South Korea: These sectors are currently facing labor shortages

Expat news
  • industries in South Korea
    trabantos /
Published on 2023-01-31 at 14:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Will 2023 be the year of a new economic and even demographic boost in South Korea? This is the government's hope and belief as it outlines its plan to revive the South Korean economy. Since important sectors are suffering from acute labor shortages, it is taking new measures to welcome foreign workers. Which are the most affected sectors and are in desperate need of expat workers?

The critical labor shortage in Agriculture and Industry

The government is embarking on an international recruitment campaign. It hopes to attract some 110,000 foreign workers this year alone to support agriculture and industry, which are particularly hard hit by labor shortages. "Good, but not good enough," say the businesses. According to the powerful Korea Enterprise Federation, 40% of small and medium-sized enterprises believe that the government has not grasped the scale of the crisis. In their opinion, more people need to be hired. Many farms are already operating with many foreign employees, and in some cases, they account for 80% of their workforce. It's clear for them that they will not be able to maintain their activities without more foreign workers. The same fears apply to the industrial sector. A sector that accounted for 25% of South Korea's GDP in 2020. 

Despite the health crisis, the country's GDP stood at 4% in 2021. But the inflationary and international crisis threatens the Korean economy. President Yoon Seok-Youl said he is more concerned about the inflationary surge than the slowdown in growth. In 2022, inflation averaged 5%, compared with 2.5% in 2021. The Korea Enterprise Federation is calling on the government to accept the entry of more foreign workers.

What are the other opportunities in South Korea for expats?

In addition to agriculture and industry, other sectors recruit foreign workers. For example, jobs like foreign language assistants (mainly English), teaching (English teacher), catering (service, cooking), and others in the field of telecommunications, chemicals, or automotive are available in South Korea. Furthermore, there are numerous job opportunities in marketing, computer science, web design and sales. While some sectors recruit low-skilled personnel, others seek solid qualifications. 

For example, the requirements for English teachers are very stringent. The candidate must have at least a bachelor's degree and a diploma of aptitude (such as Teaching English as a foreign language). They must also be South African, Canadian, New Zealander, American, Australian, Irish or British citizens. Similarly, being a skilled worker, technician, or engineer requires specific qualifications. 

The South Korean labor market is notoriously difficult to break into. Korean companies recruit Koreans first. Foreigners will have better luck in the service sector, tech, and innovation jobs like data scientist, data analyst, and engineer, amongst others. In any case, it is strongly recommended to speak Korean, even if you are aiming for international companies. Exchanges are essentially conducted in Korean, which means that you need to have a good command of the language. In fact, it is a requirement for most Korean employers.

South Korea seeks more blue-collar workers

As of June 2022, South Korea had 230,000 job vacancies, particularly in the industrial sector. Labor-intensive sectors, like shipbuilding and manufacturing industries, are harshly hit by the labor shortage, and so are businesses like restaurants and retail, which are also leading employers in Korea. 

Labor shortages in the agricultural and industrial sectors are not a new thing. It is a recurring problem that began even before the pandemic, and it keeps getting worse as years go by. Young South Koreans are simply fleeing these occupations that are perceived as unrewarding, dangerous, and dirty. 

The case of shipbuilding is a good illustration of the problem. The sector has been in chronic shortage for several years, with low wages, arduous, dangerous and accident-prone work environments, and cases of subcontracting abuses. According to the Korea Labour Institute, between 2016 and 2021, 88 workers died in work-related accidents. The sector hoped for a return of foreign workers with the post-lockdown economic recovery, but they did not. Amid COVID, the hiring of delivery workers exploded to meet new demand (+22%, that is 80,000 hires). At the same time, 30,000 bus driver and 20,000 cab driver jobs were cut. Despite the large number of vacancies, job seekers have not switched to the industry. The poor working conditions make it difficult for potential candidates to apply.

Is there any job security for expat workers?

South Korea faces a significant challenge. In order to attract workers, the country will have to review its working conditions and laws, especially regarding the protection of foreign workers. Associations protecting foreigners based in South Korea took advantage of the government's announcement to highlight the shortcomings. Already in the 2000s, the country was accused of overexploiting foreign workers. In 2006, an Amnesty International investigation revealed employer abuses which included discrimination, physical and verbal violence, intimidation, unpaid overtime, makeshift accommodation, workplace accidents, low or unpaid wages, and a ban on changing jobs (sometimes, according to the organization, with the support of the public administration). 

In the winter of 2020, the death of a 31-year-old Cambodian worker came as a reminder of the poor conditions in which low-skilled expatriates were working. The Cambodian worker was found dead in a makeshift home in Pocheon, a city about two hours from Seoul. The government has responded by requiring employers to build new housing facilities for their expatriate workers. The government also committed to no longer issuing work permits to employers who continue to house their workers in unacceptable conditions. 

But the associations believe that the government needs to go further. According to them, the Ministry of Employment and Labor needs the means to verify that its new policy is being properly enforced. In fact, working conditions in low-skilled sectors remain difficult, and even more for foreigners.

How can South Korea attract expat workers?

In order to curb labor shortages and revitalize the economy and demographics, President Yoon Seok-Youl is proposing to increase working hours to 69 hours per week (legal working hours are 40 right now). While advocating flexibility, the president said that each company could adjust its working hours according to demand. The extra hours would give more time off, and overtime could be converted into vacation. The reform is to be presented in February. Opponents are already denouncing it as counterproductive. Associations for the protection of foreign workers are concerned about a measure that might worsen the working conditions of the most precarious. But it's unsure whether the government will hear their voices.

Useful links:

Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL)

Global Seoul Center (organisme de formation)

Korea Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KBCCI)

Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI)

Korea professional