May 11, 2023
SEOUL – The government plans to allow Southeast Asian domestic helpers to work in Seoul as early as this year, but the pilot project will not include previously suggested provisions allowing employers to pay them below the minimum wage.
In a bid to raise the country’s record-low birth rate, Seoul City and the Ministry of Employment and Labor are reviewing a pilot project to bring domestic helpers from countries such as the Philippines to help families with childcare and housework.
“Within the first half of this year, we will draw up detailed plans on how to introduce the foreign domestic worker system, including when (it will start) and how many workers will be involved (in the pilot project),” a ministry official said.
The government plans to issue E-9 visas for the workers through the addition of domestic help to the list of fields allowed under the employment permit system. The workers can then be hired by families in Korea through certified service providers as early as this fall.
With South Korea’s minimum wage of 9,620 won ($7.27) per hour applied, foreign domestic workers’ hourly pay would be more than 30 percent lower than that of existing domestic helpers in Korea. The average hourly wages for local domestic helpers is around 13,000 won for Chinese nationals of Korean descent and over 15,000 won for Koreans.
Foreign domestic helpers are also likely to commute, rather than work as live-in helpers.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon has frequently called for foreign domestic workers to be allowed to work here to help raise birth rates and keep women from leaving the workforce mid-career, citing how they have been effective in Singapore and Hong Kong.
He wrote late last month on Facebook that he agrees with Nobel laureate and economist Michael Kremer who said South Korea needs an immigration policy, and mentioned Hong Kong and Singapore as examples that have successfully implemented large-scale special visa programs for foreign domestic workers.
“It is now time for our society to build a more tightly knit system to allow people to work and raise children at the same time. … There are voices against the (foreign domestic worker) system, but there is no good and evil in the system, we simply need to take the advantages it presents,” he wrote.
A revised bill to exempt foreign domestic workers from the minimum wage law was submitted in March, only to face strong criticism that it was discriminatory.
There are already Southeast Asians unofficially working as domestic helpers in Korea, and some believe that allowing them to work legally by applying minimum wage could lead to increased choice for parents with young children.
Others are concerned that the introduction of foreign domestic workers would lead local domestic helpers to lose their jobs, and that a monthly wage of 2 million won including holiday pay for commuting helpers is too high to bring about meaningful change in falling birth rates.