Authorities set the annual national minimum wage at 4,320 won (approximately $3.73) per hour, a 5.1 percent increase over 2010 and equal to the increase in the minimum cost of living. The minimum cost of living for a family of two was 942,197 won ($800) per month, and the 2011 Poverty Statistics Yearbook reported that one-fourth of household incomes failed to meet the minimum.
The law requires employers to allow 30 minutes’ rest in a four-hour work period and one hour’s rest in an eight-hour work period, to be taken within the work period. However, foreign companies operating in the EPZs are exempt from some labor regulations, including provisions that mandate paid leave, also referred to as “weekly rest.”
Persons working in the financial/insurance industry, publicly invested companies, state corporations, and companies with more than 20 employees are required to receive premium pay for work in excess of 40 hours per week at a 50 percent higher rate. The law also allows a flexible workhours system under which employers may require laborers to work up to 48 hours during certain weeks without paying overtime, so long as average weekly work hours for any given two-week period do not exceed 40 hours (and 52 hours during certain weeks without paying overtime, so long as average weekly work hours for any given three-month period do not exceed 40 hours). Management may ask employees to work up to 56 regular hours in a given week, during which workers may work more than 12 hours per day, if both the employer and the employee agree.
The government sets health and safety standards and is responsible for monitoring industry adherence to these standards.
A set of regulations, including the Employee Permit System (EPS), outlines legal protections for migrant and foreign workers. Permit holders may work only in certain industries and have limited job mobility, but they generally enjoy the same rights and privileges as citizens.
The government conducts labor inspections both proactively according to regulations and reactively in response to complaints. As of December there were 311 labor inspectors for industrial safety and welfare countrywide. According to the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA), inspectors at times faced difficulties in conducting inspections due to opposition from business owners or managers. The government provided technical assistance via KOSHA to resolve deficiencies discovered during inspections.
Foreign workers legally employed in Korea are registered in the EPS. Workers registered with the EPS and legally employed in the country have more rights than workers who are illegally employed. According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, as of November there were approximately 547,000 foreign workers residing in the country, approximately 497,000 of whom were admitted under the EPS.
Contract and other “nonregular” (part-time) workers accounted for a substantial portion of the workforce. The ministry reported that as of March there were approximately 5.77 million nonregular workers, comprising approximately 34 percent of the total workforce. In 2010 nonregular workers, as reported by the ministry, performed work similar to regular workers but received approximately 87 percent of the wages of regular workers.
The government continued to use the EPS to increase protections for and controls on foreign workers, while addressing the labor shortage in the manufacturing, construction, and agricultural sectors. In order to assist both employers and workers to understand better the applicable laws and regulations, the government provided pre-employment training to newly arrived foreign workers, workplace-adaptation training to those who changed workplaces, and training to employers who hired foreign workers.
On September 29, the Constitutional Court rejected a challenge to the EPS law’s three-workplace-changes limit as violating employment freedoms. Unless the Ministry of Justice grants an extension on humanitarian grounds, workers lose their legal status if they lose their job and do not find a new employer within three months. As of August 1, a revision to the Enforcement Regulations of the Act on Foreign Workers’ Employment allows employers to apply to rehire foreign workers within seven days of the expiration date of the permit, easing the earlier deadline of at least 45 days.
The government implemented social services and legal precedents to address complaints about the working conditions of foreigners. During the year the Ministry of Employment and Labor provided training on the EPS to employers hiring foreign workers and continued programs previously implemented for foreign workers to ease the difficulties of living and working in the country, including free legal advice, counseling, translation services, health checkups in their native language, and the establishment of several “human rights protection centers for foreigners.” In an effort to reach more foreign workers, telephone services were available in 10 languages.
NGOs and local media reported that nonregular workers were at greater risk for discrimination because of their status and that foreign laborers sometimes faced physical abuse and exploitation from employers in the form of longer working hours and lower wages than their Korean counterparts. The NGO Korea Migrant Center received reports of abuse of female entertainment visa holders. The ministry reported that foreign workers filed 5,227 complaints related to unpaid wages during 2011.
The government reports descriptions of and statistics on work-related injuries and fatalities on a quarterly basis on its Web sites. As of September there were 69,066 industrial, work-related accidents, a decrease of 3,005 compared with the same period in 2010. There were also 1,582 fatalities reported, a decrease of 10 compared with the same period in 2010. KOSHA provided training and subsidies to improve work safety and reduce work-related accidents. Since extending its services to migrant workers, KOSHA made training modules and materials available in 10 languages at worksites.