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Hard Won

Why migrant workers from Russia go to South Korea

South Korea is one of Russia's main economic partners in Asia. As a result of last year, in terms of trade with Russia, the Republic of Korea came out on the second place among the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, even pushing Japan. However, there is a sector of economic interaction between Russia and South Korea, which is practically not taken into account in official statistics. It is about the trips of Russians, mostly residents of the Far East, to Korea for work.

Hard Won
Photo: Morning at the labor exchange in South Korea / Semyon Andreev

In November 2013, an agreement was concluded between Russia and the Republic of Korea, within the framework of which, starting 1 January 2014, visa-free regime for citizens of both sides for up to 60 days is in effect. This agreement allowed Russian citizens to travel relatively easily to Korea for short-term work. After all, to date, the average monthly wage for unskilled manual labor in Korea is almost four times higher than wages for the same work in Russia.

Of course, from the point of view of South Korean legislation, migration of this kind is illegal, since the agreement on visa-free travel does not provide for an opportunity to engage in labor activity. Russian migrant workers enter the country under the guise of tourists and then start working in factories, factories or in agriculture, violating the labor laws of Korea. The overwhelming majority of Russians still try to comply with the visa-free regime - they leave the country in 60 days after their arrival. At the same time, after a while, many return to Korea for another "labor watch".

In Korea itself, there is a certain hierarchy among labor migrants. The first step in it is occupied by the "chosongzhok" (ethnic Koreans from China), the Chinese themselves and "koryo saram" (ethnic Koreans living in the post-Soviet space). Many of them speak the language, know the culture and customs of the Koreans, which certainly helps them find a more attractive job. 

The next stage is occupied by long-term migrants, who are in Korea, both legally and illegally, for a period of one year or more. During their stay, they learn Korean language and customs, which also gives them an advantage.

And, finally, the third category, which includes the majority of labor migrants from Russia. They go to Korea for a short period, not knowing at the same time the Korean language and not knowing the features of the residence and mentality of this country. Usually they get heavier and dirty work. At the same time, wages at all three levels are approximately the same, but sometimes ethnic Koreans receive little more than other labor migrants.

SEA is easier

According to polls, working conditions in Korea satisfy Russian migrants. The average working day is nine hours, the hour of which is the time for a free lunch in a cafe or in a canteen at the enterprise. Workers live most often in dormitories, not far from the place of work.  

Russian citizens, especially those who do not speak Korean, often find it difficult to find work in Korea on their own. Therefore, they use the services of private companies that help people who want to get to Korea for money and arrange migrants for work. In Russia, this is often done by travel agencies and individual entrepreneurs. The cost of services of such a firm varies from 10 thousand to 30 thousand rubles, depending on the scope of activity. 

Companies bring a client to a Korean agent who meets a potential employee directly in Korea. This happens either at Incheon International Airport (Korea's main air harbor), or at the Donghae seaport. It should be noted that the potential migrant pays his own travel expenses. The average price of a round-trip plane ticket is 15 thousand rubles, and a ferry ticket is 20 thousand rubles. As a result, just to go to work, you need to spend about 45 thousand rubles.

Neither the company nor the agent is responsible for immigration control, which not everyone can get through. Over 2016 year, about four thousand Russians were detained and deported to the homeland at Incheon International Airport. Therefore, many prefer to arrive in the country by ferry, since border control in the port is much easier. According to the author's observations, 90% of Vladivostok-Dongha ferry passengers go to Korea with a view to earning money. The ferry departs once a week and, during the period from April to September, the ticket is almost impossible to buy due to the lack of available seats.

After the Korean agent meets newly arrived migrants, he delivers them to various work sites. The type of labor activity migrants in most cases choose themselves, while still at home. Russian workers, like migrants from other countries, are involved in many areas of activity: in factories, construction sites, in the field of agriculture and fisheries, much less often in services - for example, cooks or dishwashers.


Illegal employment in Korea can be divided into two groups. The first is employment in one enterprise. The employee is fully provided by the company for the entire period of his stay in Korea, working in one place and receiving a monthly salary and bonuses. In this case, the worker completely depends on his employer, who can abuse his position, for example, to force the worker, regardless of his desire, to work overtime. 

