ANSAN IS in fact, the city that is most populated with foreign workers in Korea. Now, it is common to spot a person in a working suit with different colored skin, eyes and hair in Korea. Unfortunately, however, we still live in a society today where prejudices still exist: similarities are accepted as the right answer and differences are considered the wrongs. While the inherent cultural differences between Koreans and foreigners may be the reason for discrimination against foreigners in Korea, this may also be the reason that foreigners’ wrongdoings are socially judged more severely.
Our neighbors from across the ocean
The world is rapidly globalizing, and Korea is surely one of the countries on the forefront of globalization. Before a hasty statement, however, it may be worth noting what globalization means in today’s world. Globalization is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as “the process by which business or other organizations develop international influence or start operating on an international scale,” but a broader view and definition of globalization is necessary. Simon Jeffery, the deputy web news editor of The Guardian, says that “globalization came to be seen as more than simply a way of doing business, or running financial markets.” Jeffery’s quote implies that globalization is not only a marketing process, like the orthodox definition suggests, but a way of living in today’s world. Globalization is therefore not only understood in terms of cooperation in international business, but as a “complex interdependence” that is evident in Korea today, where thousands of foreigners have crossed the vast seas and come to live in Korea. The foreigners and Koreans thereby interact in various ways, the most typical example being foreigners working for Korean companies. According to the statistics from The Seoul Institute, 25.5% of foreigners work for food and lodging industry.
According to the Korean Statistical Information Service (KOSIS), in 2012, there were a total of 1.4 million foreigners living in Korea. The statistics also reveal that the foreign population has shown a dramatic increase – nearly a fourteenth-fold increase since 1992. Although there are various reasons that foreigners come to reside in Korea, one of the biggest reasons is for work. With the advance of the Korean economy, the demand for workers has increased and foreign workers have started to come to Korea. Song Byung-jun (Chief, Korean Industry Research Institute) evidences that Korea has achieved an unprecedented, miraculous growth in its economy over the last 60 years. There have been significant developments in science and technological industries, particularly in disciplines such as Information and Communication Technology (ICT), that have increased the demand for foreign workers. This area of industry includes developments of smart phones, the internet, or cyber protection tools. Playing a key role in saving Korea out of the financial crisis of 1997, the industry grew even stronger with companies like Samsung competing in the global market, demanding more labor-intensive workers. However, with the advance of career market, Koreans started preferring “white collar” jobs more than those labor-laden jobs, often termed 3D jobs. The term is given because those jobs are “dirty, dangerous, and difficult.” The Korean avoidance of 3D jobs has led employers to search outside the box to find foreign employees for those positions. Another reason for the increase in population of foreign workers in Korea is because of the increase in interests of English education. The search for English native speakers has also contributed in the demand for foreign labor, leading to almost the half of the foreign residents in Seoul as workers – which amounts to 150 thousand people according to data from The Seoul Institute.
The nationalities of foreign workers as revealed by the Seoul Institute are varied, with the most number of Chinese, followed by Vietnamese and Americans. This data supports the finding by KOSIS, which again reveals that in total there are the most number of Asians, followed by North Americans and South Americans. According to Statistics Korea, most of those foreigners, up to 25.5%, are found to pursue jobs in the food and accommodation industry. The second most popular industry among foreign workers is the construction industry, followed by manufacturing, education, and lastly retail. As can be implied from the statistics, the majority of foreigners with the possible exception of workers in education, are in “blue collar” industries that require intensive manual work.
The public perception of foreign workers shows an interesting trend in Korea. Like the two sides of a coin, foreign workers are perceived by the public as either the perpetrators or the victims. They are sometimes criticized by their crimes, while in other times seen with the sympathetic gaze regarding their sufferings from the social discrimination, which is quite ironic.
The alien perpetrators
According to a thesis titled “Actual Analysis and Improvement Methods of Police Investigation of Foreigner Crime” by Lim Chang-ho, 0.7% of all crimes in Korea are committed by foreigners. Although the statistical portion of crimes caused by foreigners remains relatively low, Lim states that this proportion is increasing at a consistent rate. This increasing rate of crimes by foreigners is often explained by the increase in the number of foreign population. This may appear a plausible explanation, because with more number of foreigners, the number of foreign crimes should proportionally increase. However, increase in foreign population is not a sufficient explanation for the increase in crime rates. According to Lim, the foreign population has increased 1.7 times from 2003 to 2007, but there has been a 2.4 times increase in crimes caused by foreigners. Also, he revealed an alarming fact that 16% of all foreign criminals come to Korea with the intention of committing crimes. These all indicate that Korea is now more exposed to increasing crimes by foreigners than ever.
Today, crimes committed by foreigners are becoming more organized and professional than before by forming specialized organizations. For instance, there have been cases of Malaysian fake credit card organization, Chinese phone frauds, and Thai gambling organizations. According to statistics from the National Police Agency, organized criminal groups are most pronouncedly seen in violent and intellectual crimes, which compose nearly half of all foreign crime organizations.
