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Work accidents plague foreign workers

Maria, a 25-year-old dancer from a small country in West Africa, sustained leg injuries after falling on a slippery floor during a performance in 2012.

The young migrant worker used to work for the African Art Museum in Pocheon, which later made headlines for their appalling working conditions for African workers in 2014. Her employer neither took her to a hospital nor paid for her medical expenses when she cried for help.
Foreign workers attend a rally calling for protection of their rights in 2014. (Yonhap)
Foreign workers attend a rally calling for protection of their rights in 2014. (Yonhap)
“I took a bus to a hospital and paid for all the expenses. I told my boss that I had to get surgery. But my director forced me to dance although I was injured, threatening to send me back home,” Maria told The Korea Herald. “I knew that I could not carry on dancing and I might lose my legs. So I just escaped.”

Four years on, she still suffers from the injury, as she could not receive an operation in time. Last year, she belatedly came to find out that she could claim recompense from the government for her work-related accident.

“I submitted all the medical records, but I could not receive compensation. It was already too late,” she said, saying she had no access to know about the insurance scheme.

Like Maria, migrant workers in South Korea are exposed to a higher risk of work-related injuries because most of them came under the Employment Permit System and are employed in so-called “3-D” jobs -- dirty, difficult and dangerous -- left vacant by local Koreans.

As per the latest available statistics, among the nearly million foreign nationals employed in South Korea, 18,034 foreign workers sustained work-related injuries over the 2012-14 period. Among them, 270 workers lost their lives.

In 2014 alone, 6,044 foreign workers were injured at work and 85 died. More than half of those injured were Chinese of Korean descent, followed by other Chinese, Vietnamese, Uzbeks and Sri Lankans. Most of them were injured being stuck between machines or from falling.

Nearly 60 percent of the industrial accidents took place in the manufacturing industry, followed by 22.3 percent in the construction sector. Just over 87 percent of work accidents took place at small and medium-sized enterprises with less than 50 staff members.

“I believe that the rapid influx of foreign workers here and poor working conditions without safety measures at workplaces are reasons behind the rising incidence of industrial accidents,” said Chun Sang-heon, deputy director of the public relations team at the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency. 

The agency is in charge of promoting safety at workplaces and carrying out on-site inspections. It has also been working to better protect the rights of foreign workers. “Also, cultural and language difference could be factors,“ Chun added.

Under the Labor Standards Act and the Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance Act, the Labor Ministry offers compensation to Koreans as well as foreign workers when they suffer work-related injuries. They can apply for it without their employers’ consent.

But foreign workers find it difficult to receive compensation due to language barriers, low awareness of the scheme and irresponsible employers who try to cover up the accidents, local activists pointed out.

“Migrant workers are not aware that it is their right to file for compensation when they sustain injuries at work,” said Shekh al-Mamun, deputy head of the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union. “Even if they know about the scheme, most of them think the process is complicated and that they need to hire brokers or labor attorneys to apply for it.”

The Bangladeshi official at Korea’s first migrant workers’ labor union also noted that unregistered foreign workers illegally staying in the country are even more vulnerable to work-related injuries.

“Unregistered migrant workers fear possible deportation. So they tend to stay quiet,” he said. “Also, many unregistered workers are hurt or die during the regular crackdowns by immigration officers. But the state does not recognize such injuries as occupational.”

Korean employers are reluctant to report the foreign workers’ occupational injuries to the authorities due to possible disadvantages they may face, a counselor at migrant workers’ support center said.

“Employers instead force their workers to sign waivers and give them some money for medical expenses,” said An Soo-un, a counselor at Gimhae Support Center for Foreign Workers.

Under the law, employers should pay more into the state-run employment insurance scheme in accordance with the number of industrial accidents. If they are marked as having a high incidence of occupational accidents, they are more likely to be disadvantaged in winning bids for public projects and hiring foreign workers.

“The foreign workers are more exposed to the risk of occupational accidents as they are mostly hired in small factories without enough safety measures,” he said. “When accidents occur, they have trouble in explaining the occupational nature of their injuries in Korean.”

Go Ji-woon, a human rights lawyer, noted that hospitals should also be more cooperative in helping foreign workers to apply for compensation.

“Without employer approval, hospitals tend to refrain from performing medical procedures or providing medical reports needed to apply for compensation,” said Go, who helped seven migrant workers receive compensation for work-related injuries.

“For unregistered migrant workers, some employers seem to feel no obligation to help them get compensation or medical treatment,” she said. “They just threaten migrant workers that they will report their illegal stay to the authorities.”

MTU official Mamun pointed out that the difficulties in claiming compensation for foreign workers shed light on the need for stepped-up efforts to prevent industrial accidents in the first place.

“Foreign workers receive three-day training before they start their jobs, but this should be made longer and (more) practical,” Mamun said. “It would be helpful if government agencies can do more to go around factories and show videos to teach workers how to prevent industrial accidents.”

The KOSHA said it plans to continue reinforcing their support for migrant workers and their rights.

The agency has been offering training about preventing occupational accidents at work to both employers and foreign workers upon request at factories and migrants support centers.

“We lowered the number of industrial accidents from 2.66 per 100 workers in 1987 to 0.5 in 2015 for Korean workers,” Chun said. “In the fast-changing labor environment, KOSHA will work harder to improve safety conditions at work for migrant workers.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (