The annual national minimum wage was 4,860 won ($4.57) per hour. A person making the minimum wage for a 40-hour workweek would earn significantly less than the minimum monthly cost of living for a family of four, which was 1,495,550 won ($1,410), according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The law requires equal pay for equal work when men and women do work of equal value in the same business. Nevertheless, wage inequality was a concern (see section 6, Women).
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. Foreign companies operating in the EPZs are exempt from some labor regulations, however, 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 work hours 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. 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. In such cases employers should pay overtime, according to the Ministry of Employment and Labor.
The government sets occupational health and safety standards and is responsible for monitoring industry adherence to these standards. To heighten the effectiveness of standards, authorities during the year adopted stronger punishments to allow immediate judicial action against violators. Penalties for violations were increased to up to seven years in prison and fines to up to 100 million won ($94,100). The government conducted labor inspections both proactively, according to regulations, and reactively, within a month after an accident occurred. As of November there were 332 national full-time industrial accident prevention inspectors and 1,058 working condition inspectors working in 47 local offices countrywide. The government also conducted educational programs to prevent accidents. As of November there were no punishments for violations.
There were approximately 600,000 low-skilled migrant workers from elsewhere in Asia in the country, many of whom were employed legally under the government’s Employment Permit System (EPS). A set of regulations, including the 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.
Contract workers, irregular workers and part-time workers accounted for a substantial portion of the workforce, particularly in electronics, automotive, and services sectors. A study by the Ministry of Employment and Labor found that contract workers, who make up a workforce of approximately 8.6 million, earn only about two-thirds the wages of regular employees; this disparity increased in direct proportion to the size of the enterprise. During the year some efforts were made, for example, by major supermarket chains, to convert contract workers to permanent staff in response to labor union advocacy.
The government continued to use the EPS to increase protections for and controls on foreign workers, while addressing labor shortages in the manufacturing, construction, and agricultural sectors. To assist both employers and workers to understand better 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. The government supported 33 foreign worker support centers nationwide, a call center that provided foreign workers with counseling services in 14 languages, Korean language and cultural programs, shelter, and free healthcare services. The Ministry of Employment and Labor continued programs previously implemented for foreign workers, including free legal advice, counseling, translation services, health checkups in their native language, and the establishment of several “human rights protection centers for foreigners.”
Foreign workers who enter the country with a work visa as professionals, lecturers, or artists may by law change their jobs easily. Workers under the EPS faced multiple restrictions, however. Such workers lose their legal status if they lose their job and do not find a new employer within three months. If a migrant worker is not able to get a job within three months, authorities may cancel his/her work permit, forcing the worker to return home. This situation was particularly difficult for seasonal workers, such as those involved in agriculture or construction. Migrant laborers are required to return home after a maximum of four years and 10 months in the country but may apply to reenter after three months. This effectively prevented permanent emigration of migrant laborers, because by law a person must live in the country for at least five years to qualify for citizenship.
Regulations that took effect in 2012 deprived migrant workers of the right to peruse lists of companies that were hiring when they wanted to change jobs, which made it more difficult for these workers to change jobs freely. Employers effectively controlled the list of job-seeking workers and have the right to contact the person they choose.
The law prohibits discrimination against irregular workers (those who do not have full-time, permanent employment and who do not receive benefits at the same level as permanent workers) and requires the conversion of those employed longer than two years to permanent status. Both labor and business groups complained that the two-year conversion provision forces many businesses to limit the contract terms of irregular workers to two years and incur the cost for entry of new workers every two years. NGOs and local media reported that irregular workers were at greater risk for discrimination because of their status and that foreign laborers sometimes faced physical abuse and exploitation by employers in the form of longer working hours and lower wages than their citizen counterparts received.
Moreover, according to NGOs, contract changes, such as the deduction of accommodation or meal expenses from wages, also victimized migrant workers. Female migrant workers in South Korea reported that they were often sexually assaulted or harassed. According to a March survey of 205 women who entered South Korea on the EPS program, 10.7 percent said they had experienced sexual assault, unwanted physical contact, or demands for prostitution. In an estimated 80 percent of these cases, the culprits were bosses or managers. The findings were released in April by the migrant workers’ online network MNTV and the Korea Support Center for Foreign Workers. NGOs stated that workers often did not report abuse, because they feared blacklisting by employers. The workers might then be unable to find a job and be forced to leave the country after their cases are closed.
In October the NHRC released a survey indicating poor labor and living conditions for migrant workers in the agriculture and livestock industries. According to the survey, 68.9 percent of such workers experienced difficulty receiving full wages, 90.7 percent had to work longer hours than agreed contractually, and 71.1 percent received less than the minimum wage. Surveyed workers also reported a lack of privacy in living quarters (56.5 percent) and a lack of suitable bathroom facilities (39.8 percent) in employer-provided housing. Workers included in the survey reported experiencing verbal abuse (75.8 percent) and ethnic discrimination (83.9 percent), which echoed findings of a similar 2011 survey.
The government reports descriptions of and statistics on work-related injuries and fatalities on a quarterly basis on its websites. As of August there were 86,039 industrial work-related accidents reported and 1,464 fatalities. The government did not provide information on sectors most affected, although the Korea Labor Foundation reported that in 2012 deaths from industrial accidents were highest in manufacturing (29.1 percent). The highest number reported for occupational diseases among industrial accident victims was in manufacturing. Death from occupational diseases was greatest in mining, which accounted for 41.9 percent of deaths from occupational diseases.