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The Peninsula

Migrants Seen As Economic Instruments

Published November 9, 2021
Author: Korea View

What Happened

  • South Korea will ease entry restrictions for migrant workers as long as they have been vaccinated and have negative COVID test results.
  • Small and medium-sized businesses in rural Korea have complained about labor shortages due to the sharp drop in the number of migrant workers during the pandemic.
  • In 2020, the death of a Cambodian migrant worker on a Korean farm after exposure to winter conditions led to greater scrutiny around the treatment of this community.

Implications: Human rights concerns are sometimes sidelined as the Korean government narrowly focuses on addressing economic concerns. While the government’s more lax entry requirements for migrant workers will bolster productivity in the rural economy, it has yet to address prevalent abuses facing this community. The Labor Ministry reported to the National Assembly in October 2020 that 90-114 migrant workers died each year from 2017 to 2019. Despite growing criticism from civil society organizations, little legislative action has taken place to better safeguard migrant workers. Discriminatory treatment of migrant workers was also on display during the pandemic when they faced tougher entry requirements versus arrivals from the United States despite the latter making up a more substantial share of imported COVID cases.

Context: The labor shortage is worsening as deaths outpace births in South Korea, causing a population imbalance between the young and elderly. The population declined for the first time last year. As a consequence, labor-intensive activities such as farms, factories, fisheries, and other small- and medium-sized businesses are increasingly dependent on migrant labor to make up for the lack of able-bodied Korean workers.

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.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Janet Hong, Yubin Huh, and Mai Anna Pressley. Picture from the flickr account of Exploring Our World

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