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The Peninsula

Korean Agriculture’s Dependence on Migrant Workers

Published March 25, 2020
Author: Korea View

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • South Korea’s agricultural industry is struggling with labor shortage as the outbreak of coronavirus is hampering the entry of seasonal migrant workers to South Korea.
  • Last year, South Korea began allowing seasonal migrant workers to stay longer in the country in an effort to tackle labor shortage problems in the agricultural industry.
  • In 2019, there were 3,479 seasonal migrant workers in the agricultural industry. 1,535 from Vietnam, 1,142 from the Philippines, and 233 from China.
  • Since 2015, the number of foreign seasonal workers increased at an average annual rate of 6.2 percent.

Implications: The outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions on travel highlighted South Korean agriculture industry’s heavy dependence on foreign workers. As international flights to and from South Korea are de facto suspended, seasonal workers who are left without any travel options had to cancel their work trips. Farmers do not have many alternative sources of labor as many undocumented migrants are also returning to their home countries. The resulting labor shortage will likely impact both productivity and yield of South Korea’s agricultural sector.

Context: South Korea’s agriculture industry has been increasingly reliant on foreign workers to offset the chronic labor shortage in rural areas. In 2015, the South Korean government introduced a program that allows farmers to hire seasonal migrant workers to alleviate the labor shortage problem. According to the 2018 report by Korean International Migration Studies Association, the program has been widely popular, with demand for workers always surpassing their availability. In response to this high demand, the government gradually expanded the program, allowing more farm owners to hire more foreign workers. The program which started off with 19 foreign workers in 2015 was expecting to assign 4,797 foreign seasonal workers to 48 cities this year.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

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