SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday that only the visually impaired can be licensed masseurs in the country, upholding a law set up a century ago despite arguments it infringed on free employment rights.
The law was established in 1912 when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule to help guarantee the blind a livelihood, according the to the Korean Association of Masseurs, which now has about 7,100 visually impaired people as members.
“The regulation is meant to provide visually impaired people with an opportunity to have a personally rewarding occupation, and assure that they have means to earn a living; thus, the purpose of the legislation is well justified,” the court said in its decision.
Welfare experts in the country have said the law helps the blind make a living by carving out a niche but it adds to discrimination in the workplace because it makes employers in other fields less likely to hire the visually impaired.
The group of visually impaired masseurs has led protests over the court case, with three blind masseurs committing suicide since 2006.
“The court decision is not only a verdict on our right to live but also a measure of South Korea’s conscientiousness,” said Lee Gyu-seong from the association.
The country’s unlicensed masseurs, estimated by local media to number about at 200,000, said the law denied them the right to practise their high-demand trade.
Unlicensed masseurs can face fines ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars and even a short stint in prison.
They won a 2006 court decision to overturn the law but parliament redrew the measure in a way that continued the monopoly for the blind as licensed masseurs.
The court said the current law should not be seen as a permanent fix and called on legislators to find a compromise.
Police have said some of the unlicensed massage parlours are fronts for prostitution, but there is much larger demand for legal, above-the-board massages.
Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Nick Macfie