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Friday, December 1, 2023

Flow of foreign workers welcomed by Korean firms

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Foreign workers at Incheon International Airport in July last year. [NEWS1]
Foreign workers at Incheon International Airport in July last year. [NEWS1]

Small and medium-sized companies have thrown their support behind the government’s push to allow more foreign workers to Korea.

“The increase in the quota for skilled worker visas is a policy that properly understands and solves the difficulties in the field,” Donghyung ENG CEO Lee Moo-deok told the JoongAng Ilbo Thursday. Donghyung ENG is a corporate partner of Hyundai Heavy Industries, the shipbuilding company with the most contracts in the world.

“Vessel launches are delayed by around 40 days as the shipbuilding industry is severely understaffed,” Lee added.

The government’s plan to issue more than 30,000 E-7-4 visas this year was announced by the president’s office Wednesday. There were 2,000 E-7-4 visas issued last year and 1,000 in 2020.

E-7-4 visas are issued to foreign workers who engage in fields designated by the government to enhance national competitiveness. The skilled worker visa practically allows foreigners to stay in Korea permanently, offering a 3-year base period with unlimited renewals.

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon raised the need to resolve the labor shortage in key sectors and said the ministry is working to boost the number of foreign workers during a fiscal management meeting presided by President Yoon,

Focus remains on whether such a move will help these industrial sectors, such as shipbuilding, casting, welding and molding, overcome their chronic labor shortage.

According to the Trade Ministry, Korean shipbuilders booked the highest number of first-quarter orders since 2011 at 3,868 compensated gross tonnage, solidifying their leading position in the global market.

“We’ve been training non-professionals [under the E-9 visa] to fill in the shortage of workers, but these people return to their countries after a short period of time,” said Yang Tae-seok, owner of a casting company in Incheon. E-9 visa holders can stay up to four years and 10 months in Korea.

“We look forward to the government lowering the bar for transitioning their visa to a skilled worker visa [E-7-4],” Yang added.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) have also called for eased regulations on payments for foreign workers. Until last year, foreign workers needed to be paid more than 32 million won ($24,300) — or 80 percent of Korea’s gross national income (GNI) for the previous year — to be eligible for the E-7-4 visa.

Starting this year, this was lowered to 70 percent of Korea’s GNI, or 28 million won, but SMEs argue that more foreign workers may come if the rule becomes more lenient.

“E-7 visa’s wage requirement was implemented to ease woes over foreigners on a low payroll taking over Koreans’ jobs,” said former Jeju Immigration Office chief Kim Do-gyun.

However, there is room for flexible enforcement for occupations that are not considered top-priorities by Koreans, the ex-immigration chief added.

BY BAEK IL-HYUN,SOHN DONG-JOO [sohn.dongjoo@joongang.co.kr]