An estimated 710,000 foreign laborers work in manufacturing, construction, service, agriculture and livestock since the Employment Permit System came into effect in 2004 allowing foreigners to work in Korea. The system allows foreigners to live and work in Korea for up to five years, but then they must return to their home country.
The number of foreign laborers entering Korea rose from 77,000 in 2004 to 132,000 in 2008, but dropped to 34,000 in 2009 just after the global financial crisis. Some 48,000 have already arrived so far this year.
In 2009, 2,000 found jobs on farms, last year 3,100 and this year 4,500. As of July, 11,394 foreigners were working on farms in the country, up from 9,849 at the end of last year and exceeding 10,000 for the first time. But farms still face an acute shortage of workers and are competing to hire foreign laborers.
The quota for farmers is reached quickly due to a rush of applications from employers -- in some areas in just a few hours. Desperate to hang on to their hired foreign hands, employers not only provide food and lodging but take them out to restaurants regularly and even provide them with mobile phones. Some employers even try to find foreign brides for their foreign workers. But many foreign laborers, who are under pressure to make as much money as possible during their five-year stay, end up moving on to other farms that promise them just W100,000-200,000 (US$1=W1,055) more per month.
According to the Korea Rural Economic Institute, there were 1.65 million people working in farms in the country as of 2010, but another 122,985 workers are needed to manage farms adequately. "Between 60 to 70 percent of workers at farms are older than 65, and most of them will no longer be able to work five to 10 years from now," an institute staffer said. "This year alone, another 10,000 foreign laborers are needed to meet the demand."
But the Ministry of Employment and Labor said increasing the quota leads to a rise in the number of illegal aliens and cause a shortage of jobs for domestic workers, so it cannot simply increase the quota.