The Demographic Promises and Perils of Seoul’s Filipino Domestic Helper Initiative

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The Demographic Promises and Perils of Seoul’s Filipino Domestic Helper Initiative

Can South Korea entice women into the workforce by outsourcing domestic labor to foreigners? More importantly, should it?

The Demographic Promises and Perils of Seoul’s Filipino Domestic Helper Initiative

In this Oct. 18, 2021, file photo, women stand beside a sign about hiring domestic helpers to work overseas outside an office in Manila, Philippines.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

“Korea is so screwed, wow!” This remark from feminist legal scholar Joan Williams, made during an interview with South Korean educational public broadcaster EBS and aired on July 13, 2023, became an instant meme in South Korea. Williams was expressing her astonishment at the country’s unprecedentedly low fertility rate of 0.78, a figure she admitted to having never encountered before. 

The situation worsened after the interview. In August, it was revealed that the fertility rate had fallen even further, to 0.7, a record low not just for the country but globally. 

This moment was more than a meme; it was a stark reminder of South Korea’s multifaceted demographic crisis. 

In an effort to address the plunging fertility rate, the Seoul city government is piloting a program to reduce women’s domestic and childcare workload by introducing Filipino domestic workers. The project is likely to spur broader discussion on integrating foreign caregivers into the country, possibly fostering a more comprehensive approach to immigration and effective utilization of foreign labor in South Korea. Its proponents also hope that it will help to reverse the country’s low birth rate.

But this foreign worker program comes with both promises and pitfalls. Is there evidence to believe that it will help to raise the country’s birth rate and forestall the worst effects of the demographic crisis? 

The Rationale Behind the Filipino Domestic Helpers Initiative

In July 2023, the Seoul city government announced plans to introduce 100 Filipino domestic helpers by December 2023, although the program has since been delayed to March 2024. In South Korean society, women shoulder a disproportionate amount of domestic chores and childcare. As such, the initiative aims to alleviate the burden on women of these time-consuming tasks, thereby empowering them to participate in the labor force. Additionally, the program’s promoters hope that at a more fundamental level it will foster the socioeconomic conditions that encourage women to have children. 

Supporters view the program as a practical solution for working parents. They point to Hong Kong as a success story: Women’s economic participation in the city rose from 47.5 percent in 1982 to 54.7 percent in 2013 thanks to an influx of hundreds of thousands of female Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers. Similarly, in Japan, women’s economic participation also has steadily increased, from 63.4 percent in 2012 to 73.3 percent in 2021 under a comparable scheme.

Demand for domestic workers in Japan has continued to grow. In response, after introducing foreign domestic workers in six designated zones, including Tokyo and Osaka, the Japanese government plans to broaden the implementation of the foreign domestic worker system and extend the visa period for these workers from five to seven years. Japan recognizes that this worker system has been instrumental in enabling women to rejoin the workforce. 

Seoul is hoping to see a similar boost in its female economic participation rate, which has hovered around 50 percent over the past two decades. Furthermore, the pilot program in Seoul could replenish the ranks of an aging domestic worker market with younger labor, considering that 64 percent of South Korea’s domestic workers are over 60. Introducing younger Filipino workers could also improve the quality of services offered by giving South Korean families more options to suit their needs.

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The Criticisms

Yet the initiative has also raised several questions about public attitudes toward migrant labor, the program’s impact on South Korea’s aging domestic workforce, the potential costs of the program, and the need to meet international labor standards. 

One of the concerns is the ability of Filipino domestic helpers to adapt to South Korean society. While some South Koreans will appreciate the expertise and care Filipino helpers bring, others might have reservations due to a lack of cultural familiarity or cultural stereotypes. Resistance to the idea of entrusting one’s home and children to someone from a different cultural background and language could be a significant hurdle in implementing the program.

