e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: During the year the minimum wage increased 1.5 percent and was above the official poverty line.
The law allows a flexible system under which employees may work more than eight hours during certain days and more than 40 hours per week during certain weeks (up to a maximum of 52 hours in a single week), so long as average weekly work hours for any two-week period do not exceed 40 hours and workers have a mandatory day of rest each week. For employers who adopt a flexible system, hours exceeding 80 in a two-week period constitute overtime. Foreign companies operating in export-processing zones are exempt from labor regulations that mandate one day of rest a week. The law limits overtime of ordinary workers to 12 hours a week. Standards for working and rest hours and paid leave do not apply to seafarers; overtime pay standards apply to fishermen on coastal fishing vessels, but not to those deep-sea fishing vessels. The annual ministerial notification set a minimum wage for Korean crewmembers but not migrant crewmembers, who, according to an NGO, earned just one-fifth of the Republic of Korea minimum wage.
Unions said that during the COVID-19 pandemic there were almost no reported violations of overtime laws. Official statistics showed 566,000 workers held second “side jobs” as of July, working as drivers, couriers, or in service jobs to cover or supplement living expenses. In June and October, delivery workers held nationwide strikes protesting long hours and strenuous work conditions that led to the deaths of 16 delivery workers in 2020.
The government generally effectively enforced laws on wages and acceptable conditions of work in most sectors, but migrants faced discriminatory laws and practices. The Labor Ministry was responsible for enforcement of these laws and the number of labor inspectors was sufficient to deter violations in most sectors. Inspectors had the authority to identify unsafe conditions, conduct unannounced visits, and issue corrective orders. Penalties for violations included imprisonment and fines and were generally commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.
Regulations outline legal protections for migrant and foreign workers. Inspections covered businesses with foreign workers, particularly in the agriculture, livestock, fisheries, and construction sectors, which generally had poor working conditions. Migrants’ rights advocates noted the government inspected only a small percentage of workplaces that hire migrant workers and asserted that employers were not deterred from violating labor standards because most inspections were perfunctory and, even if violations were found, the typical result was a corrective order.
NGOs and local media reported discrimination against workers who do not have full-time, permanent employment and who do not receive benefits at the same level as permanent workers. For example, while the law requires the conversion to permanent status of those employed longer than two years, employers often laid off irregular workers shortly before the two-year mark. To address this the government provides subsidies and tax breaks to encourage businesses to hire temporary workers on a permanent basis, according to the labor ministry.
Migrant workers faced multiple restrictions on employment mobility, which left them vulnerable to exploitation. NGOs continued to push for changes to the employment permit system to allow migrant workers the freedom to change employers. Migrant workers generally must obtain the consent of their current employers to switch jobs or can request a change based on very limited circumstances beyond their control. The Ministry of Labor in April added unacceptable employer-provided housing (e.g., vinyl greenhouses) as another reason workers could request a change in workplace under this structure, which also includes overdue or nonpayment of wages, sexual assault, a workplace accident, and others. Workers’ rights NGOs noted the burden was on the worker to present evidence of the mistreatment to avail themselves of these provisions, making it very difficult to switch jobs without the employer’s consent.
A December 2020 Reuters report found 522 Thai migrant workers had died in the Republic of Korea since 2015, based on documents obtained from the Thai Embassy in Seoul. Forty percent of the deaths were from unknown causes, and 60 percent were health-related, accidents, or suicides. The Thai Embassy estimated only a tenth of the 185,000 Thai migrants held legal status in the country. Media and NGOs claimed a flawed employment permit system places migrant workers in precarious situations.
To prevent violations and improve working conditions for migrant and foreign workers, the government provided preemployment training to newly arrived foreign workers, workplace adaptation training to those who changed workplaces, and training to employers who hired foreign workers. In April the law was amended to require all employers of foreign workers under the employment permit system to receive training on labor laws and human rights. The government funded 45 foreign workers support centers nationwide to provide foreign workers with counseling services in 16 languages, Korean language and cultural programs, shelter, and free health-care services. It also ran a call center to help foreign workers resolve grievances. The government also funded multicultural family and migrant plus centers to provide foreign workers, international marriage immigrants, and other multicultural families with a one-stop service center providing immigration, welfare, and education services.
The law requires severance payments to migrant workers who have worked in the country for at least one year. Many workers, however, reported difficulty in receiving severance pay prior to their departure and stated they did not receive payments even after returning to their country of origin, due to banking regulations and delinquent employers. NGOs confirmed many departing migrants never received these payments and that the COVID-19 pandemic magnified these difficulties.
Some NGOs reported migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to exploitation because the law excludes regulations on working hours, holidays, and benefits for the agricultural, livestock, and fisheries industries that had large numbers of migrant workers. Foreign laborers sometimes faced physical abuse and exploitation by employers in the form of longer working hours, fewer days off, and lower wages than their local counterparts. According to NGOs, the government only occasionally investigated reports of poor or abusive working conditions for migrants, and court cases were often dismissed due to insufficient evidence.
Surveys show nearly all migrant workers lived in housing provided by their employers. In the farming and fisheries sector, 70 percent reported living in makeshift structures made of assembled panels, containers, or structures covered with vinyl sheeting. After a Cambodian worker was found dead in December 2020 in a vinyl greenhouse with a malfunctioning heating unit, the Labor Ministry announced in January it would no longer issue employment permits to employers in the agriculture and fisheries industries who house foreign workers in makeshift structures. This took effect in other industries in July, although NGOs claimed the government granted some employers a grace period until September.
Occupational Safety and Health: The Korea Occupational Health and Safety Agency, under the supervision of the Ministry of Employment and Labor, established occupational health and safety standards and worked to identify unsafe working conditions. Under the law workers in every sector have the right to remove themselves from situations of danger without jeopardizing their employment. In addition to broad reforms in 2020 to occupational health and safety law, including increased penalties for workplace fatalities and health and safety violations, in January the government announced even stricter penalties for certain industrial accidents. In January the National Assembly passed the Serious Accident Punishment Act, which, when it takes effect in January 2022, will require stricter compliance from business owners and place responsibility for accident prevention on CEOs.
The Ministry of Employment and Labor had 815 health and safety inspectors and conducted 12,097 workplace inspections from January to July, an increase compared with the same period last year.
The government enforced the law, and penalties for violations were commensurate with those for analogous crimes such as gross negligence. According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, there were 108,379 industrial accidents in 2020, similar to 2019, and 2,062 occupational deaths. The leading causes of workplace deaths were falls and accidents involving equipment in the construction and manufacturing sectors. The ministry acknowledged that challenges remained in further reducing the level of fatal accidents to that on par with other advanced countries; ensuring the safety of workers vulnerable to occupational accidents or health risks, including older workers, women, migrants, and those working in small workplaces; and reducing safety gaps between large enterprises and small- and medium-sized enterprises, as well as between parent companies and subcontractors. Workers’ rights advocates said that contract or temporary workers were also vulnerable to workplace injury.
The country has a high industrial death rate. For example, steelmaker POSCO has reported 14 workplace fatalities in the past three years. In February a subcontractor was killed while replacing a conveyor roller at the POSCO steelworks in Pohang. One month later, a subcontractor for an affiliated company died in a similar incident at the same plant. The February incident prompted the Labor Ministry to conduct a two-month inspection of the Pohang plant. It fined POSCO $395,000 for 225 safety-rule breaches.