ANSEONG, South Korea — In Bangladesh, Ajit Roy graduated from college with a chemistry degree, hoping to become a doctor or civil servant. A run of bad fortune shattered his dreams and sent him looking for work abroad.
He ended up working at a South Korean farming machinery factory. Six days a weeks, for up to 12 hour shifts, he degreased metal cylinders’ surfaces with paint thinned and polished them with a hand-held grinder.
Soon, he started having trouble breathing. Nine months later, he could no longer walk without gasping. He was diagnosed with a lung disease which later proved to be related to his work.
Roy, 41, said, “I felt like I was not getting enough oxygen even though I was breathing normally.”
South Korea had resisted accepting large numbers of immigrants for decades. But a labor shortage exacerbated by the world’s largest population decline forced it to accept them.
Roy and other workers in his factory were recruited by a program called the Employment Permit System. This has been the most important way to combat the crisis. The EPS, which included 370,000 workers at the end of last year, is on track to add 120,000 more this year — up from 56,000 in 2019.
Most migrants come from Cambodia, Nepal, and Indonesia. The majority of migrants work in manufacturing, which is where the shortage of workers is greatest. By 2030, the sector will need to hire an extra 300,000.
As the program increases recruitment, critics have raised concerns about its failure to provide safe working conditions.
According to government data, foreigners made approximately 9% of the manufacturing work force in 2021. However, they accounted 18% for its 184 accidents deaths.
The critics have focused on the power that the program gives employers, making it difficult for migrants or other workers to protest unsafe working conditions.
Choi Jung-kyu is a migrant lawyer who has been at the forefront of reforming the program.
The government however has claimed that the program suffers the opposite issue: it has granted migrants too much flexibility.
The Times received a written statement from the Labor Ministry stating that almost one-third of migrant worker transfers out of their original assignment within a single year. The ministry stated that this undermined the mission of the program.
As a result, it recently announced a series of measures — including a rule limiting transfers to certain regions — that make it harder for migrant workers to leave rural areas, where labor shortages are most severe.
“The EPS grants work visas to immigrants on the assumption that these migrants will work in the sectors experiencing shortages,” said the ministry. The basic rule is that they must stay in these workplaces.
In its statement, the Labor Ministry said that, in addition to the higher death rate among migrant employees, they are concentrated in smaller manufacturing firms that tend to be more hazardous. Language barriers and lack of experience make them even more vulnerable to accidents.
The statement read: “We’re working to improve health and safety across the board.”
South Korea exported labor to Germany in the 1960s. In the 1990s after a period rapid economic growth in South Korea, dirty and dangerous jobs were no longer sought by the local workforce.
The government then began to look outside of its borders for people to fill these positions.
The first program was launched in 1994, with 20,000 migrants. The migrant workers often arrived in deep debt due to the unscrupulous middlemen that had recruited them. Because they were classified “industrial trainees,” the workers fell outside the scope for labor laws. They worked in dangerous conditions, and often long hours, at half the pay of South Koreans. Many workers abandoned their jobs, resulting in an increase of undocumented immigrants.
In 2004, the liberal government in power replaced the previous program with EPS.
The government cut out the middleman by directly recruiting workers via agreements with sixteen developing Asian countries. Workers were then assigned to jobs on a one-year contract after passing a basic Korean Language Test and undergoing a medical checkup.
The new program gives migrants equal protection in labor law. The early reformist spirit of the program was quickly eclipsed by conservative governments that put employers’ needs first.
The biggest change was the extension of the initial contract from one to three years. This increased the length of initial employment contracts from one year to three years.
With few exceptions, migrant workers can change jobs only if their employers release them from their contracts — something labor-strapped companies are reluctant to do.
Experts have said that despite employer misconduct such as unpaid wages and safety lapses there are high thresholds to qualify for a move.
Chung Byung Suk, a senior official in the labor ministry at the time of its creation, said that “the early scope was much more limited than what it is now.” “But with time, the EPS was corrupted and expanded into something else.”
Ansung Industrial is the company where Roy will be working in early 2021. It has received government recognition for its exports, which include backhoes, tractors, and other equipment. Anseong is located two hours south-east of Seoul. It has 70 employees, a factory and warehouse in Dallas.
The company gave Roy a clean health bill when he first started his job. He moved into an makeshift dormitory at the second floor. Roy worked weekends and overtime when available to earn $2,500 a monthly, which is more than ten times what he was earning at home.
The fumes of the paint thinner mixed with the metal dust that was emitted from his grinding machine irritated his nose. “It always smelt,” he said. You could feel metal dust going down your throat.
Roy says that he asked for a respirator early on but received a blue cloth mask in return. He was determined to get another job, but knew he would be stuck at Ansung. While it is against industrial safety law for an employer not to provide adequate protective equipment, this is not accepted as a reason for a job change.
He was told that his doctor’s appointment for breathing problems would not be allowed, and a manager explained to him that “we were already short-handed.”
In December of that year, Roy was diagnosed as having interstitial pulmonary disease. This incurable condition has been associated with exposure to industrial pollutants. A CT scan revealed heavy scarring on his lungs.
