The government of South Korea has denied media reports that it agreed to enter into a pact with the East Arica country of Malawi to allow up to 100,000 people to work in the Asian economic powerhouse. “Our government has not received any official request from Malawi that they want to send their workers to our country,” Moon Sung Hwan, director at the Africa Division of South Korea’s foreign affairs ministry in Seoul, told Bloomberg on Friday.
South Korea, like many economically advanced nations, is facing an aging demographics profile, requiring an infusion of young workers. But Bloomberg noted that Seoul currently has no plans to add Malawi to the list of 15 countries from which it imports labor.
However, BBC reported on Thursday that the impoverished African nation agreed to ship 100,000 young men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 to South Korea to work in factories and farms. Allegedly, Malawian President Joyce Banda entered into the deal during a visit to Seoul in February.
According to the Nyasa Times, the Malawian workers would remain in South Korea for a period of four years, with the option of extending their terms of employment. They would receive a monthly allowance of 450,000 Kwacha (about $87), including free housing, electricity and some basic necessities, according to the ruling People’s Party (PP).
However, the labor deal – whether true or not – elicited criticism from opposition MPs in Malawi, who likened it to a form of “slavery.” "We always cry about brain-drain and encourage Malawians in the Diaspora to come back home and yet here we are exporting the cream of our labor force abroad. It doesn't make sense at all," Stevyn Kamwendo of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) told parliament earlier this week.
According to the Malawi News Agency, Kamwendo also complained that the deal with the Koreans came without approval of the National Assembly. He also questioned the conditions Malawian workers would encounter 7,000 miles away in South Korea.
"I would like to know if at all these international relations are of … use, bearing in mind that media reports indicate that South Korea is a country where massive abuse of foreign workers is rampant," he said. "I would like the [government] also to explain on the conditions attached to the labor export taking into account issues of human rights." Malawi trade unions had also called for the government to cancel the deal with South Korea, fearing abuse and exploitation by Korean employers.
However, the Malawian labor minister defended the scheme, citing that it provides a partial answer to the country's deep poverty and high unemployment. “It is not modern-day slavery,” Eunice Makangala told the BBC, adding that she only wants "to help the young people in Malawi."
"There are people who are working here [in Malawi] who are from Egypt, from Nigeria, India and England,” she added. ”Do you want to tell me that those people are slaves? And the unemployment rate for the youth here is very high." Indeed, according to the Nyasa Times, some 85 percent of young Malawians are unemployed.
During her parliamentary exchange with Kamwendo, Makangala asserted that Malawi has been exporting labor to countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe for years. “Labor migration is not unique to Malawi as many countries [the] world over are doing the same," she explained. “Let us not allow our youth to be idle and become unproductive citizens of the country.”
Similarly, another PP official, Cassim Chilumpha, said that the export agreement with South Korea would provide oversight fort the treatment of Malawians working overseas. “The [Malawi] government will be there for them [migrant workers] unlike in the past where youthful Malawians were flocking to South Africa to work in worse conditions for nothing.”
Apparently, young Malawians are quite eager to go to South Korea. Nyasa Times reported that the labor ministry had already received 5,000 applications for the first 320 positions advertised.
However, in light of the South Koreans’ denials that a labor pact was ever agreed upon, those young Malawians may have nowhere to go.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.