Foreign servants and no military service: South Korea criticized for its ideas to increase the birth rate | South Korea
South Korea’s search for ways to raise its record birth rate is growing increasingly desperate as the country struggles to reverse the trend that risks sending it into economic disaster.
Among the proposals that have emerged in recent days are exempting men who have three or more children by the age of 30 from compulsory military conscription. Another is to offer large “gift” tax breaks to parents based on the number of children they have. Another proposal put forward by a dozen lawmakers would allow foreign domestic workers to work in South Korea for less than minimum wage, in a bid to relieve families of the burden of household chores.
The measures have angered some sections of South Korean society, prompting a range of criticisms ranging from sanctioning modern slavery to promoting men over women. The push for new ideas comes as the country continues to struggle with the world’s lowest birth rate, falling to a new high last year.
“The government’s proposals show a lack of consideration for women’s needs and perspectives,” said Kim Yun-jeong, a 31-year-old designer and art teacher from Gyeonggi province.
“The gender pay gap in Korea is still wide, and women face many other challenges in balancing work and family life,” she said.
Women’s rights activists criticized the idea of exemption from conscription as only benefiting men, saying the problem was not low birth rates but discrimination.
“What we need is not exemption from military service, but a society where women’s careers are not interrupted even after childbirth… and where it is natural for men share child care and household chores,” they wrote in a joint statement.
“Modern Day Slavery”
The Foreign Workers Bill, which would exempt foreign workers from the minimum wage law, has also divided opinion.
Cho Jung-hun, a lawmaker from the minor Transition Korea party who is part of the group that introduced the bill, said South Korea needed a “realistic solution for the younger generation, in which families double income are the norm”.
The bill cites Singapore as an example, where foreign domestic workers are paid up to 10 times less than the median wage. The system has faced criticism of abuse and exploitation.
Proponents of the system argue that providing food and meals makes it a better deal than what these workers might receive in their home country.
The conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper backed the bill.
“In this emergency, if we don’t even try to take bold and diverse childcare measures, we will be even more irresponsible,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
The minor opposition Justice party criticized the move as amounting to “modern slavery” and an attempt to “legalize racial discrimination”. Trade unionists called it “anachronistic”.
This is not the first time that the country’s low birth rate has been the subject of controversy.
President Yoon Suk Yeol previously suggested the cause was linked to feminism, while National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo highlighted homosexuality, suggesting the dangerous practice of gay conversion therapy as a solution.
Before becoming commerce minister, Lee Chang-yang suggested imposing a tax on financially able households that do not have children. There was a case where a municipal government encouraged marriages between rural bachelors who were “over marriageable age” and young Vietnamese students to increase the population.
16 years of policies have ‘failed’, says president
As the latest proposals have drawn criticism, South Korea is under increasing pressure to deal with its languishing birth rate.
The problem exacerbates the challenges posed by an aging population and is expected to negatively impact the country’s economy, workforce and defense capabilities.
President Yoon demanded that the government come up with “bold and sure steps” to tackle the problem. His office is expected to announce a long-term strategy in the coming months.
The Yoon administration has already increased the monthly allowance for parents with babies up to a year old to 700,000 won ($535; £440). This amount is expected to increase to 1 million won next year.
At a meeting on Tuesday to address the issue, the president said the $280 trillion spending won over the past 16 years to reverse the declining birth rate had “failed”, noting that the issue was “intertwined… with social problems” such as welfare, education, employment, housing and the pursuit of economic activities by women.
Labor rights groups have found that nearly half of workers cannot use their legally guaranteed parental leave due to concerns about job security, especially among vulnerable workers.
South Korea has some of the longest working hours in the developed world and is consistently ranked as one of the worst places for women to seek equal opportunity in the workplace.
President Yoon’s recent policy to raise the maximum weekly working time to 69 hours has faced strong opposition from millennials and working parents, who wondered when they would have time to raise a child. , prompting him to turn around.
Still, some remain skeptical that Yoon’s next policy package will be effective in stopping the crisis.
Assessing the president’s vision presented on Tuesday, the Hankyoreh newspaper noted that the words “gender equality” were conspicuously absent.
“With the government’s stance against gender equality, such as the removal of the Ministry of Gender Equality, the response to the low birth rate will inevitably be a futile effort,” he said.