Construction firms, unions poles apart over hiring of foreign labor for plant construction

Bomi Yoon

Factories light up the Onsan National Industrial Complex in Ulsan in this 2015 file photo. Korea Times file

By Park Jae-hyuk

A dispute is lingering between labor and management over the necessity of a foreign workforce for the construction of large plants here, amid the government’s ambiguous stance on the matter, according to industry officials, Tuesday.

While plant construction companies claimed that there is a shortage of workers for a series of factory construction projects in southern regions, unionized Korean workers refuted such claims, saying that employers are merely looking to cut labor costs.

In order to prevent the dissemination of important technologies, Korea has since 2007 banned construction companies from hiring foreign workers for the construction of power plants, steel mills and petrochemical factories.

However, construction companies have urged the government to ease regulations so that they can hire foreign laborers, citing the limited inflow of young workers into the industry while too many older workers are retiring. They have also emphasized that foreign workers will not steal important technology know-how, as the workers will be deployed only for simple jobs, such as welding and plumbing.

“The Ministry of SMEs and Startups should make efforts for construction firms to use foreign workers at plant construction sites,” Cho In-ho, chairman of the Korea Mechanical Construction Contractors Association, told SMEs Minister Lee Young in a recent meeting.

An official of one of the domestic conglomerates that placed plant construction orders agreed to the necessity of hiring more migrant workers at construction sites.

In contrast, the Korean Plant Construction Workers’ Union under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions claimed that many Koreans are still facing difficulties finding jobs at plant construction sites. The Federation of Korean Trade Unions, another umbrella union, also opposes the use of foreign labor at plant construction sites.

“Instead of sending unskilled foreign workers to construction sites, the government should focus more on fostering skilled Korean construction workers,” a plant union official said. “Reckless use of foreigners at plant construction sites may cause problems in communication, which could lead to fatal industrial accidents.”

The government is in talks with labor and management about whether or not to allow plant construction companies to hire foreign workers who hold E-9 visas. However, protests from unionized Korean workers are said to have led the government to delay its decision.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor said nothing has been decided regarding this issue, as relevant ministries are still holding discussions.

“A ministry supervising the plant industry has talked with the unions,” a ministry official said. “It is uncertain when we’ll be able to reach a conclusion, because we should discuss this matter with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.”

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