Labour migration to South Korea remains suspended for one yearThousands of Nepalis selected for Korean jobs have been unable to go work due to Covid-19-related restrictions.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
It was in the first week of February last year when the Nepal chapter of the Human Resources Development Service, South Korea, requested its Nepali counterpart not to send any workers as they could be carrying coronavirus.
A delegation from the South Korean agency had visited the department and requested Nepali officials to closely examine Nepali workers leaving for South Korea under the Employment Permit System (EPS) to ascertain if they are showing symptoms of Covid-19.
This was the first sign of trouble in labour migration to South Korea in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Later in the same month, the migration of Nepali youths to South Korea was temporarily halted as South Korea became the epicentre of Covid-19.
Nearly a year later, it remains uncertain when Nepali workers will get to go work in the East Asian country under the government scheme.
Indra Gautam, director at the Employment Permit System (EPS) Korea Section, under the Department of Foreign Employment, said, “The South Korean government has banned the arrival of migrant workers. This is what we know so far,”
“Line agencies in South Korea have been trying to resume labour migration, but it has not happened yet,” he told the Post.
Before the ban, several dozen Nepali workers headed to South Korea every year after passing their Korean language and skill tests.
“We have been told that the South Korean labour ministry and Human Resources Development Service are trying to start welcoming foreign workers,” said Gautam. “But the Korean government has classified Nepal as one of the high-risk countries in terms of Covid-19. Unless the Korean government decides to allow Nepali workers in, nothing can happen.”
During discussions with officials from the Nepal chapter of the Human Resources Development Service, South Korean officials have told the Nepali side that efforts are on to allow Nepali workers, according to Gautam.
“The risk of a Covid-19 outbreak is not completely over even in South Korea. Therefore, they have not permitted migrant workers to enter the country. They are planning to bring workers from outside one by one,” said Gautam.
“They have started by allowing workers from Cambodia. Slowly, they will open their doors for labourers from other countries as well.”
While the officials hope Nepali workers will start going to South Korea in the near future, 6,773 aspiring Nepali youths who passed both the language and skill tests have grown impatient in all these months. Some of them even organised demonstrations in Kathmandu demanding that they be allowed to fly to Korea.
Even amidst the pandemic, Nepal in April had allowed those on work breaks to return to Korea via chartered flights, the plan had to be dropped following restrictions imposed by the Korean government.
In January, the EPS Korea Section, through a notice, informed stakeholders that efforts were underway for the resumption of migration to Korea and requested candidates not to take part in demonstrations or conduct any activities which may impact the existing system.
“Since it was closed, no one has left. We are always ready to send our workers. But it’s up to the Korean government,” said Gautam.
Before the departure of Nepali workers stopped, nearly 1,000 workers had gone to Korea in 2020, according to Gautam, the director. According to government statistics, more than 65,000 Nepali workers have gone to South Korea since 2008 under the EPS.
South Korea remains the preferred labour destination country for aspiring migrant workers for its better income, safety and other facilities compared to destination countries in the Persian Gulf.
Starting from January 2021, the minimum wage in South Korea has been hiked by 1.5 percent from South Korean Won (KRW) 8,590 per hour to 8,720 KRW (approximately Rs908) per hour.
If a labourer works 209 hours every month, the labourer can now earn 1,822,480 KRW (around Rs 189,978). The minimum new wage in the country is applied to all industries.
Even those waiting to take the Korean language test have also had to face uncertainties.
The Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK), a mandatory Korean language test for those aspiring to work in South Korea, did not take place due to Covid-19 concerns in 2020.
Dates for the Korean language test have also not been confirmed for 2021.
“The language test could not take place last year. We are holding discussions to conduct the test in 2021,” said Gautam.
A delegation of South Korean officials visited Nepal last month to assess the situation. “The team made an inspection and also checked whether the language examination could be conducted on tablets through a new software,” said Gautam. “Preparations are going on, but we are not sure when the exams will be conducted.”