Some old Koreans may remember the sight of a group of women from the provinces boarding an airplane bound for Okinawa at Gimpo International Airport to work at a farm in the southern Japanese island -- sometime in the late 1950s. It was an event for celebration because these young women represented the first South Korean migrant workers leaving their homes to earn foreign money on a government-arranged contract.
A few years later, the military government that took power in a coup began extra efforts to dispatch of young workers abroad as part of its economic development plan which needed as much foreign exchange as possible. The first target was West Germany, another divided country like South Korea which was most successful in postwar economic growth in Europe to require a lot of foreign labor.
Between 1963 and 1977, as many as 80,000 Korean men and 11,000 Korean women were employed in West German coal mines and hospitals while the Bonn government and German financial organizations provided public and commercial loans in the total amount of about 150 million deutschmarks to Seoul to help establish industrial facilities. There were rumors that the payments to Korean miners and nurses served as collateral for the German loans. Anyway, the sum total of their salaries accounted for up to 2 percent of Korea’s annual export volume during the period.
Time passed and many things have changed, including the movements of workers across the ocean. South Korea now has about 2 million foreigners who mostly are hired by small industrial firms that need menial workers. The number was 3 percent less than last year’s level but is expected to go up when COVID-19 restrictions are eased globally.
Chinese nationals of Korean origin take up the largest portion of 614,000, followed by 225,000 ethnic Chinese, 208,000 Vietnamese, 171,000 Thais, 78,000 Nepalese, 65,000 Uzbeks, and smaller numbers from India, Pakistan, Cambodia and Indonesia, according to Statistics Korea.
Meanwhile, the South Korean population recorded minus growth for the 13th quarter as of June 30, when the nation’s total birthrate hit an alarming 0.75, the lowest in the world – while about 2.1 ensures stable population. A demographic crisis has arrived in this country already known for the world’s highest or second highest divorce rate and suicide rate, now with the extremely low proportion of women willing to give birth to babies.
In this country of 51 million people, the total number of newborn babies dropped below 60,000 in the second quarter of 2022 for the first time and the number of births in the whole first half of the year stood at 128,138, which was 6 percent, or 8,116, less than last year’s. The birthrate of 0.75 means that nearly half of Korean women in child-bearing years do not want to give birth, considering that there still are women who give birth to two or more babies.
The steadily rising life expectancy in South Korea with quality medical care becoming ever more available slows down the pace of population reduction a bit these years in statistical reports. The distorted population structure dims the prospect for this country to maintain its pulse of social and economic activities. Fewer people have to sweat to feed more mouths. Farm mechanization raises agricultural productivity here but we see more and more imported grocery in our kitchens.
Scholars as well as religious people predict that the birthrate will rebound eventually, some foreseeing it as early as the 2030s, as abstaining from marriage and childbirth is against the human nature of love and sexual desire for reproduction. Until that time comes, the population will decline and human resources will be short for industries and national defense. Then, how are we ready for opening our work places wider to foreigners?
Since 2018, freelance writer Woo Choon-hee has followed the life in Korea of a Cambodian woman in her 20s who has worked on a farm in North Gyeongsang Province, picking sesame plant leaves, or “kkaennip,” which is often served as a side dish. In her recently published report, “The Struggle With Kkaennip – 1,500 Days With Cambodian Migrant Workers,” Woo reports how the woman named Nimol has fought against her Korean employer’s schemes to pay less for more work.
With an official work permit from the Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor, Nimol had a contract with her employer for an eight-hour workday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. including three hours of breaks to receive 40,000 won a day. In practice, she had to work 11 hours and 20 minutes to meet the required volume of the edible leaves. Her unpaid salary totaled 20 million won, of which only 7.5 million won was recovered with the intervention of ministry officials.
Complaints can lead to dismissal by the farm owner, which means possible deportation. The situation with Nimol’s colleagues from Thailand who were overstaying their work permit is even worse because they could not argue with their employer on working conditions or question them on the difference between their salaries and the official minimum wage, Woo writes.
They seek advice from the Global Citizens’ Terminal, a body of present and former migrant workers with safer status of sojourn, which teaches visitors ways to prepare themselves for disputes with employers. Nimol’s mobile phone photo gallery has shots of her digital watch showing her working before the 7 a.m. schedule alongside the bundle of kkaennip she had picked already. She worked 330 hours a month, 100 hours beyond what is required by her contract, and her salary was in arrears.
These individual cases Woo cited in her story, however, would not prevent many Asian youth from harboring their “Korean dream.” They will keep coming here in increasing numbers in the days ahead to take up jobs that require nimble hands but are shunned by educated Koreans.
As we recall, it was fortunate that the West German employers left few stories of injustice against the workers from a poor faraway Asian country and the two peoples have remained amicable in the following decades. There can be problems with migrant workers from Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and China, but the hosts should ensure fair treatment of those who are essential to sustain the Korean economy. And why not have many Korea-friendly citizens and families in these developing nations?
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald and managing editor of the Korea Times. – Ed.