South Korea needs more babies and workers. It’s hoping foreign housekeepers will fix that

Lee Jin-man/AP

As South Korea struggles to get young people interested in marriage and kids, authorities are trying a new tack: importing foreign workers to carry some of the household burden.

The government on Friday announced a pilot program allowing 100 foreign domestic helpers to start working in the capital Seoul would begin as early as December. The plan will expand the number of industries and companies eligible to employ foreign workers, as South Korea faces an aging population, shrinking workforce and labor shortages in various sectors.

The pilot program will prioritize sending foreign domestic workers to dual-income married couples in their 20s to 40s, single-parent households, and multi-child families, as these groups have the highest demand for help with housework. The program aims “to ease the burden of housework and child care,” said the prime minister’s office in a news release.

Foreign housekeepers will need to be at least 24 years old, and will undergo background checks including a review of any criminal or drug-related records, the release said. Authorities will also evaluate migrants’ work experience, knowledge and language proficiency skills.

They’ll be placed in Korean households through “credible agencies,” which will monitor the program’s success through its six-month run, the news release said.

The burden of child care and housework has long been cited as a factor in South Korea’s falling marriage and birth rates – as well as the rising costs of living, and a growing reluctance among educated women to put their careers on hold.

A government report earlier this week found that among residents ages 19 to 34, more than half said they didn’t see the need to have a child, even after marriage. And only 36.4% of respondents said they had a positive perception of marriage – citing common factors like economic difficulties.

But this trend has only accelerated the country’s population crisis as the pool of working-age people shrinks – adding to existing economic headaches. South Korea has long struggled with chronic labor shortages in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors, Reuters reported.

In an effort to address the shortage, the government even proposed raising its cap on working hours to 69 per week, up from the limit of 52 – until a backlash among young workers forced them to walk back the plan.

Some politicians have previously urged the government to import foreign workers to help alleviate the burdens on young couples and parents. Last year, Seoul’s mayor proposed such a scheme in a government cabinet meeting, declaring in a Facebook post the country was seeing “the warning light of population extinction, going beyond population decline.”

He pointed to other major Asian hubs such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where migrant workers and housekeepers are an essential part of the social and economic fabric.

In these places, “women’s participation in economic activities has shown a clear uptrend,” he wrote. “It did not overturn the long-term low fertility rate trend, but the downtrend in birthrate has slowed down compared to South Korea.”

Though there are local Korean housekeepers and child care workers, the number of workers is steadily declining and growing older, with the vast majority over 50 years old, the Ministry of Employment and Labor said in July.

Under current rules, South Korea only permits foreign nationals on specific visas to work in housekeeping or child care, such as long-term residents, marriage migrants and ethnic Koreans coming from overseas. This new pilot program aims to open up that work to E-9 visa holders – foreign workers in “non-professional” jobs.

At what cost?

But the cost of such a program – and how much to pay workers – has also stirred debate.

Housekeepers who live outside their employers’ homes and commute to work are paid more than 15,000 Korean won ($11.40) an hour, while those living in their employers’ homes are paid up to 4.5 million won per month (about $3,415), according to the labor ministry – which is more than many young couples or professionals can afford.

“The average (monthly) income of a four-person household is about 5.04 million won (about $3,827),” said one member of a government advisory group comprised of parents, at a July 31 public forum held by the labor ministry. “Even for me, 2 million won ($1,518) is an extremely burdensome amount.”

The government’s six-month pilot program means employers will likely be able to pay “a lower rate than the current market rate for housekeeping jobs,” through cooperation with the Seoul metropolitan government and the relevant agencies, according to the news release.

The government plans to use a system that matches workers at the times of day with highest demand, by allowing part-time work as an option, it added.

Similar pay discrepancies are seen in Hong Kong, where foreign domestic workers – mostly hailing from the Philippines and Indonesia – are paid a lower minimum wage than the rest of the workforce. They earn a minimum of 4,730 Hong Kong dollars (about $600) per month – in what is consistently ranked one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Hong Kong authorities and some observers have argued that foreign domestic workers are legally required to live with their employers, thus saving them rent, and that raising their salary would prevent many couples and working parents from hiring them at all.

But activists and community workers argue the system is in dire need of reform; the live-in rule can trap vulnerable migrant workers, nearly all women, with abusive employers; there is no cap on their maximum working hours; and immigration laws mean many are afraid to speak out or leave their employers, for fear of being deported.

Singapore’s migrant worker system is just as controversial for employing cheap foreign labor to sustain one of the world’s richest countries. These workers often do difficult and dangerous jobs without minimum wage, toiling outdoors for long hours sometimes in extreme weather, and are not allowed to enter most air-conditioned public spaces like shopping malls because of rules set by landlords and tenants.

It’s unclear what, if any, labor protections will be included in the South Korean plan. The government’s news release includes no details on the workers’ specific pay, their maximum working hours, overtime policy, or their leave allowance and weekly days off.

At the government’s July 31 forum, one attendee was pictured holding a sign that read: “I condemn the Ministry of Employment and Labor for passing on housekeeping labor to another low-wage female workers.”

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