Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape; although no specific statute defines spousal rape as illegal, the Supreme Court acknowledged marital rape as illegal. The penalty for rape ranges from a minimum of three years to life imprisonment depending on the specific circumstances. Rape is defined in law as involving the use of violence. The law defines domestic violence as a serious crime and authorizes courts to order offenders to stay away from victims for up to six months. This restraining order may be extended up to two years. Offenders may be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison and fined up to seven million won ($5,810) for domestic violence offenses. Noncompliance with domestic violence restraining orders may result in a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a fine of up to 20 million won ($16,600). Authorities may also place convicted offenders on probation or order them to see court-designated counselors.
When there is a danger of domestic violence recurring and an immediate need for protection, the law allows a provisional order to be issued ex officio or at the victim’s request. This may restrict the subject of the order from living in the same home, approaching within 109 yards of the victim, or contacting the victim through telecommunication devices.
The law allows judges or an MOJ committee to sentence repeat sex offenders to “chemical castration,” where sex offenders undergo drug treatment designed to diminish sexual urges. The law was enacted to protect children against an increasing number of reported sex crimes. The ministry reported that one such procedure was conducted between January and July.
Police generally responded promptly and appropriately to reported incidents, and the judicial system effectively enforced the law. Because a rape conviction requires proving that violence was used, and because the country’s defamation laws allow countersuits by alleged perpetrators, rape offenses are underreported and under prosecuted.
In February the Seoul High Court overruled a lower court’s August 2018 acquittal of Ahn Hee-jung, former governor of South Chuncheong. The High Court convicted Ahn on multiple counts of “sexual intercourse by abuse of authority”–in lieu of a rape charge and other charges–and sentenced him to three-and-one-half years’ imprisonment. Ahn’s March 2018 arrest and subsequent trial for raping his former secretary drew nationwide attention to the country’s contentious definition of rape that is based on “means of violence” rather than lack of consent.
Domestic violence remained a significant and underreported problem according to NGOs. According to KNPA statistics, in 2018 248,660 cases of domestic violence were reported, an 11-percent decrease from 2017. Reports of violence among unmarried couples, called “dating violence,” doubled from 2016 (9,364 cases) to 2018 (18,961 cases).
Data from the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office showed that nearly 40 percent of victims of sex crimes were between 21 and 30 years old. Approximately 21 percent of victims were between 16 and 20 years old.
The Commission for the Eradication of Sexual Violence and Digital Sex Crimes seeks to coordinate the provision of countermeasures and promote consultation across ministries. It is composed of 24 members, including the MOGEF minister, vice ministers of relevant ministries, and private sector experts. The government also established gender equality positions in eight ministries to place greater emphasis on these issues.
The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office revised its investigation manual on sexual violence to delay investigating “false accusation” charges until it first reaches a decision on whether a sexual assault has actually taken place.
In June police arrested a man after he beat his foreign-born wife for three hours in front of their two-year-old child. A video clip of the assault was widely viewed on the internet, sparking a national debate about foreign brides and rural municipal governments offering subsidies (intended to stem rural population decline) to bring them to the country. An NGO, however, argued that the subsidies amounted to “wife buying” and that the brides were vulnerable to human rights abuses, “often [taking on] the role of a housekeeper and a sexual object.” The fact that it was on average 3.9 days from when the couple first met to when they were legally married, and that the average age difference between bride and groom was 18.4 years were cited to support this view. According to a survey by the NHRCK, 42 percent of foreign-born brides have experienced domestic violence and 68 percent had experienced unwanted sexual advances. Domestic violence among native South Korean couples is high in general but probably somewhat lower than among mixed couples.
In August, in response to violence against migrant brides, the MOJ announced new regulatory measures to prevent abuses. These included a “one strike” policy that prevented a person convicted of domestic violence from petitioning for a visa for a foreign bride. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) was concerned that the addition of a “right to request investigation” policy might make foreign spouses more vulnerable. The policy allows the South Korean spouse to petition immigration authorities directly to investigate the foreign spouse in the event of separation. The IOM feared this would exacerbate the already disproportionate power imbalance in these relationships.
