Over 1 million foreigners now officially work in Korea, with Justice Ministry statistics showing that work visas had been granted to 1.02 million foreign workers as of the end of June. The number has nearly doubled over the past 10 years and includes Korean nationals with foreign citizenship.
But the actual number is probably nearer 1.3 million, including an estimated 320,000 illegal aliens who have overstayed their tourist or work visas.
Their total number jumped by an estimated 130,000 since the government in July last year announced a 16.4 percent increase in the minimum wage for 2018.
Foreign workers are now especially sought-after in chronically understaffed businesses like small factories, restaurant kitchens, construction sites, nursing facilities, and agricultural and fishing villages.
"Local staff take orders from customers and Chinese or Korean Chinese mostly work in the kitchen," the owner of a restaurant in Jongno, Seoul said. "Most foreign workers are doing dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs."
Xenophobia is also on the rise again, especially among local low-skilled laborers who feel that foreigners are stealing their jobs. Several rallies were held this year against illegal immigrants at major construction sites in Eunpyeong, Gangdong, and Yeongdeungpo districts in Seoul at the initiative of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions.
"Many local workers in their 50s and 60s aren't being assigned work now that young foreign workers are arriving," a 50-something local worker at a construction site in Seoul said. "It's hard to believe that we're losing jobs to foreigners in our own country."
"3D jobs are now highly dependent on foreign workers," said Noh Min-sun of the Korea Small Business Institute. "It's high time to think how to accept foreign workers whose role is increasing in many industries."
Foreign workers at a construction site in Seoul on Tuesday