South Korea’s capital scraps testing mandate on foreigners

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The South Korean capital on Friday withdrew its mandate that all foreign workers in the city be tested for the coronavirus — an order that had caused huge lines at testing centers and prompted accusations of discrimination.

The city will still recommend tests for foreigners employed at workplaces that are at risk of spreading infections, such as bars and small factories, said Lee Hae-seon, an official from the Seoul metropolitan government.

Seoul’s move came shortly after the Health Ministry asked the city to scrap the order and replace it with measures that “don’t discriminate between Korean and foreign nationals and don’t infringe on human rights.”

The National Human Rights Commission also had said it was reviewing Seoul’s testing mandate and similar measures in other areas after receiving complaints that they were discriminatory.

Lee Yong-ho, a spokesperson from the Gyeonggi provincial government, said it has no plans to withdraw its testing order on foreigners, which lasts through Monday.

The city of Incheon and the provinces of Gangwon, South Jeolla and North Gyeongsang — areas that rely on low-wage migrant labor to sustain factories and farms — didn’t announce changes to their mandated tests on foreign workers.

“The point is that we are now recommending tests, and no longer mandating them,” said Lee, the Seoul official, assuring that no foreigner worker will be fined for failing to get tested. The administrative order had called for fines of up to 2 million won ($1,770).

Lone lines had snaked around designated testing stations in Seoul after the city on Wednesday began necessitating tests for all foreign nationals employed in the city, regardless of their visa status or recent travel history

Seoul had around 240,000 registered foreigners at the end of 2020 but city officials had no estimate of how many were under the test mandate.

Neighboring Gyeonggi province says it found 203 cases of coronavirus infection among some 234,500 foreigners tested in the 10 days through Wednesday.

On Thursday, British Ambassador Simon Smith said his embassy told South Korea’s national government the tests “are not fair, they’re not proportionate, nor are they likely to be effective.” He still advised British nationals in the area to be tested to avoid fines.

The U.S. Embassy also said in a tweet Friday that it had raised concerns with senior South Korean officials over the mandatory testing while “advocating strongly for fair and equitable treatment of all U.S. citizens in our shared efforts to stop the pandemic.”

The testing campaigns came in response to 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.

But critics, including health experts, questioned why authorities were mandating tests based on nationality rather than specifically targeting people in vulnerable conditions.

South Korea reported 463 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday, bringing its caseload to 97,757, including 1,690 deaths. Around 330 of the new cases were from the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of South Korea’s 51 million people.

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