In March 2018, in response to the #MeToo movement, MOGEF created the Special Center for Reporting Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault. The ministry funded 170 counseling centers (called “sunflower centers”) nationwide for victims of sexual violence, providing counseling, medical care and therapy, caseworkers, and legal assistance. There were 241,343 reported cases of sexual violence in 2018 (an increase of 33.7 percent since 2017), according to Statistics Korea, a government agency. According to NGOs, sunflower centers generally provided adequate support to female victims of sexual assault, but male victims struggled to find help.
In July the government formally closed the Reconciliation and Healing foundation, established with a one billion yen ($9.1 million) contribution from the Japanese government under a 2015 bilateral agreement to provide support to former comfort women; no decision was made on how to use unspent funds.
Sexual Harassment: The law obligates companies and organizations to take preventive measures against sexual harassment. Under antibullying laws introduced in July, in certain cases failure to take appropriate action may result in fines or jail time. The government generally enforced the law effectively. The KNPA classifies sexual harassment as “indecent acts by compulsion.”
Sexual harassment was a significant social problem, and there were numerous cases of sexual harassment reported in media throughout the year.
In February a female student at Seoul National University accused a professor of sexual harassment. She said that the professor gave her unwanted shoulder massages and played with her hair while she slept on a bus, lifted up her skirt and touched her leg when she would not show him a scar on her inner thigh, and forced her to drink significant amounts of alcohol. She submitted her complaints to the university’s Human Rights Center, along with complaints from 17 other students. The center suspended the professor for three months. The student called the decision “absurd” and urged the school to terminate him, but the school declined.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal rights under the constitution as men. In January, President Moon described the gender gap as a “shameful reality” and pledged to address it. Moon has generally kept his pledge from the beginning of his term that 30 percent of his cabinet nominations would be women. Women hold 17 percent of seats in the National Assembly. In line with the law, which states that women must hold 50 percent of parties’ proportionally allocated representative seats in the National Assembly, 24 of the 47 proportional representatives were women as of August. The law provides for equal pay for equal work, but the gender pay gap was 36.5 percent in 2018, an increase of 2 percent from the previous year.
Birth Registration: Citizenship requires one parent be a citizen at the time of birth. Authorities also grant citizenship in circumstances where parentage is unclear or if the child would otherwise be stateless. The law requires that all children be registered in family registries and prohibits adoption of children for the first week after birth.
Child Abuse: The law criminalizes serious injury and repeated abuse of children, and provides prison terms of between five years and life.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare reported a 6.6-percent increase in reported child abuse cases from 2017 to 2018, attributed in part to increased public awareness and expanded child welfare reporting requirements.
The ministry required human rights training for the 1,095 childcare workers associated with their DreamStart program, a program that provides educational, health, and developmental services for disadvantaged children and their families.
In May a mother in Seoul reported child abuse to police after finding bruises on her two children after they returned from a daycare center. Police were unable to find evidence because the daycare center’s closed-circuit television (CCTV) storage device was not functioning. By law daycare centers are required to have working CCTV equipment and keep video recordings for at least 60 days. The president of the Korea Child Abuse Prevention Association said daycare directors often delete CCTV footage, opting to pay a fine in lieu of facing legal repercussions for child abuse. Parents also faced difficulties obtaining CCTV footage because privacy law may expose the parents to legal reprisals. If a video recording contains threatening words towards the child, the parent may use it as evidence of abuse; however, if the recording contains a conversation between two teachers, for example, the parent could face charges for violating the Protection of Communications Secrets Act that protects private conversations.
Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for men and women to marry is 18. There were no reported cases of forced marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consent is 13. It is illegal to deceive or pressure anyone younger than 19 into having sexual intercourse. In July a law went into effect penalizing adults who have sexual intercourse with teenagers between ages 13 and 16 by taking advantage of mental, physical, or financial difficulties, regardless of whether the minor consented. The penalty for rape of a minor younger than age 13 ranges from 10 years to life in prison; the penalty for rape of a minor age 13 to under 19 is five years’ to life imprisonment. Other penalties include electronic monitoring of offenders, public release of their personal information, and reversible hormone treatment. The law prohibits the commercialization of child pornography. Offenders convicted of producing or possessing child pornography materials for the purpose of selling, leasing, or distributing for profit are subject to a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. In addition anyone who possesses child pornography may be fined up to 20 million won ($16,600).
