Sharma Sagar is the new face of Korean manufacturing. He’s from Nepal.
Sagar studied Korean for years, competing with other candidates in his native Himalayan homeland to be chosen by a joint-government program that was set up to help South Korea supplement its dwindling labor pool.
“Everyone wanted to come,” said Sagar, who has been mixing materials to produce vinyl at Homyeong Chemical Industrial Co. north of Seoul since he arrived in May. “I’m earning a lot here, about 20 to 25 times more than my friends back home. I want to stay here as long as possible.”
With one of the world’s fastest-aging populations, South Korea has gone from a country where labor was the only abundant resource to one seeking staff to help run the plants and farms of Asia’s fourth-largest economy. While neighboring Japan has largely rejected imported labor as a solution to its aging workforce, South Korea is beginning to accept it. Immigrants have risen sevenfold since 2000, to 2.8 percent of the population, and could make up more than 6 percent by 2030, the government said.
“We should take preemptive structural action to tackle the aging population in order to avert Japan’s path of the so-called lost decades,” said Choi Kwang Hae, a director-general at the Finance Ministry. “It’s inevitable that we will have to absorb foreign labor to boost our economy.”
As the won strengthens and the yen weakens, some of South Korea’s exporters are increasingly looking to hire abroad to cut costs and remain competitive. In the past six months, the won has gained 4.3 percent against the U.S. dollar, while the yen has fallen 16 percent.
“Our factory can’t operate without foreign workers,” said Park Kwang Seo, director at Homyeong Chemical, which supplies packaging to Coca-Cola Co. and coating films to Samsung Electronics Co. “Our business is growing fast and we need to hire more to meet the demand.”
The government announced steps on Nov. 28 to attract more immigrants, including easing visa and citizenship requirements and giving more social support for settlement.
“Demand will increase sharply for foreign labor in each part of our society,” Prime Minister Kim Hwang Sik said in a statement at the time. “We should take pre-emptive action with a comprehensive and long-term perspective to maximize benefits from inflows of foreigners.”
There were 1.45 million foreign residents in South Korea in December, up from 210,249 in 2000, according to the Ministry of Justice. The number will rise to 3.2 million in 2030, according to the ministry.
With a birth rate of 1.24 children per woman in 2011, South Korea will be short 2.8 million workers by 2030, according to a Finance Ministry report released on Dec. 26. The nation’s potential gross domestic product growth would drop to 1.9 percent by 2031 from a 3.8 percent average pace during 2011-2020, the report said.
Readers might be interested to go through the archives, checking other posts tagged with Korea and South Korea. The article explores some of the major themes we've examined here: the rapid aging of the South Korean population, labour migration from China mainly by ethnic Koreans, marriage migration from Southeast Asia, problems associated with recruiting migrants into higher-paying positions and rigid barriers, and so on. The looming potential of North Korea, as a source of migrants or a cause for migration, isn't mentioned.
One thing, however, seems clear: South Korea is a country that people are moving to.