Migrant workers staying in cramped accommodations during their mandatory two-week quarantine could pose a risk to South Korea’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, experts and activists said Tuesday.
On Monday, some 20 migrant workers from Myanmar, who arrived in Korea on April 23, were caught staying in accommodation inappropriate for quarantine, with shared kitchens and bathrooms, where strict self-quarantine is nearly impossible, according to the Bupyeong-gu Office.
“It seems like they could not afford to stay at state facilities that charge them as much as 100,000 won per night,” said an official representing the district, adding that all the workers were now in self-quarantine in accommodations prepared by their employers and the Myanmar Embassy.
Starting April 1, the government made it mandatory for those arriving from overseas -- both Korean and foreign nationals -- to self-quarantine for two weeks either at their homes or at state-designated facilities amid an increase in imported infections.
Foreigners on short-term visas or those with no place to stay in Korea are required to self-isolate at state-run facilities, which cost 100,000 won ($82) per night.
Migrant workers under the Employment Permit System, like the workers from Myanmar, hold long-term visas and must self-quarantine for 14 days at their homes.
But as they usually stay in cramped dormitories they could become athe victims of a new cluster of infections, some activists said, arguing that the government should set up special facilities to house migrant workers ordered into quarantine.
“In fear of the migrant workers carrying the virus, many employers are refusing to accept them into the factory dorms and asking them to return to work after self-quarantining elsewhere,” Ko Seong-hyun, director at the Gyeongnam Migrants Labor Welfare Center, said. “Those who are in between jobs also have nowhere to stay for self-quarantine.”
But it is not easy for them to pay for the two-week quarantine at state facilities, which costs 1.4 million won in total, leading them into low-cost alternatives such as crowded gosiwon and guest houses, he said.
“This could pose a danger to the country’s quarantine efforts,” he said, asking the government to set up a facility where migrant workers can self-quarantine free of charge before they are dispatched to their workplaces.
An official from the Labor Ministry said on condition of anonymity that the government was considering creating a facility that could house up to 100 migrant workers without proper registered homes.
Singapore, which was once touted as an early success in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, now has Asia’s highest number of cases after China and India. The surge in infections is linked to its crowded migrant workers’ dormitories, where 12 to 20 men share a single room and live in close quarters.
The health authorities said Tuesday that they were aware of the existing problems and preparing measures through discussions with municipalities and relevant ministries.
There has been some criticism that the Korean government’s quarantine polices are failing to protect foreigners.
Under the country’s mask-rationing system, only those who have subscribed to the national health insurance scheme are eligible to buy masks, leaving out about half of the foreign population here. Foreigners are also excluded from the government’s cash relief programs unless they are married to Koreans.
“If the Korean government were to invite foreign workers to meet a shortage of labor and support the country’s economy, it should also take responsibility for their health,” said Kim Hyung-jin, head of the Gimhae Migrant Human Rights Center.
The migrant workers entering Korea are mostly returning here after spending their holidays in their home countries. An estimated 60,000 migrant workers have entered Korea during the COVID-19 outbreak.
This year, the country was set to accept 56,000 foreigners under the Employment Permit System, but no one made it to Korea as of Tuesday due to the pandemic. Only those who had their visas extended earlier are being allowed in the country, according to the Justice Ministry.
Korea runs the EPS to import workers from 16 countries in Southeast and Central Asia to fill low-skilled jobs mostly in the manufacturing, fishing and agriculture sectors. Those jobs are usually shunned by Koreans due to low pay and poor working conditions.
There are currently about 270,000 unskilled migrant workers in the country, including those staying here illegally, according to data from the ministry.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org