Roy was unable to return to work due to his medical problems, which included a $2,500 diagnostic biopsy. He took a leave of absence from the company in order to recuperate with a close friend.
In January 2022, with help from the Bangladeshi Embassy, Roy filed for workers’ compensation from the government-run Korean Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service — an extremely rare step for migrants.
Ansung sent an email to KCOMWEL – the workers’ compensation agency – saying that they had provided industrial respirators for all their employees and that Roy’s illness was due to “personal neglect” of his health.
The Times asked a manager of Ansung to comment about Roy’s situation. The manager declined to do so. He said, “Our only position is that we hope for a swift resolution from KCOMWEL.”
In December 2020, the body of a young Cambodian farmer named Sokkheng, who lived in Pocheon just north from Seoul, was discovered in her dormitory.
This case could have easily gone unnoticed. Most migrant worker deaths without a cause of death are cremated quickly so that their ashes can then be sent back home.
A group of activists including Choi and a Methodist Pastor named Kim Dal Sung, who runs a migrant workers rights group in the area, located the farm when they saw Facebook posts by other Cambodians workers.
Sokkheng was suspected of having frozen to death. The family demanded an autopsy, and a postmortem occupational diseases ruling. The autopsy revealed that Sokkheng died of a sudden rupture of blood vessels caused by untreated liver disease.
The government later ruled her death to be work-related because the heating in her dormitory — a flimsy dwelling made from sheets of synthetic insulator — had broken down, allowing the bitter cold to accelerate her death.
Sokkheng’s sudden death ignited a national debate, leading to a visit from a member of parliament in her dormitory as well as protests by migrants.
The labor ministry responded by granting job transfers to migrants placed in uninhabitable accommodation. Sokkheng’s employers was fined about $220.
Choi believes that, despite the fact that Sokkheng’s case was only discovered by chance, a number of migrant employees are dying in silence from illnesses at work, with their cause of deaths simply being marked as “unknown.”
This suspicion is supported by government data.
In 2021, 63% of the 1,942 deaths attributed to occupational disease in South Korea were caused by work-related diseases. This figure was just 20% for the 138 foreign workers who died in the same year.
The Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, a government think tank, concluded last year that there is a large underreporting of disease among migrant worker due to bureaucratic barriers and unwilling employers.
Data collected by Thai Embassy regarding deaths of Thai citizens raises the possibility that many deaths may be due to illnesses at work, yet are not investigated. Forty percent of 533 deaths from 2017 to 2021 have been attributed to unknown causes. This figure represents 6.5% of the total working population in Thailand.
Choi stated that “these workers are young, healthy and fit when they arrive.” “The sudden death of these workers from unknown causes, after they arrived in Korea, raises a number of questions.”
Ansung Industrial was completely renovated by the time the worker’s comp agency inspect Ansung Industrial, last July. Roy’s former job had also been outsourced.
“Everything dangerous was gone — the chemicals, the dust,” said Roy, who accompanied the agency’s inspectors.
Roy was fortunate to have one important piece evidence which helped him establish a connection between his work environment at Ansung, and his illness.
A fellow Bangladeshi worker had put Roy in touch with Kim the pastor who provided financial assistance and recruited the services of a doctor who specialized in occupational diseases.
Dr. Kim Hyun Joo asked Roy to take a sample of industrial dust from his workstation. A lab test of the powder Roy brought along with lung tissue from the biopsy revealed that both contained silica, a cancer-causing carcinogen.
Roy believes that if his claim is rejected, he will be sent back home to Bangladesh where the medical care is of a lower standard.
“Even though I may die, I’d rather do so here in Korea in relative comfort,” said he. In Bangladesh, dying is a painful experience.
It is not possible to repair the damage done to his lungs. In the event that his condition gets worse, he may need a transplant. Workers’ compensation would cover a portion of the cost, but you will have to pay out-of pocket.
This means that Roy will eventually have to go back to the production line. He said, “There’s nothing else I can possibly do in Korea.”
He has to wait for now. It’s been nearly two years since his claim was filed.
The fate of migrants like Roy is not just a human rights issue.
South Korea is competing with other countries, such as Japan, to attract migrant labor in the future.
Kim Dal-sung stated that “nobody is going want to come here” if the word spreads about workers dying this way. “This problem is not one of the employers. It’s a government policy issue.”
The demand for foreign workers is only going to increase.
With South Korean women now giving birth to an average of just 0.78 children — the lowest fertility rate of any major country and far below the 2.1 needed to maintain the current population — the number of working-age people is expected to fall from 36 million today to 24 million by 2050.
The migrants continue to come despite the problems.
Va Chanda was 29 years old and worked in a clothing factory in Cambodia. She earned around $250 per month. She earned six times more picking lettuce in South Korea after she arrived in January.
She said that she was beaten by a watering-hose because she did not understand the instructions given in Korean. She was able to escape when a friend called the police for her and helped her connect to a migrant center where she had applied for a new job.
She said, “I don’t regret my decision to come here.” I need to find a new job.
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