable to visit the hospital over the previous year, with the financial burden most frequently cited as a reason (40.8%).

Just 4.3% of individuals on a working visit and overseas Koreans who suffered injuries paid for associated treatment costs with health insurance. More often, treatment costs were paid for entirely by the employer (37%) or the individual (25.7%). A total of 21.2% migrant respondents reported experiencing discriminatory treatment over the preceding year, with a majority 86% of respondents reporting no experience with demanding corrective action. Among those who did request corrective action in response to discrimination, only 36.7% reported that it had an effect.


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