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[Feature] Undocumented foreign workers more vulnerable to accidents, abuses

For Rina, an advertisement about jobs in South Korea on social media was a chance to change her life. She imagined that she could lead a life similar to what she saw on Korean dramas and build a better future for her and her family.

The advertisement on Facebook posted by a Malaysian agency said that she could make a lot of money quickly and eventually obtain a legitimate work permit if she worked hard. Rina knew it was illegal, but it was a risk worth taking.

Her decision cost dearly: She lost four fingers on her right hand.

“The factory I worked at had very bad work safety. The only protective gear I had was a pair of gloves,” the 25-year-old Malaysian told The Korea Herald. “Two people were supposed to work together, but I didn’t know about it. Nobody told me that.”

“The factory kept the automatic censor of its machines turned off. My fingers were stuck and cut off,” said Rina, who worked at a factory in Eumseong Country, North Chungcheong Province. “The employers didn’t care about our safety maybe because we had no visa or we are foreigners.”

Undocumented workers from Malaysia speak during an interview with The Korea Herald. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Undocumented workers from Malaysia speak during an interview with The Korea Herald. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

Rina is one of the 251,000 unauthorized migrant workers in Korea who are working illegally and exposed to more dangerous working conditions due to their illegal immigration status. They often find it difficult to speak up about workplace violations in fear that they might lose their jobs or be deported.

As manufacturers -- small and medium-sized businesses, in particular -- and the farming sector find it difficult to meet their labor requirements, migrant workers seeking economic opportunities continue to flock to South Korea to meet those needs.

In the process, privately run recruitment agencies are cashing in on the migrant workers’ desire to work here, and authorities are failing to provide protection to undocumented workers, who are at a greater risk of work place accidents and human rights abuses, activists say.

Dashed expectations

The inflow of migrant workers appears unstoppable.

A close look into why Malaysians choose to come to Korea and risk staying here illegally offers a glimpse into the complexities surrounding illegal immigration in the country.

Hafizy, a 19-year-old Malaysian, came here to earn money and remit it back home to support his family.

“I knew it was illegal, but I had to come because the salary was not good in my country, so I had no choice. I thought that everything would be good and nice and I could get a good job,” he said. “But when I came here, it was not the same (as I expected.)”

South Korea has signed an agreement under the Employment Permit System with 16 countries in Southeast and Central Asia to fill low-skilled jobs in such sectors as manufacturing, fishing and agriculture, which are shunned by Koreans due to the low pay and poor working conditions. Malaysia is not one of the countries.

According to the Justice Ministry, the number of foreign workers on the EPS is about 279,000, as of December last year.

Demand for low-skilled foreign workers continues to increase as employers seek cheaper labor. They called on the government to allow more foreign workers, but the government remains cautious due to a public backlash over foreigners taking locals’ jobs.

The government each year reviews labor shortages in each industry and sets the quota for foreign workers on the EPS program. A state-run agency selects migrant workers from each country based on their language proficiency. The EPS allows them to work here for three years, which can be extended for another year and 10 months upon their employers’ approval.

Without official routes to securing a job here, Hafizy paid 800,000 won ($752) in commission fees, including a one-way flight ticket and a two-night stay at a guesthouse, to a Malaysian agency. The agency connected him to a Korean agency in Seoul to which he paid another 100,000 won.

At an apple orchard, Hafizy was paid 60,000 won to work 13 hours a day last year, below the nation’s hourly minimum wage set at 6,470 won in 2017. He quit the job due to the low pay and heavy workload. To change his workplace, he had to pay 100,000 won to the agency.

“After that, I got a job at an aluminum factory and worked on a rolling machine. I got four of my fingers stuck and lost them in October last year. I was sent to a hospital and stayed there for two months,” said Hafizy, who had worked at a factory in Goesan, North Chungcheong Province.

A Malaysian activist, who asked to be identified by the name Hilmi, said that illegal migration to Korea is a result of economic difficulties in Malaysia and agencies capitalizing on young people’s desperation to find work and build better lives.

“Many agencies are putting up fake advertisements. They say (the) salary would be good, applicants would get free food and house. But when they come here, things are different from what was described (in the ads),” he said. “The agencies are selling them out.”

The Justice Ministry is aware of this.

“It is true that the number of illegal workers from Malaysia increased in 2017,” the ministry said in an email interview.

Most of the undocumented foreigners are overstaying their visas after arriving here legally on work or student visas, the ministry said. Others, like Rina and Hafizy, entered the country on a three-month tourist visa to find jobs here.

“The fundamental reason behind the influx of illegal workers is the gap in the level of income between locals and migrant workers,” the Justice Ministry’s email said. “Opening doors wider to foreigners to successfully host the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and revitalize the tourism industry could also be factors.”

In 2017, the ministry deported 31,237 unauthorized migrant workers and referred 6,460 brokers to the prosecution. This year, it raised the number of immigration officers in charge of detecting unauthorized workers to 1,400; extended the crackdown period to 22 weeks; and designated 34 places, including construction sites and factories for an intensive crackdown, according to the ministry.

