Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jung-Sik on Tuesday morning visited a farm in Pocheon, northern Gyeonggi Province, where four Cambodian migrant workers work and also live. The city, about 35 kilometers away from the nearest point of the inter-Korean border, was swept by frigid Arctic air late last month, plummeting wind chill to well below minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Despite the harsh conditions, the workers live, cultivating lettuce, young radishes and winter cabbages inside a large vinyl greenhouse operated by their Korean employer. There, the minister met two Cambodian women dressed for the cold, with their faces covered, squatting and tending to the crops. Through an interpreter, the minister began making casual conversation with them.
A Cambodian man, also an employee, joined the conversation and they moved to a room. The minister inquired about the difficulties of working and living on the farm.
There have reportedly been cases of some Korean employers offering foreign workers poorly prepared and unsatisfactory housing, which can be deadly in harsh summer or winter weather. After announcing last November that he would deal with the chronic problem, the minister decided to pay a personal visit to the farm.
“This year, we are expecting a particularly large number of foreign workers to arrive, as we have increased this year’s quota for migrant workers,” the minister said, Tuesday. “Employers, therefore, should prepare for that by preventing accidents and improving the living conditions offered. Especially during this winter marked by extreme cold, the workers need to be kept warm and safe. The government will continue discussing with the Korean employers how to better cater to foreign workers in this country.”
Labor Minister Lee Jung-Sik, center, talks to a Cambodian farm worker during his visit to Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday. Courtesy of Ministry of Employment and Labor
The minister paid special attention to the workers’ living spaces, checking whether it was heated properly and fire safety standards. Past reports showed that some foreign workers living together in the country tend to plug in various heating devices to a single multi-tap outlet beyond its maximum capacity, which creates a serious fire hazard. Other workers have been found enduring winter conditions while living in a vinyl greenhouse without insulation.
The minister’s Pocheon visit was part of the ministry’s regular routine to crack down on Korean employers across the country who are providing their foreign workers with unsatisfactory living spaces.
Last November to December, officials from the Foreign Workforce Division under the ministry’s International Cooperation Bureau screened the living conditions provided to migrant workers by 200 workplaces around the country. The authority shortlisted the businesses after enforcing a revised labor law in 2021 to improve living conditions for foreign workers. Forty from the list were singled out for violating the country’s renewed quality living standards and ordered to improve living conditions for their workers.
To better serve the foreign workers, the labor ministry worked with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to secure a budget for this year for introduce new dormitories for migrant agricultural workers. The labor ministry has also obliged all farming and fishery operators ― including small ones with five or less workers ― to sign industrial accident compensation insurance in order to hire migrant workers with E-9 visas.
On Wednesday, the ministry said it will accept the second round of applications from Feb. 16 to 28 from foreign workers interested in E-9 visas for working in Korea. About 20,000 foreign workers were issued visa last November and December. The four-round application process for this year’s employment pool aims to recruit nearly 90,000 workers in total. The second round, which seeks to issue the visa to more than 28,000 for manufacturing, agriculture and livestock farming, fishery, construction and service, hires the biggest portion among all four rounds.
“Almost 88,000 migrant workers had come to Korea with E-9 visas last year but it still didn’t solve the country’s workforce shortage problem for small businesses with not enough capital,” said Kim Eun-Cheol, an official from the International Cooperation Bureau. “We are trying to bring in a bigger pool of foreign workers and relocate them to workplaces in dire need of them as fast as possible.”