Home News Deadly fire exposes harsh conditions for migrant workers in South Korea

Deadly fire exposes harsh conditions for migrant workers in South Korea


They are descendants of Koreans who migrated to northeastern China in the early 20th century to escape Japan’s brutal colonial rule. In a historical twist, many like them have come to South Korea in recent decades in search of better-paying jobs in their ancestral homeland. Today, South Korea is one of the richest countries in the world.

For more than a dozen of them, their Korean dream ended horribly on Monday when a toxic fire swept through a lithium-ion battery factory where they worked. Twenty-two workers died at the plant in Hwaseong, a city south of Seoul, including 12 women and five men from China, ranging in age from 23 to 48, according to officials. Most were ethnic Koreans.

The disaster has once again drawn attention to the harsh realities facing migrant workers from China and other countries. Population decline,already Rapid increase The number of workers the country receives from abroad who work at the lowest levels of the country’s labor market. They do the so-called 3D jobs that locals don’t want to do – dirty, difficult and dangerous.

This type of work is particularly deadly in South Korea, where One of the industries with the highest workplace fatality rates In developed countries. Foreign workers Almost three times According to a recent study, the Chinese population is about as likely to die in workplace accidents as the Korean average.

“These ethnic Koreans from China are a byproduct of South Korea’s painful history,” said Samuel Wu, director of the Asan Migrant Workers Center near Seoul. “They came to South Korea hoping for a better life for themselves and their children. But they often end up facing discrimination and not having proper job security.”

The fire in Hwaseong City has shown us the seriousness of the problem.

South Korea is a major producer of lithium batteries, which power smartphones, electric cars and many other products. But South Korean regulations still view lithium primarily as an environmental issue rather than a potential fire hazard, leaving a hole in safety standards for factories that handle the material, said Lee Young-jae, a professor of fire science at Kyungmin University north of Seoul.

The Hwaseong plant is run by Aricell, a small company that supplies batteries to South Korea’s military and other customers. Industry experts say that in general, small companies in the chemical and battery industries tend to have worse safety records than larger companies.

“It’s rare for people to die in these types of fires, and 22 deaths is definitely not common,” said Emma Sutcliffe, program director for EV FireSafe in Melbourne, Australia, which tracks battery fires.

Sutcliffe and other experts say battery production facilities are typically built on just one floor to make them easier to evacuate in an emergency and to be separated from any other offices or buildings. At Aricell’s Building 3, workers were packing batteries for shipment on the second floor, where the fire broke out — just above the battery production floor.

Like other small manufacturers in South Korea, Aricell relies heavily on migrant workers to cut costs. Experts say these workers are on short-term temporary contracts, rarely receive adequate safety training or work at a factory long enough to become familiar with its structural features, such as emergency exits.

Mr. Li said the walls of Building 3 were made of thin metal sheets sandwiched with plastic insulation, a material that is extremely easy to catch fire. Fire department officials said the factory also stored flammable materials near the exit on the second floor, another safety lapse.

Once a lithium battery catches fire, it gets extremely hot inside and is difficult to extinguish. The fire department cited images from internal security cameras in a report showing that the Arisel factory fire was caused by a battery near an exit door that began to emit white smoke. Within 37 seconds, a series of batteries began to explode, emitting orange-white flames. Seconds later, the entire floor was filled with thick, toxic smoke.

Almost all the dead were gathered near the wall opposite the exit door. There was no exit from that wall.

The bodies were so badly burned that they were assigned numbers until they could be identified through DNA testing and family members who arrived from China.

“The bodies were burnt, and the clothes had melted onto the skin,” said Li Jianhao, an ambulance driver, after taking one of the victims to a funeral home. “It was impossible to tell who it was.”

On Tuesday, Aricell’s head, Park Sun-gwan, apologized for the deaths. But he denied the factory lacked safety measures, adding that workers had been trained on how to respond to emergencies. Police said they planned to question Park and other company executives for possible criminal charges of violating industrial safety laws.

Human rights groups have long protested working conditions on South Korea’s many small farms and factories, most of which cannot function without workers from poorer countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, the Philippines and Bangladesh. But for the estimated 2 million ethnic Koreans in those countries and in China, the opportunity to make more money far outweighs the dangers.

“The income in three days is equivalent to a month’s salary in my hometown,” said Li Fugui, a 33-year-old ethnic Korean carpenter from Heilongjiang province in northeast China.

He said he planned to work in South Korea for another two years. “I will save some money and go back home,” he said. “It will be enough for me to live for the rest of my life.”

Many managers in South Korea are willing to hire ethnic Korean Chinese, also known as Dongpo, because they know the Korean language and culture. But not everyone welcomes them. Unions complain that they take jobs away from Koreans and drive down wages, and many see them as low-skilled workers who speak Korean with a thick accent.

“They are treated as second- and third-class citizens in South Korea,” said Park Chun Ung, a Christian pastor who has campaigned for the rights of migrant workers, including ethnic Koreans.

Kim Dal-sung, a Methodist minister who also campaigns for migrant workers, blames the South Korean government in part for their dangerous working conditions.

Two years ago, the country enacted a law that sent company executives who employ temporary workers to jail if they cause a fatal accident caused by negligence, but until this year the law did not apply to factories with fewer than 50 workers.

Government policies also leave migrant workers, who often need their employer’s permission to change jobs, with little say in choosing or changing employers, which advocates say leaves them vulnerable to predatory bosses, discrimination and abuse.

“Under such a system, it is difficult for them to complain about unsafe working conditions,” Mr. Jin said. “Such a system helps encourage workplace accidents.”

Reported by John Yoon From Hwaseong, South Korea, Keith Bradshall From Shanghai, River Akira Davis From Tokyo and Yan Zhuang From Seoul. Dong Qiaoyi and Li You Contributed to research.

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