Despite tensions, most of them not willing to part with high-paying jobs  By Nadia Fazlulhaq As the tension rises and war clouds gather over the Korean peninsula, family members of Sri Lankans working in South Korea are gripped by fear and anxiety. With North Korea declaring a ‘state of war’ against the South and urging foreign [...]


Lankans in Korea dismiss war fears; but worried family members want them back


Despite tensions, most of them not willing to part with high-paying jobs 

By Nadia Fazlulhaq

As the tension rises and war clouds gather over the Korean peninsula, family members of Sri Lankans working in South Korea are gripped by fear and anxiety. With North Korea declaring a ‘state of war’ against the South and urging foreign nationals to evacuate before April 10, some family members are urging their loved ones in South Korea to return immediately.

Waiting to go to Korea: Some of the job aspirers at the Foreign Employment Bureau. Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte

Gayani Dilrukshi, elder sister of 23-year-old Gayan Dilshantha who is employed in the South Korean capital, Seoul, says her mother Nilanthi fears for his life and begs him to come back when she Skypes him or speaks to him over the phone daily.

“My mother blesses my brother when we make Skype contact or speak to each other on the phone. We are more worried since my brother is in Seoul, the capital, which is the main target,” she says. “My mother cried when she heard that North Korea warned of a possible nuclear attack,” she adds.

But Gayan, who came to South Korea only a few months ago, consoles them saying that South Koreans are not taking North Korea’s warnings and war rhetoric seriously. They are quite accustomed to such warnings. These views were also echoed by 22-year old Sujith Priyadarshana from Matugama. He has been working in South Gyeongsang Province, Southeast of South Korea for nearly a year.
“No one here wants to leave, even if there is war. Even the Koreans are not bothered about war. They continue with their day-to-day work,” he said in a phone conversation with the Sunday Times.

He admitted that his family members were worried, but said he would not leave South Korea. “Coming here was not an easy journey. I count myself lucky to have been chosen out of 50,000 candidates.” Sujith said he learned from his friends in Seoul that except for a few US aircraft in the sky, there is no unusual activity or war preparation in the capital.

He said his employers had assured that if an emergency situation arose, the workers would be moved to safe areas and would not be sent home immediately. In Panadura, Sriyani, a young mother of two schooling children, says she is in touch with her husband in South Korea via Skype at least twice a day to make sure he is safe.

“We depend on my husband’s salary. Yet, I urge him to return if there are signs of imminent danger. We watch news all the time,” she says. Like Sriyani, many families were in a dilemma. On the one hand, they are worried about the safety of their loved ones. On the other, the high-paying jobs give them social security. The question in their minds is: If they come back, will they be able to go back to South Korea.

A worried parent Nilmini Ratnayake from Wennappuwa says she asks her 22 year-old only son working in South Korea to call her every day. “I am worried. But if he comes back, I don’t think he will get a job with that salary,” she says.  Another worried parent is H.W. Wilson from Ratnapura. His son and daughter-in-law are working at a vehicle plant in South Korea. They have told him that the South Koreans are not taking North Korea’s threats seriously. “I ask them to return, but they refuse to do so,” he says adding that probably they know they will not be able to get such high salaries in Sri Lanka.

Gayani Dilrukshi

The Sunday Times team also met 35-year-old Sajeewa Kumara from Galle. Having passed the Korean language proficiency test in 2011, he visits the Foreign Employment Bureau once a month, expecting a job in South Korea. He says he is determined to go to South Korea, war or no war, though his wife is not in favour of it following the tense situation in the Korean peninsula.

“In Sri Lanka, a construction worker will earn Rs. 30,000 a month but in South Korea he will get about Rs. 200,000 a month with food and accommodation. A Korean job is the only hope for low-income people like us,” he said.  About 25,000 Sri Lankans are employed in South Korea. A majority of them have found jobs through the Employment Permit System (EPS) introduced by the South Korean Government. The EPS which came into effect in 2004 permits South Korean employers to recruit labourers from Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Mongolia, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

Under this system, it is mandatory for job seekers to pass the Korean language proficiency test. In 2011, 50,930 candidates sat the exam to compete for 9,300 job vacancies. In 2012, 4,391 were selected for Korean jobs from 31,271 candidates who sat the exam.
Foreign Employment Minister Dilan Perera in an interview with the Sunday Times said a contingency plan was in place to meet any emergency situation.

“We have been in touch with South Korean authorities through our ambassador there. The Seoul government has assured us that there is no war situation and this was an attempt by North Korea to paralyse the South Korean economy,” he said.  The Minister said even the Sri Lankans there had said there was no need to panic or leave the country.

When asked to elaborate on the contingency measures, the minister said safety evacuation methods would take place with the help of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which helped evacuate Sri Lankans during the 1990 Kuwaiti war and the recent crisis in Libya.

Minister Perera also assured that compensation would be paid to Sri Lankan workers through an insurance scheme if they had to return to Sri Lanka under an emergency situation. The Minister said South Korea had not stopped the recruitment of foreign workers and his ministry was continuing with the recruitment drive.

External Affairs Ministry spokesman Rodney Perera said Sri Lankan embassy officials in Seoul had assured them that the situation was under control. He said North Korea’s threats were largely rhetoric but if an emergency situation arose, South Korean government had promised to assist the Sri Lankans there in all possible ways.

The spokesman said about 1.5 million foreign workers were in South Korea and a large number of them were from the Philippines.
“Even the Philippines has not evacuated its nationals,” he said.

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