The deadly sinking of the Sewol, which has put all Koreans in anguish for the past month, is having the effect of raising awareness about the nation’s poor industrial safety. Large manufacturing companies are scrambling to strengthen measures to prevent workplace accidents, allotting more staff and budget to this end.
Such renewed endeavors should have come earlier, as Korea has in recent years recorded the highest number of fatal industrial accidents, except for Turkey, in the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But it is better late than never. The industrial sector should be quick to improve the embarrassing reality that three workers die at work every day due to the ignorance or neglect of safety rules. This was also the main cause of the Sewol ferry disaster, which claimed more than 300 lives.
What may be forgotten, but should not, in this effort to enhance industrial safety is the more accident-prone, dangerous working conditions of immigrant laborers. According to figures from the Ministry of Employment and Labor, 5,586 foreign workers suffered from industrial accidents last year, accounting for 6 percent of the total number of 91,824. This was nearly double foreign laborers’ share of the workforce.
With the total number of industrial accidents remaining at similar levels in recent years, the cases involving foreign employees increased by 6.9 percent over the period from 2008 to 2013. In another alarming statistic, the number of immigrant laborers who died in workplace accidents last year amounted to 1.32 per 10,000, compared to the figure for the overall workforce at 0.71, which was the highest among major advanced nations.
It is a pity that so many foreign workers, mostly from less-developed nations, who came to Korea to help support their families back home and realize their dreams, become disabled or even lose their lives here. Some may argue that it is inevitable that immigrant laborers are exposed to a higher risk of industrial accidents as most of them are hired at smaller and more dangerous workplaces. This may be the case, but this argument should not be used to mask some employers’ distorted treatment of low-paid immigrant employees merely as a means of maximizing their profits.
Government figures put the number of immigrant workers in Korea at about 710,000, including some 170,000 with illegitimate status. Without them, it would be difficult or even impossible to run many farms, restaurants and small factories around the country. Immigrant laborers, who usually work long hours under difficult conditions, should be regarded and treated as indispensable members of our society.
This accommodating and fair attitude toward them is what Korean citizens need to adapt to the increasing multicultural tendency in their society. The due treatment of foreign workers will also help enhance Korea’s image in their home countries. In this regard, Korean companies operating production facilities abroad, especially in less developed nations, must also improve their working conditions to meet global standards.
The government is required to offer more support and incentives to improve safety conditions at small businesses employing immigrant workers. It is aiming to reduce the rate of fatal workplace accidents among foreign employees by half over the next four years. More drastic reductions should be made by pushing for more effective and substantial measures.