By Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's capital of Seoul will order hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, as well as their employers, to undergo coronavirus tests or face fines running into thousands of dollars, officials said on Tuesday.
The policy comes despite criticism that a similarly sweeping programme in a neighbouring province was xenophobic and indiscriminate.
From Wednesday Seoul city will issue a 15-day administrative order for testing on employers of at least one foreign worker, as well as the foreign workers, said Park Yoo-mi, a city quarantine officer.
"We will make COVID-19 diagnostic tests mandatory for foreign workers to preemptively head off the spread of infection," she told a news briefing.
Last week, the neighbouring province of Gyeonggi drew flak for a similar order after at least 275 foreigners tested positive.
South Korea said infections among foreign workers presented a high risk situation, but it has not provided detailed numbers.
National health official Yoon Tae-ho told a briefing that mass testing at nearly 1,646 workplaces in the greater Seoul area and the province of Chungcheong that employ foreign workers had found no confirmed cases.
Seoul had 242,623 registered foreign workers by Dec. 2020, the justice ministry says. But city officials estimate there may be as many as 390,000, if undocumented workers are included.
Some foreigners questioned the basis of the order.
"Happy to cooperate and get tested," Chad O'Carroll, chief executive of North Korea monitor Korea Risk Group, said on Twitter. "But, honestly, what is the scientific point if church groups, gyms, etc. not required to test?"
J.D. McPherson, who runs a Korean food blog and tour business, said such orders strike a nerve for foreign residents who have previously felt singled out, such as when shops posted signs banning them or they were denied free protective masks.
"They don't like being painted with a monolithic paintbrush, that if one small cluster gets the disease then the entire populace may have it," he added.
"With that logic, then if one Christian church has an outbreak all Christians should get tested."
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)