Crimes committed by foreigners are also increasingly gaining mobility as the foreign workers are not confined to particular regions of residence anymore. Foreign workers have begun to inhibit the previously uninhabited areas like Busan, Daegu and Ulsan, implying that foreign crimes are likely to occur in more regions than before. Furthermore, it has become possible for perpetrators to flee easily to other areas of the country.
But are they protected?
According to the labor law, foreign workers in Korea are liable to apply for legal protections. In other words, once they are legally hired in a company, foreign workers are subject to almost equal laborer rights as Koreans. According to KBS news, foreign workers are liable for safety insurance, health insurance, and employment insurance. As such, the main difficulties do not lie in legal protection, but lies in basic necessities of life. For instance, according to the thesis “A Cause Analysis on the Social Exclusion of the Migrant Workers” by Seon Nam-yee, one of the biggest problems faced by the foreign workers is housing and food. A staggering 63.8% of the entire foreign worker population in Korea live in dormitories provided by their companies. These dormitories usually require the workers to share rooms with others, not to mention the fact that some are not even equipped with basic facilities like heating systems and showers. Furthermore, most foreign workers are provided lunch from their workplaces, but there are sometimes problems when eating food due to the cultural and dietary differences. This is because some workers, who are religiously prohibited from consuming of specific types of meat, are unable to eat the pork and beef that Korean companies provide at times.
Other problems are more workforce-related. According to Seon’s thesis, 50.9% of foreign workers in Korea replied that they spend 11 to 12 hours working daily. However, despite their long work day, receiving the appropriate overtime pay is scarce. In addition, foreign workers are frequently asked to work overtime during the holidays or the weekends, which is not an uncommon trend in Korean workforces. Seon’s thesis further accounts that in some extreme cases, some foreign workers are forced to stay in confinement at companies to work off their regular working hours.
Rooting out discrimination for equal protection
It is difficult to establish a solid conclusion regarding whether rates of crimes caused by foreigners in Korea are increasing due to a lax protection of foreigners. However, with better protection by law and other infrastructures, their rights would be more guaranteed. This means that the amount of crimes committed in order to fight for their rights will reduce.
This idea is what Lee Kwang-taek presents in his thesis titled “Legal Protection of Migrant Workers.” He believes that the root of discrimination against foreign workers starts from the fact that employers of Korean companies and industries prefer Korean workers. This may be due to the language and cultural barriers that the Korean employees and foreign employers experience. A manager at Fuji Xerox Korea, who wished to keep anonymous, echoed this idea. “The greatest difficulty that foreign workers experience in Korea is the language barrier. Sometimes it is difficult to convey the same meaning to foreign workers in English and this may result in misunderstanding.” Although big companies with branches worldwide like Xerox do not prevent foreign employment, smaller domestic companies naturally prefer to hire Korean employers for easier communication and understanding. Lee in his thesis states that this kind of discrimination is the first factor to root out in our society against foreign workers.
The employment permit system is another way to guarantee protection for foreign workers. Employment permit system is a set of law systems enforced by the Ministry of Labor since 2004. The Encyclopedia of Korean Culture defines the terminology as “a system that promotes employers to lawfully hire and manage foreign workers working for domestic companies or industries.” Lee suggests that as a means of strengthening the system, the system should encourage Korean employers in construction, manufacturing, and service industries to give priority for employment to foreign workers. He implies that this would prove to be positive for both the employers and foreign workers. As employers in such industries continually have had difficulties finding Korean workers to work in those areas, through the employment permit system, a win-win situation can be achieved. Employers will find it easier to find labor, while foreign workers can find work.
Introducing measures like the employment permit system that practically aids the foreigners with employment is important. However, as important is the need to eradicate the prejudices that exist against foreign workers among Koreans. In order to improve the current situation, several solutions have been presented. For instance, citizen-led crime prevention teams have been established in Kyunggi-do. In Kimpo, for example, 36 people of 9 different nationalities have gathered to create a team of crime prevention. The main role of the team is to look after minor crimes, caused especially by foreigners, by patrolling with police members. This system is not only a practical measure against prevention of foreigner crimes, but is also a way to eliminate prejudices against foreigners, as Koh Chang-kyung (Chief, Kimpo Police Station) says: “Our major goal is to also eliminate unjust preconception of foreigners that exist by volunteering and contributing to the society.”
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As the number of foreign residents in Korea has been increasing for more than 20 years, the number is likely to increase further in the future. And there are double sides to their problems. When we acknowledge this, it is time for us to learn to realize this precise double-sidedness. The society must act towards understanding them as a whole, recognizing their both sides and understanding the need for better infrastructure, and not judge them by the face of only either side of their problems.