South Korea's capital scraps testing mandate on foreigners

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A health official checks names of migrant workers as they wait for coronavirus testing at a makeshift clinic in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, March 19, 2021. Britain's ambassador to South Korea on Thursday criticized South Korean health authorities for mandating coronavirus tests on all foreign workers in capital Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi Province in a mass testing campaign that has triggered complaints about racial discrimination. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL – 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