SEOUL – Britain’s ambassador to South Korea on Thursday criticized South Korean health authorities for mandating coronavirus tests on all foreign workers in Seoul and a nearby province in a mass testing campaign that has triggered complaints about racial discrimination.
In video message posted on Twitter, Ambassador Simon Smith said his embassy has made it clear to South Korea’s national government that the measures in the greater capital area “are not fair, they’re not proportionate, nor are they likely to be effective.”
He said the embassy also raised the issue with South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission.
“However, my strong advice to all British workers in Seoul and the other areas affected is to follow the authorities’ requirements to take a test,” Smith said.
“The authorities have spelled out that if you fail to take the test in time, you could face a considerable fine.”
Long lines have snaked around designated testing centers in Seoul since Wednesday when the city government began necessitating tests for all foreign nationals employed in the city, regardless of their visa status or recent travel history. They could face fines of up to 2 million won ($1,770) if they fail to be tested until the end of March.
The testing mandate is in addition to virus control measures at the border since new arrivals must have a negative test before they travel or must undergo a 14-day quarantine on arrival.
Seoul had around 240,000 registered foreigners at the end of 2020, but city officials didn’t have an immediate estimate on how many of them would be mandated for tests. City officials have also encouraged undocumented foreigners to come forward for tests, promising not to report them to immigration authorities.
Nearby Gyeonggi province had intended to go even further by additionally forcing employers to require tests on all new foreign jobseekers and hire those who test negative, but scrapped the plan on Thursday following a backlash by rights groups.
Foreign communities and human rights groups have accused health authorities of stigmatizing foreigners as potential infection sources.
The testing campaigns came in response to sporadic outbreaks among low-skilled foreign workers employed at Gyeonggi factories, who often face hash working and living conditions that expose them to higher infection risks.
Lim Seung-kwan, a doctor who heads Gyeonggi’s anti-virus efforts, said health workers found 203 positive cases among some 234,500 foreigners who were tested in the 10 days through Wednesday.
The province last week issued an administrative order requiring all employers to have their foreign employees tested by March 22, which resulted in thousands of workers waiting at testing stations over the weekend.
The controversy over the testing on foreigners has tarnished the image of a country that had been eager to tout its hard-won gains against the virus.
Regional health officials and the country’s top infectious disease expert, Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency director Jung Eun-kyeong, have defended the tests, citing the transmissions among foreign factory workers who are often crammed together in small poorly ventilated shelters.
But health authorities have sidestepped questions as to why they are mandating broad tests based on nationality instead of specifically targeting people with vulnerable working conditions.
Jaehun Jung, a professor of preventive medicine at the Gachon University College of Medicine in Incheon, said mandating tests on all foreign workers doesn’t make epidemiological sense, let alone the ethical and human rights issues.
“The country’s anti-virus strategy is still based on thinking that every source of transmission can be found and stemmed, and it has singled out one group in the society as a source of infection this time,” Jung said.
“It’s very dangerous to think that testing alone would solve the virus crisis, especially if certain workers continue to be exposed to vulnerable conditions ... Just because they test negative now, that doesn’t mean they won’t be infected in the future, and there’s just no way the country could keep testing all foreigners.”
Migrant Workers Movement Supporters Group, a group advocating for migrant workers’ rights, issued a statement denouncing the mandated tests on foreigners.
“The possibility of COVID-19 infection has nothing to do with where a person was born or nationality,” the group said.
The Seoul metropolitan area, where half of South Korea’s 51 million people live, had been at the center of a viral surge during the winter that only slowed in recent months.
The country on Thursday reported 445 new cases of the virus, bringing its caseload to 97,294 and 1,688 deaths. More than 300 of the new cases came from Seoul, Gyeonggi province and Incheon.