Another point of contention is the possible impact on the local domestic labor market and additional costs of hosting these temporary workers. For example, critics argue that the influx of foreign domestic workers may not only harm South Korean workers in this sector but also create additional societal costs, such as those associated with settlement support and education for these migrant workers. These costs, they say, could  diminish the overall effectiveness of the initiative. Some suggest that improving the treatment and wages of domestic workers within South Korea would be a more viable alternative, encouraging better utilization of the domestic labor force.

Many critics also look abroad for cautionary tales, particularly Japan. In that country, the scope of work for Filipino domestic workers is limited to household tasks such as cooking, laundry, and cleaning. Childcare is not included. Nevertheless, the fee for these domestic services is relatively high, at around 4,290 yen ($29) per hour, making them available primarily to wealthier households. In fact, 40 percent of those who use these services in Japan are foreign expatriates. Consequently, there are valid concerns that such services may not be affordable for the young Japanese couples they are intended to benefit. Moreover, in Japan, labor brokers reap significant financial benefits from these programs, while the domestic workers themselves receive low wages and face discrimination and mistreatment

Moreover, some in South Korea question the financial viability of the project in light of International Labor Organization regulations, which require that migrant laborers earn the same minimum wage as domestic workers. Critics thus worry that the cost benefits of hiring foreign domestic help would be nullified. 

In response, the Seoul government is exploring ways to make this initiative economically viable for families, mindful of the financial burdens that employing domestic help can entail. By streamlining the employment process and exploring various options and measures, such as subsidies or various term contract options, the city hopes to make hiring Filipino domestic workers more affordable for young couples and families. The viability of this approach hinges on several factors, including the allocation of sufficient funds and the extent to which families can genuinely afford these services. 

Prolonged negotiations with the Philippines, the country supplying the workforce, have also introduced some uncertainty about the timing of these workers’ arrival. A key point of contention is the scope of work: While the Philippine government insists that these workers should be responsible only for housework, not childcare, the South Korean government expects them to handle both sets of chores.

A final concern is the long-term reliability of labor-supplying countries like the Philippines, which now face low fertility rates and aging populations of their own. Over time, South Korea may find itself competing with other countries like Japan for a shrinking pool of foreign domestic workers. This calls into question the sustainability of the initiative as a long-term solution for South Korea’s complex demographic challenges.

Balancing Acts and Boundaries in Seoul’s Domestic Worker Agenda

A more profound issue is the program’s gender implications and the depreciated value of childcare. Although it might ease some burdens for South Korean women, it essentially shifts these domestic responsibilities to the relatively cheap foreign female labor force. This approach fails to challenge the traditional norms that remain prevalent in South Korea, perpetuating a cycle where the undervaluation of domestic work and caregiving reinforces gendered roles and expectations. True societal change would require a significant shift in these norms. 

Such concerns are by no means unique to South Korea. In a 2021 report, the Canadian government also expressed concerns about racialized and gendered stereotypes and discrimination against Caribbean and Filipino domestic workers in Canada. Adding to these concerns, The Guardian reported on Filipino domestic workers trapped in long, unpredictable, and unregulated working conditions in the U.K. with their employers from the Middle East and South Asia, illustrating the global scope of the issue. These examples serve as a warning for what could happen to Filipino domestic workers in Seoul if the project is not implemented with adequate oversight and protective measures.

With the signing of South Korea’s free trade agreement with the Philippines in September 2023, the inflow of Filipino workers from various sectors into South Korea is poised to grow. As these interactions become more frequent, systemic mechanisms to prevent exploitation and discrimination against Filipino migrant workers will become increasingly important. This includes more robust regulatory frameworks to protect these laborers from unfair treatment.

Finally, while similar programs in Hong Kong and Japan have influenced women’s economic participation, there is no clear indication that these have significantly improved fertility rates. Therefore, while these efforts might offer some relief, they do not fundamentally resolve the deeper economic and cultural forces at play, including gender norms that influence decisions around marriage and childbearing in South Korea. The need for a more comprehensive approach that addresses both economic barriers and cultural shifts will remain.