During the year, the criminal appeals court of the Seoul Central District Court came under fire for sentencing the operator of a dark-web child pornography website, Son Jong-woo, to only 18 months in prison. In October authorities from 38 countries arrested more than 330 users of the website, including 223 South Koreans. In March 2018 the trial court suspended the 18-month sentence, saying Son had “acknowledged his crime and reflected on his wrongdoing.” The appeals court overruled the trial court suspension, calling it too light and reinstated the sentence of 18 months’ imprisonment. These decisions highlighted the light sentences, a fine or suspended sentence, typically given to those convicted of viewing child pornography. For example, in January courts ordered a defendant to pay a fine of three million won ($2,490) for downloading child pornography 968 times during a 10-month period. The court stated that it “took into consideration the fact that it was a first-time offense and that the defendant was sorry for what he had done.”
Children, especially runaway girls, were vulnerable to sex trafficking, including through online recruitment.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The Jewish community numbered approximately 1,000 individuals, almost all expatriates. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities and sets penalties for deliberate discrimination of up to three years in prison and a fine of 30 million won ($24,900). The law covering rights and support for persons with developmental disabilities created a special task force of prosecutors and police trained to work with persons with disabilities and their families in police investigations.
The government applied law and implemented programs to facilitate access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. Many establishments, however, continued to disregard the laws, opting to pay fines rather than incurring expenses to make structural adjustments. The Research Institute for Differently Abled Person’s Rights Korea reported that individuals with intellectual disabilities did not receive proper education; employment rates of adults with disabilities were low; and public support for family care was inadequate.
Many local government ordinances and regulations directly discriminate against persons with disabilities, especially those with intellectual and mental disabilities, according to media reports and NGOs. Seongnam City rejected a man’s repeated requests from 2018 through June 2019 to use taxis designated for persons with disabilities because he did not use a wheelchair. The central government classified the man–who has Parkinson’s disease–as having only a grade three disability. The city stated it only allowed those with grades one and two disabilities, mentally handicapped grade three disabilities, and those in wheelchairs to use the taxi service. The NHRCK recommended the city allow the man to use the accessible taxi service until other means of transportation could be prepared, but the city refused.
The central government subsequently amended the Act on the Prohibition of Discrimination against Disabled Persons, abolishing the previously used grading system that labeled persons with disabilities on a one-to-six scale based on “medical disability” to determine eligibility for social welfare benefits. The revised law sorts persons with disabilities into two classes: “severely disabled” and “not severely disabled.” The amended law reclassified persons with disabilities formerly graded one through three into the severely disabled classification; grades four to six were reclassified as not severe. All persons with disabilities are able to receive “activity support services,” a welfare service previously only available to grades one to three that helps persons who face difficulty in daily or social activities. Any person with “severe walking disabilities” may use wheelchair-accessible taxis regardless of whether the person uses a wheelchair. Nevertheless, Seongnam City continued to deny the man’s request to use the wheelchair taxi because the city’s ordinances lagged behind the revised law. The city government stated, “The man can call the taxi for the disabled in November when the city ordinance will change.”
The Ministry of Health and Welfare continued to implement a comprehensive set of policies that included encouraging provision of greater access for persons with disabilities to public and private buildings and facilities; part-time employment opportunities for persons with disabilities; and introduction of a long-term care system.
In 2018, the government operated rehabilitation hospitals in six regions and a national rehabilitation research center to increase employment opportunities and access for persons with disabilities.
The government provided a pension system for registered adults and children with disabilities, an allowance for children with disabilities younger than age 18 in households with an income below or near the National Basic Livelihood Security Standard, and a disability allowance for low-income persons age 18 and older with mild disabilities.
Children with disabilities had access to a separate system of public special education schools for children ages three to 17. All public and private schools, child-care centers, educational facilities, and training institutions were required to provide equipment and other resources to accommodate students with disabilities.
As of July 2018, more than 2.3 million foreigners (including an estimated 330,000 undocumented migrants) lived in the country, which otherwise had a racially homogeneous population of approximately 51.4 million. The country lacks a comprehensive antidiscrimination law. In October, President Moon met with religious leaders and called for them to support the comprehensive antidiscrimination law. The National Assembly has been reluctant to take up the issue due to the outspoken opposition from powerful conservative Christian groups who wish to block the bill because of the LGBTI rights it would afford.
