S.Korean regions brush off outcry, mandate COVID-19 testing for foreign workers

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Several South Korea provinces and cities are continuing to mandate coronavirus testing for foreign workers, despite a request from the national government that prompted Seoul to end its mandate amid international outcry.

Last week the headquarters of the nation’s pandemic control effort asked local governments to end mandatory testing for foreigners, and improve testing policies to eliminate discrimination or rights violations. But only Seoul scrapped its controversial order.

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The same day, Daegu, the fourth-largest city, with a population of 2.5 million, doubled down with a second order expanding the number of foreign workers that needed to be tested. No foreign workers among 2,553 in the first round tested positive, Daegu said in a statement.

The city, once the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in South Korea, also mandated that any new foreign hires be tested between March 19 to 28.

South Jeolla province kept its order to test about 14,000 foreigners in March, but said it had revised its policies to include more Koreans, a provincial official told Reuters.

So far 24,700 foreign workers have been tested, with one testing positive, the official said.

Gyeonggi, the most populous province in South Korea, wrapped up two weeks of mandatory tested for hundreds of thousands of foreign workers on Monday.

North Gyeongsang and Gangwon provinces, and Incheon city, have also had mandatory testing policies. Representatives there did not respond to requests for comment.

North Gyeongsang said in a statement last week it had found 11 positive patients among 13,034 foreigners tested.

Health officials have said the measures were needed to blunt a spike in infections among foreign residents. According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), foreigners accounted for more than 11 percent of all new cases across the country over the past week.

A nursing home worker receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a health care centre as South Korea starts a vaccination campaign against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Seoul. (Reuters)
A nursing home worker receives the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a health care centre as South Korea starts a vaccination campaign against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Seoul. (Reuters)

South Korea had at least 1.6 million registered foreign workers and 391,306 undocumented foreigners as of December, the justice ministry told Reuters.

South Korea’s human rights commission said on Monday that the remaining measures should be “immediately suspended” and called for Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun - who overseas anti-pandemic efforts - to work with local governments to implement polices that are not discriminatory.

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Visiting one of Seoul’s testing centers on Monday, Chung said testing should cover foreigners and Koreans, and focus more on high-risk facilities.

The British Embassy, which was one of the most vocal critics of the policies, is discussing the issue with senior officials, spokesman Stephen Burns said.

“Any policy requiring the mandatory testing of foreigners, and only foreigners, is discriminatory in nature,” he said.

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