Seoul defends mandatory coronavirus testing of foreign workers

High school students arrive at a high school, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Seoul, South Korea

Authorities in the South Korean capital defended on Thursday a decision to order coronavirus tests for all foreign workers on penalty of fines, as calls grew for the controversial measure to be rescinded.

At least one lawmaker of the ruling party and a university leader called for Seoul to scrap the move, while a group of international envoys was seeking further explanation.

The proportion of foreigners among confirmed cases in Seoul rose to 6.3% in the March quarter, nearly three times the figure of 2.2% in the months of November and December last year, said Park Yoo-mi, a city quarantine officer.

“Foreign workers are our neighbours, and the safety of the foreign workers is directly linked to the safety of the local community,” she told a news briefing.

More than 100 coronavirus cases in the capital region were recently traced back to workplace community transmissions by foreign workers, Park added.

However, in a Facebook post, the ruling party lawmaker, Lee Sang-min, said, “These are human rights violations that would make us an international disgrace.”

He urged withdrawal of the policy, telling Reuters, “There shouldn’t be any separation of Korean nationals and foreigners to begin with, when it comes to virus prevention measures.”

Health officials have said Wednesday’s 15-day order for the testing is needed to blunt a rise in infections, despite criticism that such sweeping programmes are xenophobic and indiscriminate.

Neighbouring Gyeonggi province said it would stick with a similar order adopted earlier, but drop a requirement for foreign workers to be tested before hire, saying mass testing had blunted the spread, and citing the discrimination concern.

Of the foreign workers in the province, 203 have proved positive among 234,537 tested.

Some workers there told Reuters they were thankful to be tested, but added that queues and crowds conditions at test centres could be a health risk.

Seoul city authorities said they would extend hours at some testing spots, and provide extra assistance.

At least one foreign employee of a major Korean company received a written notice, which was reviewed by Reuters, but others said they had yet to be notified beyond media reports.

The measures were “misguided and detrimental” to Seoul National University, said Ahn Duk-geun, its dean of international affairs, who also urged that the measure be rescinded.

None of at least 500 foreign professors and researchers at the university had tested positive, he added.

French Ambassador Philippe Lefort said he and the heads of other diplomatic missions were seeking an explanation from authorities, in a message to compatriots in Seoul and Gyeonggi.

Seoul had 242,623 registered foreign workers by last December, the justice ministry said. City officials estimate there may be as many as 390,000, if undocumented workers are included.

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