Re-thinking of Korean recruitment process for multicultural society based on applying principles of justice



Political Science and International Studies

Dongwook Lee


I. Introduction

(1) Goal

The number of foreigners staying in South Korea has exceeded one million, reaching 1,418,149 as of 2011. Among these foreigners, 720,000 people are migrant workers. Among 1.4 million, China leads the top with 49.6%, followed by the United States (9.6%), Vietnam (8.2%), Japan (3.7%), Philippines (3.5), and Thailand (3.0%). As of September 2011, there are 550,000 workers with a legal working visa, 93,000 students abroad in the workforce, and about 170,000 illegal workers.

The goal of this essay is to assess current recruitment process and its details for foreigners in Korea about whether they violate certain principles of justice, to determine the most suitable political philosophy to be applied in 2013, and give remedies to each injustice. In this essay I will try to explain the concept of justice that Korean society thinks in terms of labor market for foreigners. What is the political philosophy that needs to be applied in Korea the most in order to remedy the most serious problem? If so, how do we measure and decide that problem?


(2) Current research trends

            Current research on foreign workers focused on efficient management, and government policy in order to control supply and demand. It covered how to legally resolve problems of protection of rights of foreign workers with arguments whether it advocates or opposes foreign workforce import as it is. Rather than focusing on founding principles of the government's policy making behavior and customs of companies hiring foreign workers, current research so far has been focused only on raising precision of statistics or giving solutions to improve situations of Korea and Korean employers. It can be natural that Korean government organizations and related research institutes have incentives to work for the benefit of Korea in its perspective, but they seem to have almost neglected perspectives of foreign workers, notably whether current recruiting system is just.


(3) Methodology

This essay does not try to find out which regulation or institution should be fixed. Everyone has different thoughts about justice, so it is impossible to say that Korea should unify every rules based on utilitarianism, for example. But there are certainly Korean labor practices based on specific principles of justice. In order to lead to the conclusion, this essay will suggest the starting point of premise or fact that all principles of justice agree upon, and then criticize current government institutions or real life examples based on it.


II. Elements of Political Liberalism and Distributive Justice

(1) Increased quota of foreign workers 

Given the situation that small-scale low-skill manufacturing industry in the suburban areas of Seoul, notably in Ansan, Hwaseong, Siheung and Bucheon, is in dearth of Korean native workers who can voluntarily devote their skills and time in those factories, migrant workers, whether legal or illegal, are forming the lower stratum of the necessary workforce. Thus, the concept of community should be the entire workforce needed to move the economy of Korea, and migrant workers have legitimate cause in terms of justice to continue working. Regardless of possible discrimination in recruiting new migrant workers in factories, they have a just right to work for the solidarity with Korean factory owners and other Korean workers. Furthermore, advocating the equal right or liberty of foreign workers to work in Korea is necessary to maintain good reputation of Korean government in international relations. In institutionalism rooted in Kant's democratic peace theory, preserving infrastructure and resources including human resources plays an important part to eschew war between democratic countries. A maxim of one country should be applied to other countries as well, giving birth to the idea of reciprocity as a result, regardless of difference of GDP and national power.

In fact, Korean government thinks of lack of domestic workforce in 3D industry as a serious problem, and as a response it has started recruitment promotion of migrant workers in regions outside Seoul metropolitan area from 2007. Even if the institution was made in order to follow the difference principle, to subsidize industries with the least attractiveness as a workplace, there cannot be no complaints about discrimination between the similar recipients of benefits. The government sets a maximum number of workers available to work in a specific business unit, as equal or less than 5 people when number of employees entitled medical insurance is equal or less than 10, 10 people for 11~50 people, 15 people for 51~100 people, regardless of field of business. This quota works as a measure to protect Korean domestic workers in general. However, as Seoul also accommodates similar companies having a same problem of lack of workers, business units in Seoul complain about reverse discrimination against the government measure to allow business units in outside Seoul to employ 20% of foreign workers more. (경인일보, "외국인 고용허가제 '수도권 역차별', July 17, 2012) If the quota is set less than quantity of demand for annual foreign workers in this continuing lack of workforce, companies would employ more illegal workers not visible in the documentation which would eventually lead to higher crime rate caused by those workers. This is one example of the institution to manipulate freedom based on administrative area.

Also, liberal idea suggested by the government has good intention, but it ruined the smooth cycle of workforce in practice. The government does not give chance to be recruited legally to all foreign workers currently in Korea. There is no member in government who feels solidarity with foreign workers in general. As a result, owners of factories in Gyeonggi province started to oust illegal workers for fear that they might also be caught of illegally recruiting workers without government authorization. Political liberalism led to loss of high quality but illegal workers who can fluently speak Korean.


