MANILA, Philippines --- To many Filipinos, South Korea beckons as the new land of opportunity. And the key to the gate of that land is the Employment Permit System (EPS).
The EPS is the South Korean government's program that allows small-and-medium Korean enterprises to hire foreign workers.
Thousands of Filipinos have found jobs in South Korea through the EPS.
Among them is Mackoy Gordula. In 2007, Gordula learned about the EPS through a fellow worker in a factory at the Export Processing Zone in Cavite.
"I really wanted to go abroad since my salary as a factory worker was not enough for my needs," said Gordula. "So I took the Korean Language Test and passed."
That same year, mechanical engineer Emilio Belen decided to try his luck in South Korea after working in South Africa and the Middle East.
After passing the interview in the Philippines, he was hired directly by Korea's No. 1 conglomerate.
In an interview in Seoul, Philippine Ambassador to South Korea Luis Cruz and Labor Attache Felicitas Bay of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) put the number of Filipinos in South Korea at 48,305 as of November 2011. A quarter of them, or 11,859 Filipinos, are irregular or illegal residents.
They are part of the 1.37 million foreigners who live and work in Korea, based on data from the Korea Immigration Service.
Roughly half of the Filipinos in South Korea, or 25,178, are EPS workers, 21,107 of them men.
The EPS was set up in 2004 as replacement for the Industrial Trainee System (ITS), which allowed unskilled foreign workers into South Korea.
The ITS was scrapped after it became a source of major problems, including the illegal hiring of foreign trainees as workers.
EPS workers are limited to four industries: manufacturing, construction, agriculture and fishery. Jobs in these industries are shunned by Koreans because of the "3Ds": They are dangerous, difficult and dirty.
Under the EPS, the Korean government, through the Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL), deals directly with the other governments in recruiting foreign workers and doing away with private recruitment agencies.
Today, the Korean government has EPS agreements with 15 countries, including the Philippines.
The Philippines and Korea signed the first EPS agreement in 2006 and renewed it in 2009 and 2011.
The EPS in the Philippines is handled by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) through the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). Filipinos applying under the EPS must pass the EPS-Test of Proficiency in Korean (EPS-TOPIK), or Korean language test, and a medical exam to join the pool of jobseekers from which Korean employers will select.
Applicants for the EPS must be between 18 and 38 years old.
Under the EPS, Gerald Jaypee Gramaje, 36, worked at a garments factory for two months in 2006 before transferring to a similar company where he stayed for three months.
He said he switched jobs because his bosses didn't follow labor laws regarding salaries. He last worked for a company that manufactured screws and rivets and stayed until he finished his contract in 2008.
"I decided to work abroad so I can fulfill my dream of having my own house and business. Although we have a family business, it only pays for our daily expenses," Gramaje said.
He returned to South Korea in March last year and has been working in a company that makes masking and packing tapes.
Cruz said the high wages make South Korea a magnet to foreign workers. "The minimum wage is higher compared to the minimum wage in the Philippines. Even if you are a high school graduate, you can work here as long as you pass the qualifications," he said.
The minimum wage in Korea is 4,580 won (R173.32) an hour. A worker on an 8-hour shift can earn 36,640 won (R1,386.60) a day, thrice the daily minimum wage of R426 in Metro Manila.
The monthly wage for a 40-hour work week comes to 957,220 won (R36,224), Bay said.
Since 2007, Russel Lamiel, 35, has been working in South Korea for an office furniture maker. "I chose Korea because it's the best country that POEA offered for those who wanted to go abroad," he said.
He found work difficult at first, "but as time went on, things got easier for me." He works 12 hours a day, five days a week, but sometimes he also works weekends.
Lamiel feels the loneliness of being far from his family, and he's excited because his contract is ending next year.
Nelson Maniaol, 33, from Candaba, Pampanga, sold his toy balloon business in the Philippines and went to Korea in 2010.
He works as a painter/welder/assembler at Heshbon, a car lift manufacturing firm in Incheon.
On Sundays, Maniaol travels two hours to go to church in Hyehwadong, where many Filipinos gather on weekends to worship. "I spread the word of God to our countrymen," he said.
He misses his family but says the sacrifice is worth it, considering what he earns. He plans to spend his vacation in the Philippines next year.
Shander Diwa, 28, is a line leader at a chocolate company. "When I'm in Korea I feel so lonely because I'm so far away from my family," he said.
He said he enjoys his work especially because his Korean boss trusts him.
After working for almost five years in Korea, he's back in the Philippines, but won't be staying for long. "In six months, I'll be going back to Korea to resume work," he said.
At the Immigration Policy Forum in Korea in May 2011, Kang Dong-kwan, IOM Migration Research and Training Centre in Korea, presented the findings of his research which showed that foreign residents in Korea contribute about 44 trillion won (R1.67 trillion) to that country's economy.
The foreign workers helped their own country's economy as well. According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), Filipino workers in South Korea remitted $156.61 million to the Philippines in 2011, from $112.21 million in 2010.
This year, Korea will hire 57,000 workers, including 11,000 returning workers, according to the Korea International Labour Foundation.
As of last January, there were 229,883 EPS workers in South Korea, based on data from the Korea Immigration Service.
From 2005 to 2011, the EPS brought in a total of 714,617 foreign workers, according to Korea's Ministry of Employment and Labor.
At a roundtable seminar on Korea's immigration policy in Jeju Island last December, Cruz hailed the EPS as "among the best government-to-government arrangements on labor that I have encountered."
He acknowledged that problems still bug the system, including worker maltreatment and abuse.
"The common complaints we receive from EPS workers pertain to delayed salaries, misrepresented contracts, and physically or verbally abusive sajangnim or colleagues," Cruz said.
In its 2010 report on human rights in Korea, Amnesty International noted the EPS "provided employers with excessive powers over migrants, which increased their vulnerability to unfair dismissal, sexual harassment and forced overtime. Industrial accidents, including fatalities, were disproportionately higher among migrant workers than national workers."
To address these issues, the Korean government has set up centers that provide support to foreign workers who run into problems with their employers.
Cruz said an EPS worker "can get his or her delayed salary and transfer to a better workplace through MOEL Job Centers and HRD branch offices. South Korea helps make the job of embassies to protect the rights and welfare of their workers easier, because South Korea itself has placed labor contact points in strategic places nationwide, in areas that are far from where embassies are located.