Societal discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities was common but underreported. A large majority of immigrants and naturalized citizens were female spouses, and they were reportedly often the victim of domestic violence. The NHRCK stated most of the foreign worker cases involved enforced eviction or mistreatment in detention centers when detained on charges of violating immigration laws.
Some children of immigrants suffered from discrimination and lack of access to social resources. Some children of non-Korean ethnicity or multiple ethnicities also experienced bullying because of their physical appearance.
In response to the steady growth of ethnic minorities, due largely to the increasing number of migrant workers and foreign brides, the Ministries of Gender Equality and Family and of Employment and Labor implemented programs to promote cultural diversity and assist foreign workers, spouses, and multicultural families to adjust to living in the country.
The law that established the NHRCK prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and authorizes the NHRCK to review cases of such discrimination, but the law does not specify discrimination based on gender identity. The Military Criminal Act’s “disgraceful conduct” clause criminalizes consensual sodomy between men in the military with up to two years’ imprisonment if convicted. In 2016 the Constitutional Court ruled the clause constitutional.
NGOs noted the Military Service Act prohibiting homosexual sex led to abuse of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) soldiers. According to the MHRC, as of August at least three new cases were prosecuted under the Military Criminal Act’s “disgraceful conduct” clause. The MHRC stated the navy sought out LGBTI service members under the pretext of counseling and in at least one case interrogated one person within earshot of other service members. The MHRC added that investigators asked for detailed accounts of sexual interactions between soldiers and searched soldiers’ cell phones for evidence of homosexual relationships. The navy stated it regretted the leaking of sensitive personal information but held that it has the authority to conduct investigations of disorderly conduct under the Military Criminal Act and Defense Ministry policy. According to Amnesty International, the criminalization of LGBTI relationships in the military has a significant impact on broader societal attitudes as half of the country’s population goes through compulsory military service.
According to polling by the NHRCK, 92 percent of LGBTI were worried about becoming the target of hate crimes. After a number of protestors attacked the parade in 2018, 3,000 police officers were on hand to protect the LGBTI community at the 2019 Seoul Pride Festival. “The presence of embassy staff from around the world meant that the police had to ensure the safety of the event,” according to the BBC.
The law protects the right to confidentiality of persons with HIV/AIDS and prohibits discrimination against them. Local NGOs contended, however, that persons with HIV/AIDS continued to suffer from societal discrimination and social stigma. In January the NHRCK urged a hospital to take corrective action after it refused to conduct a comprehensive medical checkup to an HIV-positive person because the hospital wing that handles checkups lacked the proper protective equipment. After the patient filed a complaint, the hospital stated it had obtained all of the protective equipment and completed the necessary staff training.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, conduct strikes within strict limits, and bargain collectively, but certain limitations apply to public officials and teachers.
The law recognizes workers’ right to strike; workers in essential services are required to provide “minimum service” during strikes to protect the public interest. Essential services are defined by law to include railroads, air transport, communications, water supply, and hospitals. The trade union law prohibits the use of replacement workers to conduct general business disrupted by strikes, but it permits essential service providers to hire replacement workers within the limit of up to 50 percent of the strike participants.
By law parties involved in a “labor dispute” must first undergo third-party mediation through the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) or seek a labor-management settlement before registering to strike. Strikes initiated following this period are legal if they obtain majority support from union membership. The law narrowly defines “labor dispute,” which makes strikes on many issues falling under managerial control, such as downsizing and layoffs, illegal. Strikes not specifically pertaining to labor conditions, wages, benefits, or working hours are illegal. Stakeholders noted strike procedures were overly burdensome. Participating in strikes deemed to be illegal may result in imprisonment or a fine for the organizers and participants, depending on the offense.
The law places some restrictions on unions’ ability to organize their administration, including restricting the ability of union leaders to receive pay for time spent on union work. Laws banning education workers from engaging in certain political activities, such as joining a political party or openly endorsing a political party or candidate, also constrained unions’ abilities to advocate for their positions. The law also prohibits dismissed workers from remaining in unions.
