New Policy for Foreign Workers Needed
By Maragtas S.V. Amante
"Korea welcomes laborers from your country." That is the headline banner of Korea's Employment Permit System (EPS) Web site.
Korea's EPS is a significant tool of labor market management ``to establish efficient employment of foreign workers''.
Korea initiated bilateral labor agreements with labor surplus countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The EPS allows employers who have failed to hire native workers, to legally employ a certain number of foreign workers.
These are mostly small enterprises, which Korean workers themselves avoid due to low pay and difficult working conditions, mostly in factories.
Yet, a key objective of the EPS is to provide protection for human rights, and prevent abuse and discrimination.
Most countries experiencing labor shortages due to economic development and population ageing are introducing a foreign worker employment system.
Korea began to attract foreign workers in order to overcome labor shortages from the mid-1980s, especially for what were termed ``3-D'' jobs - the difficult, dirty and dangerous ones that most Koreans shun.
Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong have introduced an Employment Permit System, while most European countries such as France, Germany and Switzerland introduced similar Labor Permit Systems, which allows foreign workers to move freely from one workplace to another in Europe.
There has been extensive discussion on the entry of foreign workers in Korea. Korean experts explain that over the last 20 years, globalization and increased openness have accelerated the inflow not just of goods and services but also labor.
According to one Korean analyst, ``It was quite an unusual thing to see foreigners in Korea about 20 years ago. Now, foreigners walking on the street scarcely get a second glance because so many of them now live in Korea.''
The number of foreign residents in Korea increased constantly from 49,500 in 1990 and surpassed the 1 million mark in August 2007.
This means that foreign residents now make up more than 2 percent of the total population, numbering around 1,007,000.
Critics of Korea's EPS point out that the policy to attract high-quality foreign human resources ``has not yet borne fruit''.
In 2007, foreign workers receiving employment visas ― non-professional employment (E-9) and training employment (E-8) ― account for 69.6 percent and 11.7 percent, respectively, under the work permit system.
Apart from non-professional and training employment, the other major category is professionals, of which foreign language instructors make up the largest share at 9.6 percent.
It is suggested that there are problems in the policy to attract highly skilled foreign workers to respond to the needs of a ``knowledge- and information-based society.''
Another important consideration is the negative opinion among Koreans of the increase in foreign manual workers.
News about arrests of illegal workers is a regular feature in the media.
There are perceptions that Korea's national competitiveness has weakened due to the rise in social integration costs, a crowding-out effect for domestic workers, and a delay in industrial restructuring.
There is a consensus among the leaders that both Korea and ASEAN should continue to integrate and liberalize their respective economies.
According to the Prime Minister of Singapore, ``the purpose of ASEAN is not to create a trade bloc. We are committed to open regionalism and adopt an inclusive approach.
``But our actions would demonstrate the practical benefits of economic openness and contribute in a modest way to maintaining the global momentum for trade liberalization.''
This type of thinking is increasingly challenged by the events related to the global financial crisis, and calls to strengthen domestic economies, replacing the prominence of export oriented economies.
Both Korea and ASEAN have good long-term economic potential and growth opportunities. Leaders have called for faster integration to gain a greater share of investments and job creation.
Given the diversity of the region's economies, the challenge is for leaders to ``walk the talk," for the statements and declarations to trickle down the bureaucracies, institutions and structures for implementation.
At the same time, more prominence on the social and labor dimension would require a higher level of awareness among both Korean and ASEAN people to be more open, tolerant and understanding of the diversity of cultures, languages, ways of thinking and creative methods of action.
A suitable framework for cooperation requires improvements in existing mechanisms, such as bureaucracies and institutions dealing with social and labor issues, alongside economic and business relations.
The arrangements so far were ad hoc, temporary and fluid depending on the capacity of resources and leaders. Mutual respect for the diversity of social, political and economic systems require an institutional framework, with common values, legal principles and mechanisms for joint action and cooperation.
The ASEAN summit is to strengthen the shared determination to maintain regional peace, safeguard human rights, and sustain the commitment to democracy as norms to support the functioning of the competitive enterprise system which is the basis of trade.
At some point, Korea and ASEAN leaders need to put prominence on the social and labor dimensions of cooperation to define the emerging architecture, and foundations of regional integration.
The writer is a professor at Hanyang University in Ansan. He is from the Philippines and was a consultant with the ASEAN Secretariat on labor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com