South Korean businesses demand more migrant workers to relieve labour shortage

The 110,000 foreign workers the government expects to see next year represent, by far, the largest addition since 2004.

Choi Si-young

Choi Si-young

The Korea Herald


November 18, 2022

MANILA – Small and medium-sized businesses in South Korea are demanding more foreign workers than the government plans to bring in next year to plug the growing skills shortage, data showed Wednesday.

According to a survey conducted this month by the Korea Enterprises Federation, one of the five major business lobby groups, 55 percent of the 307 companies — comprising those with fewer than 300 employees — welcomed the government plan to add a 110,000-strong foreign workforce next year, a roughly 50 percent increase from this year.

But 40.1 percent of those polled — all suppliers making alloy bars and aluminum or parts for local automakers and shipbuilders — asked authorities to step up the plan that they said does not fully reflect demand. Parts makers working for automakers and shipbuilders were most vocal, the KEF said. The two sectors are hit hardest by a foreign labor crunch as young Koreans increasingly abandon blue-collar jobs.

The 110,000 foreign workers the government expects to see next year represent, by far, the largest addition since 2004, when rules were first set to relieve the local labor shortage with migrant workers, said Lim Young-tae, head of the KEF employment policy team.

“But 40 percent say that’s not enough and that tells us the crunch is worse than the government believes,” Lim said, adding the government should be more flexible in allowing foreign workers to stay here long enough so firms employing them will not have to deal with the job gap created by their “abrupt departure.”

Lim referred to the survey where about 70 percent of respondents requested a visa extension for foreign workers. Currently, foreign workers can work for a Korean business for up to nine years and eight months, and exceeding the cap would render them subject to punishment, regardless of the employer’s support.

But changing the status quo requires revising the law — something easier said than done — according to a senior official at the Labor Ministry. The official declined to elaborate whether any efforts are underway for policy shift, citing “interagency coordination” needed to make that happen. An official at the Justice Ministry, which also works on migrant workers, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the businesses surveyed cited relatively lower “worker productivity” as the biggest challenge making them think twice before recruiting foreign workers instead of harder-to-find locals. Ineffective communication was next, with labor costs and costs spent to accommodate their living here coming next on the list of complaints.

“Despite all the hurdles, that’s our best shot we have because it’s really getting harder for us to find Koreans. And I don’t see that trend changing anytime soon,” a senior official at a local auto parts maker said.

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