The law permits workers to file complaints of unfair labor practices against employers who interfere with union organizing or who discriminate against union members. The NLRC may require employers to reinstate workers fired for union activities. The law prohibits retribution against workers who conduct a legal strike. Labor organizations asserted that the inability of full-time labor union officials to receive wages and the onerous registration requirements for individuals involved in collective bargaining effectively limited legal protections against unfair labor practices.
The government generally enforced legislation related to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and collective action, including legal strikes. Employers may be imprisoned or fined for unfair labor practices. In addition an employer may be penalized for noncompliance with a NLRC order to reinstate a worker. The law sets penalties in the form of fines or imprisonment against employers who refuse unions’ legitimate requests for bargaining.
Labor organizations generally operated without government interference.
In June police arrested the president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), Kim Myeong-hwan, after three months of KCTU protestors clashing with riot police at the National Assembly, which was deliberating a law to change working hours. The government has arrested five KCTU leaders since the confederation was founded in 1995. In May 2018 former KCTU president Han Sang-gyun was released on parole after having served more than two years of a three-year sentence for participating in an illegal assembly. Three other senior KCTU leaders were released during the year after serving prison sentences for convictions related to their union activities.
The UN special rapporteur noted examples of antiunion practices by companies, including encouraging the formation of management-supported unions; undermining employee unions through various means including surveillance, threats, and undue pressure on members; disguised subcontracting to avoid certain employer responsibilities and dismissal of members; firing union leaders and workers following strike action; and assigning union leaders demeaning jobs to demoralize them. He noted employers allegedly used labor relations consultancy firms to obtain advice that facilitated the erosion of trade union rights.
Undocumented foreign workers faced difficulties participating in union activities due to fear of exposing themselves to arrest and deportation.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government generally enforced the law effectively but did not consistently identify cases of forced labor; penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
NGOs reported some migrant workers were subject to forced labor, particularly those who had incurred thousands of dollars in debt for payment of recruitment fees, making them vulnerable to debt bondage. Some migrant workers in the agriculture, livestock, and fishing industries faced conditions indicative of forced labor, including deceptive recruiting practices, confiscation of passports, and nonpayment of wages.
International and domestic NGOs alleged that fishing vessels known for using forced labor often stopped in Busan and picked up foreign laborers. Photographs and interviews obtained by a foreign NGO showed that migrants faced dangerous working conditions and often went unpaid or underpaid for years of work on the ships. Although NGOs reported in the past that law enforcement authorities and prosecutors historically resisted investigating the ships because the laborers were not South Korean and the ships only stopped in South Korean waters temporarily, during the year maritime police began an intensive crackdown on human and labor rights abuses on both South Korean-flagged and international fishing vessels.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries helped law enforcement authorities investigate the working conditions of foreign sailors from April to May, focusing on labor contracts, crimes committed against migrants on the ships, and delays in payment of wages. It also announced in April that it would routinely include deep-sea vessels in its investigations, as opposed to only nearshore vessels. The coast guard conducted a crackdown on suspected human rights abuses from June to July, arresting 90 persons. Investigators said the arrests were the result of reports made by victims who had heard that the maritime police were conducting intensive crackdowns on human rights abuses.
One of those arrested was a captain of a South Korean fishing boat who pushed a Vietnamese crewmember off his boat and forced him to drift at sea before allowing him to return on board, according to NGOs. He also threatened the Vietnamese crew with knives and both physically and verbally abused them. NGOs stated that when the crewmember thrown overboard tried to transfer to another job, the ship’s owner demanded a payment of 5,000,000 won ($4,150). In February a new employment law came into effect that allowed foreign workers to change jobs without the permission of the employer for reasons including sexual harassment, sexual violence, assault, and habitual verbal abuse by an employer, the employer’s family members, or coworkers.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the employment of minors younger than age 15 without an authorization certificate from the Ministry of Employment and Labor. Authorities issued few such certificates for full-time employment because education is compulsory through middle school (approximately age 15). Children ages 15 to 18 may work with the consent of at least one parent or guardian. Employers in industries considered harmful or hazardous to a minor’s morals or health may not hire them and face fines or imprisonment for violations. Inspections and penalties were generally sufficient to ensure compliance. The government reported two violations of child labor laws in 2017, the latest year for which such data were available.
