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S. Korea: Shipbuilders struggle with foreign workers deserting jobs

Shipbuilders are seeing an increasing number of foreign workers deserting their jobs and escaping from the shipyards, according to industry officials, Wednesday, who also said the aggravated labor shortages are making it harder for the shipbuilders to meet the growing global demand for vessels.

In late April, seven Thai nationals holding E-7 visas disappeared from HD Hyundai Heavy Industries’ (HHI) shipyard in Ulsan, just a week after they started working as temporary employees for the company. Two other Thai E-7 visa holders, who were hired by a subcontractor of the shipbuilder, also went missing at that time.

Given that E-7 visa holders are restricted from switching jobs without permission from their employers, Ulsan’s immigration authorities are trying to trace the whereabouts of the missing foreign workers.

Last August and September, around 30 Vietnamese E-7 visa holders disappeared from HHI’s shipyard, and only a few returned to their place of work. Some of them disappeared just a couple of weeks after starting the job. At that time, four other migrant workers also stopped working at Hyundai Samho Heavy Industries’ shipyard in Yeongam, South Jeolla Province, without notice.

The HHI union cited poor working conditions and low wages as the main reasons for the continued desertions.

“Although E-7 visa holders are guaranteed wages equivalent to 80 percent of the previous year’s gross national income per capita, migrant workers at shipyards are paid salaries similar to the national minimum wage, as their employers deduct various costs from their paychecks,” the union said in a newsletter published last Friday. “Because their work is difficult and wages are low, the desertions are not surprising.”

The company claimed that it has offered various welfare benefits for foreign workers, including translation services, dormitory housing and food suitable to their religious faith. HHI even organized teams recently to support foreign workers hired directly by the company, as well as those hired by its subcontractors.

“The recent desertions seem to have resulted from personal matters of some foreign workers, not from labor conditions,” an HHI official said.

Conflict between foreign workers and their Korean supervisors is mentioned as another possible reason behind the frequent desertions. According to industry officials, some Korean supervisors have been lukewarm about training their foreign colleagues, who are unlikely to stay at the shipyards for more than just a couple of years.

Last year, unionized Korean shipbuilding workers protested the government’s decision to ease regulations on the requirements for the E-7 visa, arguing that the use of migrant workers at shipyards will increase fatal workplace accidents, due to poor communication stemming from language differences.

However, young Korean jobseekers are reluctant to work at shipyards, and experienced workers are not returning to their previous workplaces ― after their departure in 2016 during a slump in the shipbuilding industry.

When some 20 subcontractors of HHI and Hyundai Mipo Dockyard hosted a two-hour job fair at Hotel Hyundai by Lahan Ulsan earlier this month looking to hire 125 new employees, the event was attended by around 70 jobseekers. Among them, only 14 participated in job interviews, and the subcontractors were eventually able to hire only 11 new employees.
Source: The Korea Times

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