South Korean Government Seeks to Chain Migrant Workers to Workplaces


On June 4, 2012, the South Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor adopted a new policy entitled “Measure for Improvement in Foreign Workers’ Change of Workplaces and Prevention of Broker Intervention”. While the title of this policy sounds positive, its actual intent and effect is to further restrict migrant workers’ ability to change workplaces and further repress their right to free choice of employment. The result of this policy, which is scheduled to go into effect on August 1, will be that migrant workers are even more tightly chained to employers, forced to endure terrible conditions with no means of escape.


Migrant workers and advocate groups in South Korea are currently carrying out a campaign to prevent this policy from taking effect on August 1.



Migrant workers in South Korea are regulated by the Employment Permit System (EPS). Under this system, migrant workers can work in South Korea in designated sectors for a maximum of 4 years and 10 months. During this time they are technically allowed to change workplaces (staying within the same sector) a maximum of three times in the first three years and two times in the next year and 10 months. To change workplaces, migrant workers must have the permission of their employers except in cases where the company closes down or where there is accepted proof of extreme abuse.


If a migrant worker leaves a workplace, he/she has 3 months to find a new employer. He/she is given a list of permitted companies seeking to employ migrant workers by a Ministry of Employment and Labor job center. He/she then visits the companies on the list to apply for a new job. If he/she does not sign a new contract within this 3-month period, he/she loses his/her residence permit (visa) and must leave the country or become undocumented.


The EPS has been praised in international circles as a model system for regulating foreign labor. In fact, however, it already greatly violates migrant workers’ rights. Limiting the times that migrant workers’ can change workplaces, and requiring that they have employer approval means that migrant workers are often stuck in highly exploitative working environments with no recourse other than to endure or leave without permission and become undocumented.


The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) has recommended twice that the South Korean government review the EPS with the goal of loosening the restrictions on workplaces changes (CEACR, 062008KOR111; CEACR, 062009KOR111).


Instead, the government has been taking steps to further tie workers to their workplaces. For instance, the government recently passed a revision of the EPS, which allows migrant workers who have the invitation of their employers to renew their visas for another 4 year and 10 month period after leaving South Korea for 3 months only in the case that workers have no record of changing workplaces. Given that most migrant workers want to work in South Korea longer in order to pay off debts and support families, this EPS revision induces workers to give up the chance to escape poor conditions in order to have the chance to be able to return to Korea after their first residence period is over.


Details of the Policy

The new ‘Measure for Improvement in Foreign Workers’ Change of Workplaces and Prevention of Broker Intervention’ is in line with the trend towards further restrictions on migrant workers movement between workplaces. The measure ends the practice of providing migrant workers with a list of companies with job openings. Instead, a list of migrant workers seeking employment will be provided to employers, who then have the opportunity to call migrant workers they are interested in employing and ask them to come for an interview. Workers who fail to show up for an interview after being called, or refuse an offer of employment “without rational reason” will be penalized by being cut off from offers of employment for two weeks.


The Ministry of Employment and Labor justifies this measure as a means to 1) reduce the frequency of migrant workers’ workplace changes and 2) prevent the intervention of brokers in the re-employment process. It explains the second justification by saying that giving lists of companies with openings to migrant workers raises the risk of this information getting into the hands of brokers. In fact, however, brokers – who often do meddle in the process of re-employment - obtain information, not from migrant workers, but through job fairs held by the Ministry of Employment and Labor and other individual means. It is quite clear that the real intend of the new measure is to further discourage migrant workers from leaving their original workplaces and limit their ability to choose between employers. The result of such a policy is to tie workers to employers even more closely, as well as to remove any pressures on employers to uphold labor rights or improve working conditions.


Violations of South Korean and International Law

South Korean labor law protects the right to free choice of employment for all workers. This right has been found by the Constitutional Court to include “the right to select freely the job at which one works” to “freely change that job,” and “to freely select one’s workplace” (Constitutional Court, Decision 2011heonba, 28 November 2002).

Further, the right to free choice of employment has been found by the Constitutional Court to apply to migrant workers as well as South Korean citizens (Constitutional Court, Decisions in Cases 2007heonma1083, 2009heonma230·352, 29 September 2011). 


The UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights Article 23.1, the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 6.1 and ILO Convention 122 (Employment Policy), Article 1 all call on member governments to enforce policies that protect the right to free choice of employment. In addition, ILO Convention 111 [Discrimination (Employment and Occupation]) obligates member governments to pursue national policy that eliminates inequality in “opportunity and treatment in respect of employment and occupation” based on “race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin” (Articles 2 and 1). South Korea has ratified all of these aforementioned conventions and is obligated to uphold the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as a member state of the UN.


The Ministry of Employment and Labor’s new measure, however, makes it impossible for migrant workers to freely visit workplaces and assess their working condition. Moreover, it puts extreme pressure on migrant workers to conclude contracts with the first employers who contact them in order to avoid the two-week penalty and the likelihood of running out of time to find a new job and losing their residence permits. As such, the new measure clearly violates the rights set out in Korean domestic and international law.


Response of Migrant Workers and Advocates

Migrant workers in South Korea are only now learning about the new measure, which will have a direct and deep impact on their lives. This is because the Ministry of Employment and Labor made no attempt to explain the measure ahead of time or solicit opinions from stakeholders. Migrant workers are rightly dismayed by the prospect of the measure going into effect on August 1.


The Migrants Trade Union (MTU) and a coalition of migrant centers, labor organizations and lawyers associations are carrying out a campaign to stop the measure from being implemented. The campaign includes daily protests in front of the Ministry of Employment and Labor Office, education and outreach to migrant workers and legal actions. We are also working to raise awareness about this measure in the international community and country the image that the EPS is a model system.