By Kim Se-jeong
Foreigners working under the Employment Permit System (EPS) and activists are protesting a revised rule on the payment of the former's severance pay.
"The money transaction system varies from one country to another. How can you guarantee that this won't evaporate in the middle? Also, who will pay for transaction fees and others?" said Park Jin-woo of the Migrant Trade Union, which helps migrant workers.
Under the new rule, which went into effect Tuesday, workers can only receive their severance pay after they return to their home countries. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) said workers would still receive their severance pay within 14 days after the end of their contract, which is now the case.
Previously, departing workers could receive the money at the airport.
However, an increasing number of migrant workers are opting to overstay their visas to continue to work in Korea instead of returning home.
The MOJ said it revised the rule to ensure all foreign workers get their severance pay after returning home, but observers say it could backfire.
"Some foreign workers are concerned that they will not receive any money at all," an anonymous Nepalese diplomat based in Seoul told The Korea Times.
Workers are entitled to an additional month's salary after working one year, and the amount goes up as the number of years goes by.
Insurance firms manage their severance pay accounts to prevent possible misappropriation of the money by Korean employers. This is called the Departure Guarantee Insurance System.
The money is now paid to foreign workers only when they leave the country. If they choose to stay illegally, they cannot receive the money.
The new rule is part of the government's efforts to reduce the number of illegal foreign workers. Foreign workers' advocates claim the workers will have no recourse if the money doesn't arrive in their home countries.
Also, all fees incurred during transactions must be paid by the recipients, they say.
"We are working to reduce the amount of the fees. The best way would be to pick it up at the airport when you leave," said an official at Samsung Fire and Marine Insurance, one of five contractors in charge of managing and paying the money.
As of June, over 200,000 workers are working with the permit. The ministry estimates almost 54,000 people are staying here illegally.
Introduced 10 years ago, the EPS allows people from 15, mostly Asian countries to work here — Vietnam sends the largest number.
However, the government put it on hold two years ago due to rising number of illegally staying workers.
Korea's dependence on imported labor will only grow as the nation has a low birthrate, and when young people will not work in factories or on farms.
Despite their contributions, foreign workers are not treated equally and are often discriminated against, and have few protections.