Migrant Workers in South Korean Long-Term Care


A review of At the Bottom: Migrant Workers in the South Korean Long-Term Care Market, by Seong Gee Um.

Seong Gee Um’s dissertation explores the growing phenomenon of international migration of care labor through an interesting case study of Korean-Chinese migrant workers in South Korea’s rapidly expanding elder care sector. By using the global economy of care framework (Nicola Yeates, “A Global Political Economy of Care.” Social Policy and Society 4(2), 2005, pp. 227-234), Um investigates how the changes in Korea’s political, social, and institutional contexts affect the composition of elder care workforce and the role of migrant workers in the long-term care sector. Through participant observation, interviews and textual analysis, she explicates how old-age female Korean-Chinese temporary migrant workers came to form the foundation of the care workforce, yet remain at the lowest rung of the hierarchical work structure.

In Chapter 1 (“Introduction”), Um introduces her conceptual framework and research design along with a brief overview of the migration history of Korean-Chinese over the twentieth century. Chapter 2 (“Transformation of Family, Labour Market, and Social Policies”) traces the changing elder care dynamics in the informal and formal economy and the formation of social policies regarding care for the elderly. In the first section, Um explores the care dynamics within the family. Although the Korean traditional family ideology is shifting, Korean women remain the primary providers of unpaid care work within the family, which is reflected in their low rates of labor market participation. The second section highlights the increasing gap between regular and non-regular employment in the Korean labor market and the predominance of women in irregular employment since the late 1990s. In the last section, Um depicts how a large paid care service market was created by the development of social policies in three distinct areas: elder care, labor market, and immigration. The Korean government’s marketization policy of the care service sector has given rise to an explosion in the for-profit care service market, while promoting the elder care jobs as employment opportunities for women.

Chapter 3 (“Transformation of Elder Care Workforce and the Growing Role of Migrant Care Workers”) compares the quantity and quality of care jobs in informal and formal care sectors, and portrays the increasing dependence on Korean-Chinese migrant workers in the Korean care sector. First, Um provides a detailed account of her data collection method (i.e. participant observation and interviews) with an introduction of her field site, a church-based migrant shelter, and twenty migrant care workers who participated in her research. Then, she shows that the elder care workforce in Korea is restructured into three groups of workers (e.g. Korean yoyangbohosa , Korean ganbyeongin, and Korean-Chinese ganbyeongin) with varying levels of qualification, employment status, and wage, working in different care sectors. Care work, promoted as women’s jobs, is still devalued in both informal and formal care sectors although Korean yoyangbohosa, or certified long-term care workers, find better pay and working conditions in the formalized sector. In comparison, Korean-Chinese ganbyeongin are concentrated in the informal sector with more precarious working conditions and poor pay. The last section illuminates on how elder care jobs become a niche for female Korean-Chinese workers in their 50s and 60s due to their limited chances in the Korean labor market because of old age.

Chapter 4 (“‘Unskilled, Semi-Compliant, and Unprotected:’ Migrants’ Care Labour in the Korean Labour Market”) analyzes how the institutional structure (i.e. the regulatory policy framework of long-term elder care and the immigration control system for low-wage workers) confines the care labor of Korean-Chinese workers to the less-protected informal sector with harsh work environment. Um focuses on three sets of boundaries – skilled/unskilled, legal/illegal, and formal/informal – that create different regulations and contrasting work conditions for elder care workers. For instance, the promotion of long-term care work in the new public elder care sector has brought an arbitrary distinction between certified (or skilled) and non-certified (or unskilled) care workers. Through the process of formalizing care work, the Korean government carves out a new protected, regulated public care service sector, while leaving the labor practices in the private sector unregulated and unprotected. Thus, “unskilled” Korean-Chinese care workers, with their temporary migrant worker status, are relegated to working in the informal elder care sector, unprotected by the labor laws. Chapter 5 (Conclusion) summarizes the main research findings, and provides policy recommendations for better protection and regulation of care work, especially migrant care labor in the private sector, as well as strategies for advocacy movements to challenge the current discriminatory employment practices.

Um’s dissertation is an important addition to the study of social policy, care migration and the East Asian welfare state regime, providing a closer look at the rapidly expanding institutional elder care sector in South Korea, a much understudied area of research. Moreover, this study provides valuable and exciting insights for the current scholarship on ethnic relations, migrant labor and international/transnational migration. South Korea is a unique case in that the majority of the migrant labor force is constituted by ethnic Koreans from less economically developed countries, such as China. Through a co-ethnic preferential immigration policy, the service sector jobs are only open to migrants of Korean descent. Thus, in contrast with other receiving countries, Korea relies on the co-ethnic migrant workforce for care work, which may be tied to the state’s nation-building strategy. Regardless, this study highlights how the discriminatory treatment of Korean-Chinese workers in the elder care sector is constructed through intertwined institutional arrangements and labor market practices.

Naeyun Lee
Department of Sociology
University of Chicago

Primary Sources

Participant observation in a migrant worker shelter
In-depth interviews with employers and employees of seven long-term care hospitals for the elderly

Dissertation Information

University of Toronto, Toronto. 2012. 787 pp. Primary Advisor: Ernie Lightman.

Image: Seniors have conversation in Jongmyo Park, downtown Seoul. Kibae Park / UN Photo.

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