Have immigrants stolen your job?
South Korea, Europe diverge on immigration-driven job debate
By Kang Hyun-kyung
The election results in several European nations and South Korea, both held recently, have one thing in common. The rise of the right was felt.
Rightist politicians or parties won elections in several European countries, including Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Ireland. In South Korea, the conservative Saenuri Party gained the upper hand in the April 11 parliamentary elections by securing 152 seats out of the 300-member National Assembly.
Despite the similarity, elections of the two regions suggested contrasting trends in immigration. Political leaders who stood firm on illegal immigrants or toned up to tighten immigration policy won the elections or scored good results in several European nations.
In South Korea, the April 11 National Assembly elections saw the first ethic minority candidate originally from the Philippines made a lawmaker. Jasmine Lee is a naturalized Korean who was born and raised in the Southeast Asian country until she met her late husband, who was a sailor, in the 1990s there.
After being elected a lawmaker of the conservative Saenuri Party on the proportional representation system, the first Pilipino-Korean lawmaker-elect suffered a backlash from bloggers briefly. But the bullying was short-lived as an increasing number of people here voiced concern about some jealous bloggers’ xenophobia and lashed out at them for the immature attitude.
The distinct different trends in immigration displayed in elections of Europe and South Korea have their roots in the characteristics in the labor market.
Compared with Europe, a backlash against immigrants is not an issue in South Korea as the nation benefits from guest workers or foreigners who are here with their spouse.
Nearly 700,000 migrant workers, mostly from Southeast Asia and China, are working in the manufacturing sector or the services industry where employers deal with labor shortages as a persistent problem. Unemployment is high, but the manufacturing sector faces chronic labor shortages as college graduates chose to stay jobless rather than taking blue-collar jobs.
There are foreign-born white-collar workers in this country, but the ratio of these workers against their blue-collar cohorts is very low.
Guest workers have contributed to resolving a labor market divide in South Korea, creating a virtuous circle for migrant workers attaining the Korean dream while narrowing an employment divide in labor market.
Plus, these immigrants are playing a positive role to counter falling birthrates here. South Korea is an advanced, but concerned economy struggling to deal with the negative fallout of a low birthrate. The average number of children born in each household stands only at one. Given 2.1 are needed to maintain the current population level, the low birthrate here will lead to a falling population which will have deleterious effect on the national economy.
Earlier, analysts predicted South Korea’s population will begin to fall from 2017. But the Statistics Korea data released last year showed this will happen from 2030, 13 years later than initially expected.
Unlike the beneficial effect of immigrants in South Korea, some Europeans appear to hold discontent about foreign-born people in their country.
They believe that immigration costs them their jobs.
Mason Richey, professor of politics at the Korea University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said job loss was behind some Europeans’ discontent about immigrants.
“Immigrants are often blamed for ‘stealing jobs’ and in the case of non-European Union immigrants, they are often blamed for increasing crime rates, overstretching social services and threatening traditional national cultures,” he said.
Since 2008, most European countries have seen unemployment increase, a decline in gross domestic product, a rise in public deficit and debt problems, resulting in austerity measures and a general lack of political capability.
“Mistakenly or not, part of the affected EU countries’ populations sees the solution in a retrenchment of nationalism, both economically and culturally. This necessarily brings along with it an increase in anti-immigrant xenophobia,” Richey said.
“It has also brought with it an increase in skepticism of the EU integration project. It is also worth pointing out that, in point of fact, most EU countries, including the Netherlands, Ireland, and Spain, have widely been perceived as having failed to integrate their non-EU immigrant populations.”
The political scientist said the extreme reactionary right parties fomented and manipulated this general, popular sentiment to woo voters, which worked.
Lessons for Korea
The ongoing French presidential election is a prime example showcasing that immigration has become a political football.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen pledged to cut legal immigration to 10,000 a year and pull France out of the visa-free Schengen Zone altogether. Although she did not qualify for the run-off election held Sunday, Le Pen garnered nearly 20 percent of support in the presidential election held on April 22 which came as a surprise.
Sitting President Nicholas Sarcozy has been tough on immigration. Last year, 32,912 illegal immigrants were expelled from France, an increase of 17 percent from the previous year. To woo far-right voters, who had backed Le Pen, in the run-off election, Sarcozy vowed to cut illegal immigrants by half and allow only 100,000 foreigners into the European country.
His rival Francois Hollande, who earned the most votes cast in the April election, has proposed an annual parliamentary debate to decide how many immigrant workers and what professions are needed in France.
Immigration becoming a political football in France raised a question: Will France be the future of South Korea?
Declining to give a direct answer, Prof. Richey said the nation will have to be prepared for the future.
“In the long term, as South Korea opens up to more immigration, which it likely must do given its increasing economic globalization and low birthrate, perhaps it will look at some EU countries’ immigration policies and decide that it should learn from their mistakes.”