There were some reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children (see section 6, “Children”).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination in employment or occupation. No law explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of language or HIV or other communicable disease status.
The law requires equal pay for equal work. The government’s Sixth Basic Plan on Equal Employment and Work-Life Balance provides a roadmap for a policy on women’s employment that consists of three pillars: creating nondiscriminatory working environments, preventing interruptions in women’s careers, and providing re-employment for “career-interrupted” women. Labor laws generally provide foreign migrant workers the same legal protections as nationals but are not effectively enforced.
The law prohibits discrimination against informal or 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. Employers, however, often laid off irregular workers shortly before their two-year anniversary. This practice was the cause of protests by more than 20,000 temporary employees in July, who contended the layoffs were timed to avoid having to hire them permanently. In order to encourage businesses to hire temporary workers on a permanent basis, the government provides subsidies and tax breaks for companies that convert irregular employees to regular status, according to the labor ministry. Subcontracted workers (known as “dispatched workers”) and temporary workers comprised approximately one-third of wageworkers in the labor force and faced discriminatory working conditions. NGOs and local media reported irregular workers were at greater risk for discrimination because of their employment status. The International Labor Organization (ILO) noted that the disadvantaged status of irregular workers contributed to discrimination against women given that women are overrepresented among these workers.
Discrimination occurred against persons with HIV/AIDS, women, persons with disabilities, and migrant workers.
Discrimination against women in the work place continued. On average, women earned only 63 percent of what men earned, and a higher percentage of women filled lower-paying, low-skilled, contract jobs. Women often faced difficulties returning to the workforce after childbirth.
In July workplace antibullying and “blind hiring” laws were introduced. The antibullying law requires employers to take action to fight harassment in the workplace. According to a July report by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 70 percent of those surveyed said they had faced harassment at work. By law employers convicted of failing to take action to protect bullied employees face a fine up to 30 million won ($24,900) and up to three years in prison. The “blind hiring” law prohibits companies with more than 30 employees from asking job applicants about family members, place of origin, marital status, age, or property ownership. The law also prohibits companies from asking about weight and height when it is not relevant to the work.
Many migrant workers faced workplace discrimination. The maximum length of stay permitted under the Employee Permit System (EPS) is four years and 10 months, just under the five years needed to apply for permanent residency. NGOs and civil society groups asserted this explicitly excludes foreign workers from permanent residence or citizenship eligibility. NGOs stated it remained difficult for migrant workers to change employers (see sections 7.b. and 7.e).
The law allows for reduced wage payment to foreign workers on South Korean-flagged ship. For example, the minimum wage for foreign crewmembers is 1,640,000 won ($1,360) per month, 76-percent less than the minimum wage paid to a South Korean crewmember. Further, unlike citizen crewmembers, foreign crews are not entitled to profit sharing, resulting in foreign crew working longer hours for less pay.
The law prohibits recruiters, agents, employers, or managers from receiving money or other valuables or benefits from job seekers or employees in exchange for securing employment, “whatever the pretext may be” (see section 7.b.). Nevertheless, NGOs reported South Korean-flagged vessel owners routinely demanded security deposits of up to $5,000 from foreign crewmembers to discourage them from transferring jobs.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
During the year, the minimum wage increased 2.9 percent and was above the official poverty line. The government generally enforced minimum wage law and penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
The law allowed 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.
The government generally effectively enforced laws on wages and acceptable conditions of work for all sectors. It also conducted educational programs to prevent accidents in the workplace. The labor ministry was responsible for enforcement of these laws and the number of labor inspectors was sufficient to deter violations. Inspections covered businesses with foreign workers, particularly in the agriculture, livestock, fisheries, and construction sectors, which generally had poor working conditions.
The government sets occupational health and safety standards and is responsible for monitoring industry adherence. Under the law, workers in every sector have the right to remove themselves from situations of danger without jeopardizing their employment. The Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency is responsible for enforcement of these laws and had inspected approximately 49,500 workplaces as of September. The ILO observed, however, that the number of labor inspectors was insufficient and that unannounced inspections were rare. Worker organizations also expressed concerns about the insufficient number of labor inspections to identify potential violations of labor laws. Penalties for violations of occupational safety and health standards and overtime regulations included imprisonment and fines and were generally sufficient to deter violations.