(2) Redistribution or difference principle

From the Rawls's perspective of distributive justice, remedying problems of a free market in order to give advantage to economic actors with less capability or less attractiveness produces a just distribution of income and wealth because the society's moral perspective makes distribution of workers, including domestic and foreign, arbitrary. Government simply focuses on natural assets of each workplace and tries to minimize the effect of natural lottery and historical or social fortune. Every workplace deserves hiring foreign workers at wages lower than that for Korean workers, and the one with apparently more inferior condition gets more ability to recruit foreigners. Government showed the real example of ambiguous barometer of the least advantaged: actually there is no such difference between workplaces in suburbs and central Seoul. If there is no clear distinction that objectively finds out a group of people that need redistribution of benefits without possibility of reverse discrimination, how can we realize the ideal that Rawls imagined?

While the number of foreign workers is constantly spiking up in order to form a multicultural society in Korea, native Koreans are still stuck with the idea of 'one ethnic identity and related myth'. That is why in July 2007, UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) strongly urged Korea to renounce on the idea of one ethnic tribe in order to promote the multiethnic characteristic and move on relevant government dispositions. But Korea still has distribution of work field based on certain ethnic groups. This is ascribed to the image created by the mass communication media, that the white people work as English teachers with high salaries in public and private schools, hakwons and private large companies. 

What would be the principles of justice for the society of migration in South Korea? We can say that those born from their Southeast Asian parents in South Korea are going to be integrated in a South Korean society, and they will die in this country, but newly came migrants are not deemed as having equal conceptions of good and sense of justice. Since a substantial majority of politically active citizens support an enduring and secure democratic regime, Korean democratic society is ruled by free and equal citizens based on Korean ethnic priorities. There is a rare chance that migrants form a majority in a specific subgroup of society, and Korea is not a cosmopolitan society from its short history of global openness. Rawls's principles of justice cannot explain solutions to the society where reasonable people from abroad suddenly integrate into one homogeneous society, so that minority which is vulnerable to making their moral and religious doctrines is completely neglected. Since the starting point becomes different from what he supposed, we cannot predict whether this society would lead to a fair agreement. 

Rawls's hypothetical setting of conditions is helpful for his logical linking of thoughts, but if only a minority of a society is not the target of social cooperation, his theory lacks explanatory power. We can think of intervention of a great power of a mediator or state as Hobbes purported, so that making institutions and enforcement mechanism can solve all conflicts and introduce monitored cooperation. However, political liberalism only focuses on citizens having political reason and political agreement with the principle of toleration. Are citizens in South Korea tolerant to the disabled and migrants? What would be the result if some people are not willing to cooperate with them?

As communitarianism works in favor of nationality decided as a community that does not change, it leads to obligations of solidarity for citizens having nationality in South Korea. Some government officials and most employers have this principle going beyond political liberalism. This is the point where free will of foreign workers becomes nonexistent. Against those foreigners who claim their rights to expand the labor market to the global level to work, Walzer might reject the appeal to rights and adopts in its place a conception of membership in a community, a conception that poses a powerful challenge to political theories that put rights first. When obligation comes first than rights mixed with a Korean traditional Confucian hierarchy and meritocracy mixed with racial discrimination, it creates a worst situation for foreign workers, especially Joseonjok, Japanese students against employers having anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment, and most severely, migrant workers from Southwest Asia.


III. Elements of Utilitarianism 

(1) Status transfer and job training

In order to maximize utility for the majority, Korean government actively supported migrant workers, especially illegal workers from low income countries compared to domestic workers. Abrupt economic growth led to rise in salary, thus making numerous small and medium sized industries based on 3D-difficult, dirty, dangerous- jobs trapped in lack of workforce. Whereas big companies used their capital to move the production facilities to overseas in order to lower wages and focus on capital, SMEs could not have another choice but to stay in Korea. Recognizing this problem and gap, the government started economic cooperation to make foreigners staying in Korea officially register as students of job training program in Korean SMEs and thus admitting regular position recruitment to help eliminate lack of workforce in those enterprises.

After the foreign workers are trained enough to be called skilled workers, after 4 years and 10 months of continuous work in one small-sized workplace without replacement, from July 2012 they have a chance to work again in the same workplace easily after entering Korea again after 3 months of departure. This should not be misconstrued as government intervention, but rather this is a government measure towards bringing more freedom of choice of individuals.

In order to change the status of illegal workers to legal workers, the government introduced a D3 visa of job trainees, in November 1991 for foreign investment companies and in November 1993 for small-and-medium-sized manufacturers, construction companies and farming businesses. Before the recruitment process, government intervened in order to raise utility of a community of workers and employers. Since the utility of Korean employers to have an advantage to mistreat foreign employees must be valued lower than the utility of foreign employees getting changed status from illegal to legal employee, this government measure is worth called utilitarian measure.


(2) Wage discrimination by companies

If the government did not care anything about wage discrimination between migrant and domestic workers, then the companies' measure of wage discrimination can be said to have followed the principle of utilitarianism, where more and more people think that they are well off with or without arbitrary help. Similar to price discrimination in order to maximize producer surplus in economics, wage discrimination is used in order to maximize surplus of producer of labor. As more SMEs are happy that they can employ workers in order to move their machines, and migrant workers are given legal rights to work in Korea, it looks like having achieved the greatest utility for the greatest number.