Sometimes there are problems with the issuance of salaries, often employers delay the payment of earnings for a week or two, which forces employees to either break the time frame of their stay in Korea, or leave home with nothing. If a person violates the visa-free regime and is in the country for more than 60 days, he automatically becomes an illegal immigrant. And when he leaves the country, he is stamped "Deport", after which he will not be able to enter Korea in the next five years. The average salary for this kind of work is 1600-1800 dollars per month, which is lower by 300-400 dollars in comparison with the second group, because in the first case the employer additionally charges a commission for providing housing and food.

The second group is work through the labor exchange. In this case, the guest worker provides himself with housing and food, he does not have a specific work schedule, and, depending on his desire, he comes to the labor exchange where the Korean agent finds a one-day job for a migrant, charging a commission in the amount of 10 to 20 percent of salary . As a result, a migrant man gets 85-95 thousand Korean won per day (about 80-90 dollars). 

He himself determines how many days a week he will work, receiving money in the evening, after each worked day, or once a week. In any case, people try to work every day, but theoretically they have the right to arrange a weekend at any time. It is worth noting that the change of work is not every day. If the employer is satisfied with a specific personality, then, most likely, he will offer this person to stay for a longer period at his enterprise. 

Working through the labor exchange, the migrant is more mobile, because there are such points in every locality in Korea, where Koreans themselves come for one-day work. If a person does not like the city or type of work, he can easily ask his agent to transfer him to another location. In this case, the employer provides its employees only with lunch. Breakfasts and dinners are prepared by migrants themselves. On average, Russians earn about 10 dollars a day for food and other expenses from earned money. For a month, it is possible to earn about two million Korean won (about 1900 dollars).


The main flow of Russians wishing to engage in manual labor in Korea is accounted for by men from the Primorsky and Khabarovsk Territories of Russia. This is primarily due to the geographical proximity of these regions to Korea and the availability of transport routes. At the same time in recent years in Korea, you can meet and came to work in the European part of Russia. Russians, like other labor migrants, prefer to work together with their compatriots, but in most cases, Korean employers, fearing strikes and boycotts, do not take more than three people from one country to one place. 

Men work mainly in factories (production of various metal products, building materials) and construction sites. Women are engaged in agriculture and in factories (production of cosmetics, food). And if women are not allowed to work at factories, then both men and women work in the factories. At the same time, women, working with men, get 20 dollars less per day, doing the same job, and sometimes even more complicated than men.

The exact number of labor migrants from Russia located on the territory of the Republic of Korea can not be determined, but following from the data on the number of deportees, it can be assumed that the figure varies from 10 thousand to 20 thousand people. At the same time, every two months more than half of these people are changing. It can be concluded that over a year for the purpose of earning Korea is visited by about 80 thousand Russians. The only motivation for such trips, in most cases, is making money. Many of the migrants do not even leave their work places at the weekend, in order, for example, to get better acquainted with Korea and its sights.

The overwhelming majority of migrants return to Russia and already spend their money earned in the South Korean foreign country, converting them into rubles. For example, they buy apartments, cars, or extinguish loans. Several hundred million dollars, which annually bring with them return migrants from Korea, allow to some extent stimulate effective demand for the economy of the Russian Far East.

It can be assumed that the flow of labor migrants from Russia to Korea will continue, while the prices for unskilled manual labor in South Korea will be several times higher than salaries in Russia. Another factor is the ruble's exchange rate against the dollar and the South Korean won. The higher the dollar rate, the more attractive the work in Korea. It is no coincidence that the first wave of the mass labor migration of the Far East to Korea was noted at the end of the 1990-x-beginning of the 2000-ies, when the ruble fell sharply after the default of August 1998.

Even the strengthening of border control and the deportation of an increasing number of Russian citizens on the Korean border are unlikely to have a significant effect. A possible solution to this problem could be the conclusion of an interstate agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Korea that would allow the legalization of the status of guest workers. For example, such an agreement exists between South Korea and the People's Republic of China. Chinese citizens, having received the necessary documents, can legally work in Korea for up to four years, while receiving medical insurance and other guarantees. Russians, who now come to work in South Korea, are in no way protected from such risks as illness or accident. In turn, such an agreement to the Korean side will increase tax revenues and streamline the flow of labor migrants.
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