A set of regulations outlines legal protections for migrant (those under the EPS) and foreign workers. Permit holders may work only in certain industries and had limited job mobility, but most enjoyed the same protections under labor law as citizens. Contract workers, irregular workers, and part-time workers accounted for a substantial portion of the workforce, particularly in the electronics, automotive, and service sectors.
Workers under the EPS faced multiple restrictions on employment mobility. Such workers lose their legal status if they lose their job and do not find another employer within three months. If a migrant worker is not able to get another job within three months, authorities may cancel his or her work permit, forcing the worker either to return home or to remain in the country illegally. This situation was particularly difficult for seasonal workers, such as those involved in agriculture or construction. Migrant workers did not have access to lists of companies that were hiring when they wanted to change jobs, which made it more difficult for these workers to change jobs freely. Migrant laborers were required to return to their country of origin after a maximum of four years and 10 months in the country but could apply to re-enter after three months.
To prevent violations and improve working conditions for migrant and foreign workers, 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 funded 44 Foreign Workers Support Centers nationwide, a call center that provided foreign workers with counseling services in 16 languages, Korean language and cultural programs, shelter, and free health care services. 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 reported many departing migrants never received these payments. An NGO supporting foreign workers reported 80 percent of their cases involved migrant workers seeking overdue wages or complaining of insufficient severance pay. It also reported 63.5 percent of migrant workers were unfamiliar with how to calculate severance pay, making them vulnerable to exploitation.
NGOs reported that while the minimum wage increased, employers tried to curb rising minimum wages for workers by reducing work hours, listing employees as “on-call” at home when they were in fact at work, employing undocumented foreign workers, and charging migrant workers for their accommodations and board.
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. An NGO stated migrant agricultural workers complained of receiving only one day off work per month, making it difficult for them to attend cultural education programs or language courses. Other NGOs reported foreign laborers sometimes faced physical abuse and exploitation by employers in the form of longer working hours and lower wages than their local counterparts. NGOs reported little change in conditions for migrant workers and expressed concern about the lack of improvement.
NGOs reported that although employers are prohibited from providing makeshift accommodations, such as vinyl greenhouses for migrant workers, some circumvented this prohibition and provided migrant workers with substandard accommodations made of plastic panels. For example, NGOs reported that some migrant crews were housed in shipping containers on barges. These “dormitories” were fire hazards and lacked proper heating and air conditioning. One vessel reportedly put a shipping container on a deserted island and dropped off a migrant worker on the island between shifts, according to NGOs. The case only became known after a different fishing boat visited the island, allowing the migrant to leave the island after three months of isolation. In July the government revised the law to require employers to provide information on accommodations to the employee before the signing of the employment contract. The labor ministry stated the law allows foreign workers to change their job when employer-provided accommodations fail to meet the legal standard. The ministry inspected accommodations at 1,700 workplaces in the first six months of the year, issuing 10 corrective orders to workplaces that provided substandard lodgings.
In January the government passed broad reforms to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) that were scheduled to go into effect in January 2020. Some of the revisions included higher fines for workplace fatalities and increased penalties for health and safety violations. The revised OSHA regulations also prohibited companies from subcontracting out specific types of dangerous work such as metalplating that involve harmful heavy metals such as mercury and lead.
In January the NHRCK launched an investigation into working conditions at coal-fired power plants after a 24-year-old mechanic, a temporary worker, died in a conveyer belt accident in December 2018. The mechanic was working an overnight shift alone, contrary to regulations. According to the KCTU, 97 percent of industrial accidents and 92 percent of deaths that took place at the five major power companies since 2008 involved temporary workers. Critics argued the OSHA restrictions did not go far enough to protect temporary workers.
According to the ministry, there were 102,305 work-related accidents (an increase of 13.8 percent) and 2,142 fatalities in 2018, an increase of 9.4 percent from 2017. In January the government enacted a law that provides compensation to the families of the deceased and contributes to funeral expenses when a foreign worker dies in the country.