More vulnerable to work accident, abuse

Unauthorized workers are usually hired on a day-to-day basis and are often sent to different places daily. They are assigned to work immediately without any training on work safety, which puts them at a higher risk of being injured.

Abdul, 23, came to Korea with his wife in September last year. His finger was cut off while working on a machine. He said that he had not received any training on work safety and had been given only a pair of gloves.

“After the accident, I was sent to a hospital. (When I demanded compensation,) the company threatened to send me back home,” Abdul said. His employer slashed the wages of his wife, who had been working at the same factory, to buy him a flight ticket, he added.

Under the law, employers are disadvantaged when their workplace has a high rate of work accidents. For example, they should pay more into the state-run insurance scheme and receive fewer chances to win state projects.

According to data from the Labor Ministry, the rate of industrial accidents for migrant workers was 7.4 percent in 2016, up from 6.9 percent in 2012, while the rate for Koreans fell to 0.49 percent from 0.59 percent during the same period. A total of 33,708 foreigners suffered work-related accidents and 511 died between 2012 and May 2017.

Under the Labor Standards Act and the Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance Act, foreign workers are eligible to receive compensation for work-related injuries from the government regardless of their immigration status. They can file applications without employers’ consent.

But foreign workers find it difficult to claim compensation due to language barriers, low awareness of the scheme and the fear that they might be identified by immigration authorities and deported, labor rights activist Seok Won-jeong said.

“In many cases, undocumented workers are more disadvantaged. They are more exposed to the delay of payment and industrial accidents,” said Seok, director at the Association for Migrant Workers’ Human Rights.

“The workplaces are relying on unauthorized workers for a reason -- they cannot officially ask for foreign workers from the government due to their poor working conditions, such as low pay, a high work accident rate or unstable relations between labor and management,” she said.

The Labor Ministry acknowledges that undocumented workers are reluctant to file complaints about labor abuses or demand compensation for work accidents due to deportation concerns, a ministry official said.

“Regardless of their immigration status, labor officers get involved and offer help when migrant workers’ basic labor rights are violated,” said Lee Jung-han, director of the Labor Ministry’s foreign workforce division. “But when we identify undocumented workers, it is our duty to report them to the immigration office.”

“We are trying to make sure that unregistered workers are informed of safety measures in their languages and receive training to avoid preventable work accidents,” he said, adding that the ministry is funding 34 nongovernmental organizations tasked with helping foreign workers. Officials also conduct inspections of 3,000 establishments every year.

Some employers mistreat migrant workers because they are given a mandate to decide whether to extend employment contracts with their foreign employees and, in turn, their stay in the country.

Baser, a 27-year-old man from Bangladesh, became an undocumented worker after his EPS visa expired in 2016.

“One day, I was in the toilet and was asked to have sexual intercourse by my female boss. As (I) refused such a request, the boss declined to extend the contract with me,” he said. “I could not stand such sexual harassment.”

“It is not my fault that I became an illegal worker. It is unfair,” he said. “I am living in fear that I could face a crackdown and be dragged to (the) immigration office and deported anytime. Employers pay me less than those working legally for the same job because I don’t have a work permit.”

Necessary to rethink immigration policy

There will always be an inflow of migrant workers as long as the government fails to address the real reason drawing people to the country: a need for labor in low-skilled, low-income sectors, activists and experts say.

“There is supply because there is demand. The fact that there are a lot of unregistered workers means that there are jobs here for them. The government should thoroughly review the situation to make the immigration policy align with the market,” said Park Mi-hyung, head of the Seoul Office of the International Organization for Migration.

“Without official routes to come to Korea, low-skilled foreign workers are often forced to pay commissions and the process is not transparent,” she said. “Migrant workers are the ones who are victimized the most.”

Activist Seok echoed a similar view, saying the existence of unregistered foreign workers in the country highlights “the absence of appropriate policies.”

“The government has imported a foreign workforce without a long-term plan, only to meet the immediate demand,” she said.

“The government should choose between two options: reform the industrial structure to create high value-added jobs for locals, especially women and the elderly struggling to enter the market, or continue supporting the low value-added industry by importing low-skilled foreign workers.”

She also argued that the Labor Ministry and relevant agencies should stop passing information on undocumented workers to immigration authorities. This would encourage undocumented workers to report abuses and seek help.

Shekh al-Mamun, a Bangladeshi official from the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union, said that the government should legalize undocumented workers to bring them within the legal framework.

“They are not machines that can be abandoned after three years,” he said. “Above all, South Korea needs foreign workers amid a falling birthrate and shrinking population. The government can impose taxes on them in a transparent way so that they can contribute to the Korean economy.”

For its part, the Labor Ministry said that the government is “in the process of balancing supply and demand.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (

Ed -- The victims’ names have been changed because they requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.