In the wee hours of a freezing day in January, hundreds of people, mostly middle-aged men, were lining up in front of a branch office of the Employment and Labor Ministry in Uijeongbu north of Seoul.
Some of them had stayed in a makeshift tent for three days to keep their place in the line.
The people, who run small manufacturing companies, were waiting to receive permits to employ a limited number of foreign workers in their factories, handed out on a first-come, first-served basis.
Similar scenes were observed at most of the 51 employment centers operated by the ministry across the country.
Securing migrant laborers has become crucial for small manufacturers shunned by young native-born workers who prefer jobs in big companies with better prospects.
Their sense of urgency has been amplified as a large number of foreign workers are leaving the country this year as their employment period expires.
According to the Employment and Labor Ministry, 67,111 expatriates are set to return to their homeland in 2012 after working four years and 10 months, the maximum period permitted under the current system.
Their departure comes on top of 33,938 and 5,243 migrant workers who left the country in 2011 and 2010, respectively.
Leaving small businesses feeling further pinched, the ministry has decelerated the growth of immigrants under the employment permit system adopted in 2004.
The number of new foreign workers available for small manufacturers fell sharply from 60,800 in 2008 to 13,000 in 2009 before gradually increasing to 28,100 in 2010, 40,000 in 2011 and 49,000 this year, according to statistics from the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business.
Small manufacturers have called for policymakers to increase the number of expatriate workers and extend their working period to ease the shortage of manpower.
"Without the foreign workforce, many small businesses would have to move their production abroad or shut down," said Ryu Jae-bum, head of the foreign workers services team at the federation.
"We should now recognize them as an essential pillar of our industrial structure," he said.
This year's quota of 49,000 is just half the more than 98,000 migrant workers estimated to be needed by small businesses, according to Ryu.