Employers of SMEs intend to justify their wage policy by arguing that giving salaries to workers based on Won-foreign currency exchange rate is without problem. In fact, government supports this idea and even foreign workers do not think of this as a big problem, since the wage they get can bring more financial benefit to their family when the money is transferred, than the benefit if they worked in their mother countries. Government decision is based on one research conducted by Korea Labor Institute in 2002. It estimates wage per hour for domestic workers as 4,833 KRW, while setting the appropriate wage per hour for foreign workers as 3,183 KRW, 65.9% of the Korean one. Productivity estimates of foreign workers is 76.4% compared to the Korean one, saying that hiring foreign workforce is advantageous for employers in terms of productivity per wage. Although the sample is limited to regular workers in construction sites, it tries to show how foreign workers might be happy if they are just hired without demanding detailed good working conditions or equality with other Korean workers. In fact they are not treated as equal ends in themselves, although it is not easy to find Korean substitute workers in Korea who are able to do framing, carpentry and plasterwork which all need careful technic.

But is this good or just in the long run? Before long, migrant workers will realize that actually there does not need to be any difference in treatment or value of a person according to nationality. If they improve language skills and be more impregnated to Korean business norms and culture, discourse about difference of productivity will lose its justification. Like Korean and Japanese working in France having same treatment as the French workers, workers skilled enough in Bangladesh who do not claim any difference in working skills with another Korean co-worker will demand higher wages. If the factory denies it, then the efforts of government towards maximum utility erode to fall back to a situation of lack of workers where the both sides are not satisfied. And most importantly, utilitarian approach of the government lacks justification because even in the situation where it's unclear why maximizing utility should be considered a moral duty, government pursued wage discrimination as a moral duty in its perspective. 


IV. Elements of Libertarianism

(1) No intervention of government

There is no intervention of government for the recruiting process and events organized by foreign workers as associations. For example, there is no limitation to make events for gathering of foreign workers according to their nationality, in cinemas in Daehakno or at Hangang riverside park.

However, recruitment process already set up based on libertarian ideas has led to minimalist state role in treating illegal workers pulling side effects, as often seen in the case like this: "I worked in more than 30 workplaces over the past 7 years. I only received payments from 7 of them, and received none from others where I cannot use any possible means because I do not own a visa. I have more than 5 million won unpaid, and if I try to fight with the owner, then the owner will call me to the police. I have no choice but to leave that kind of workplace." The state's role is limited to setting up a fair condition for migrant workers to be recruited, and it does not expand to managing and monitoring things happening inside the workplace after the recruitment process. The government does not care about them because after the recruitment, workers have become means inside the realm of private property. Since libertarianism also emphasizes fair opportunity as an element of justice, the government takes no humanitarian approach in order to save lives of migrant workers illegally working in Korea. This is linked to the principle of 'no paternalism' of the government, that employers have a directive to have a rational choice, and foreign workers also have it. However, current situation of the labor market for foreigners is not suitable for positive development of a libertarian society. Self-ownership can be achieved, but itself cannot bring any more benefit to justify income disparity and unequal living conditions, because the minimal state even set a difference between legal and illegal workers. Freedom is a value praised by libertarians, but in Korea for foreign workers freedom means nothing. And even employers do not benefit at all by freedom of workers and themselves to participate in business having concept of private property.


V. Conclusion: Most suitable principle of justice for Korea

The government and companies can take various principles of justice, but in order to cope with the most serious problem that threats lives of people, the most needed remedy is giving equal rights of participation to the labor market, which is most inclined to political liberalism. Korea is currently not living by domestic workforce and material demand only, so the country's identity is destined to move towards a community to a global level. This expanded identity obviously leads to justification of trade of workforce, so that Korea must be prepared in providing business and institutional environment. Political liberalism that does not exceed the limit to go further to communitarianism to think of ourselves as citizens having Korean nationality and working for the benefit of Korean ethnic community, is the most needed principle in future legislation of government and recruitment process of Korean companies.

Utilitarian approach of Korean government and employers is also accepted, but it comes second to political liberalism. As long as discrimination against foreign workers exists, government intervention towards bringing up their rights would lead to decreased utility for employers who want decent American, European or Chinese workers. There are also general taxpayers who do not want the government to spend money on job training for foreign workers. 

However, what this essay claims has limitation in determining principles of justice by quantitative methods using various statistical data. Also, this essay did not prove the current situation of sentiments of racial discrimination and nationalism, but rather deemed it as a premise for argument. But this analysis would surely help understand the problem and give Korean government officials and employers ways of thinking towards economic benefit along with achieving justice.


2013년 1학기 정의론 (장동진 교수님) Term Paper입니다. 개인적으로 애정이 가는 글.

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