South Korea to Allow Record Number of Nonprofessional Migrant Workers in 2024

SEOUL - In an effort to address the growing labor shortage in various sectors, the South Korean government plans to allow a record number of 165,000 nonprofessional migrant workers in 2024. This decision was announced by the Ministry of Employment and Labor on Monday as part of the Employment Permit System. The move aims to alleviate deepening labor shortage problems across a broad range of industries, reflecting the increasing need for foreign labor in the country's workforce.

According to Yonhap News Agency, the plan includes expanding the sectors where foreign workers with the E-9 visa can be employed, adding the restaurant, mining, and forestry industries to the existing list of agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, and construction. This expansion signifies the government's attempt to meet the rising demand for migrant workers, as the number of E-9 visa holders has escalated from 52,000 in 2021 to 120,000 in 2023, with a further increase expected next year.

The necessity of this expansion is highlighted by the acute labor shortage faced by small and medium-sized companies. As of September, there were about 215,000 unfilled jobs in various sectors, including manufacturing, shipbuilding, and retail. The shipbuilding sector, in particular, is in urgent need of new hires due to a surge in orders.

However, alongside this expansion, concerns regarding the treatment and integration of migrant workers have been raised. Critics argue that the government's approach might be a short-term solution, overlooking the need for improved labor conditions and higher wages that could attract local workers. The potential rush by small enterprises to hire migrant workers solely to reduce labor costs could negatively impact long-term productivity.

Moreover, the increasing number of unregistered migrant workers, estimated to be around 430,000, poses challenges related to labor law violations, human rights issues, and social conflicts. Many E-9 visa holders find themselves in poor labor environments with low pay, often leading them to leave their initial registered workplaces for better opportunities, sometimes in violation of their contracts and the Employment Permit System.

As South Korea is on the brink of becoming a multiracial country, with foreign residents expected to reach 5.1 percent in 2024, the government is urged to implement long-term policies. These policies should aim to improve overall working conditions, enhance the public perception of foreign workers, and integrate them as part of a diverse and multicultural Korean society. The balance between local and foreign workers in the labor market is crucial for the nation's economic and social stability.

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