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South Korea seen revising rules on tests for foreign workers

SEOUL (Reuters) - Rules singling out foreign workers for mandatory coronavirus testing in parts of South Korea will soon be partially revised, diplomatic missions and commerce organisations said on Thursday after they had complained to authorities.

FILE PHOTO: People wait in a line to undergo coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test at a coronavirus testing site which is temporarily set up in front of a railway station on Christmas day in Seoul, South Korea, December 25, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

Seoul and neighbouring Gyeonggi Province are among a number of local governments that have ordered all foreign workers to be tested, drawing accusations of xenophobia.

In an email message to French citizens late on Thursday, France’s Ambassador Philippe Lefort said that due to the intervention of the diplomatic community as well as the European and American chambers of commerce, authorities were “on the verge of partially modifying the measures.”

In a statement on its website, the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea said that after talks with South Korea’s foreign investment ombudsman, the directives in Seoul and Gyeonggi “will be corrected” and an official announcement would shortly be made by authorities.

It was unclear exactly what the modified policies would be and there was no immediate comment from health authorities.

The news came after Britain formally protested to South Korea, multiple countries sought an explanation and several South Korean leaders called for the rules to be rescinded.

“The British embassy has made clear to the national government and to the Seoul and Gyeonggi administrations that we consider these measures are not fair, they are not proportionate, nor are they likely to be effective,” ambassador Simon Smith said in a video on Twitter.

He said he had also raised the issue with South Korea’s human rights commission.

Canada’s ambassador retweeted the video and said several diplomatic missions were making similar representations.

The British and French ambassadors said that in the meantime, citizens should comply with directions from authorities, who have said the measures are needed to blunt a rise in infections.

Foreigners have accounted for 6.3% of confirmed cases in Seoul since January, against 2.2% in November and December, 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.

She said more than 100 recent cases in the capital had been traced back to workplace transmission by foreign workers.

However, ruling party lawmaker Lee Sang-min said on Facebook that the measures were “human rights violations that will make us an international disgrace”.

He told Reuters: “There shouldn’t be any separation of Korean nationals and foreigners to begin with, when it comes to virus prevention measures.”

Ahn Duk-geun, dean of international affairs at Seoul National University, said the measures were detrimental to its 500 foreign students and staff.

Gyeonggi province did say it would drop a requirement for foreign workers to be tested before hire, citing concerns about discrimination.

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

Seoul had 243,000 registered foreign workers by last December, although officials estimate another 150,000 may be undocumented.

Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Giles Elgood

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