July 19, 2024

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Deadly South Korea Fire Exposes Lack of Protection for Migrant Workers: NPR

Deadly South Korea Fire Exposes Lack of Protection for Migrant Workers: NPR

Firefighters gather at the site of a fire at a lithium battery factory owned by South Korean battery maker Arisel in Hwaseong, South Korea, June 24.

Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images


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Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

HWASEONG, South Korea – Bee Limi texted her mother every day on her way to and from work. She never missed a day of her messages.

But on June 24, the text message didn’t arrive. “I waited and waited,” said Bi’s mother, Joo Hao, a 57-year-old Korean-Chinese woman. “I waited until 9 p.m., which is when you get the day off if you work overtime.”

That was the day a deadly fire broke out at the Arisel lithium battery factory in Hwaseong, south of the South Korean capital Seoul, where Pei worked.

The 37-year-old was among 23 workers killed in the fire. Seventeen of them, including Bi, were Chinese and one was Laotian.

This was the deadliest industrial accident in South Korea to date for foreign workers, according to Immigrant advocatesThey say the high number of foreign victims has exposed the lack of protection for the rights and safety of migrant workers in South Korea, a country increasingly dependent on foreign labor as its population ages.

Over the past 25 years, the number of deaths from industrial accidents per capita in South Korea has been steadily declining. decreased. but The proportion of foreigners among deaths has increased. moreThe unemployment rate rose from 7 percent in 2010 to 10.4 percent last year, according to the country’s labor ministry.

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In the June incident, colleagues and families of the victims said escape routes were blocked and there was no safety training. The company denied both allegations.

Foreigners take on ‘3D’ jobs as population ages

South Korea’s workforce is shrinking and aging rapidly. Young Koreans are avoiding so-called “3D” jobs—dirty, dangerous, difficult manual labor—that pay less and offer less security.

To fill these jobs, South Korea has in recent years begun accepting larger numbers of workers from abroad to work in a wider range of industries.

The Ministry of Labor announced that. Plans Issuing unskilled work permits to a total of 165,000 foreign workers, three times the quota in 2020.

Jo Hye-yo, an ethnic Korean resident of China, looks out the window of Hwaseong City Hall, south of Seoul. Jo lost her 37-year-old daughter, Bi Limi, in the Arisel lithium battery factory fire.

Jo Hyo, an ethnic Korean resident of China, looks out the window of Hwaseong City Hall, south of Seoul. Jo lost her 37-year-old daughter, Bi Limi, in the fire at the Arisel lithium battery factory. She says her only demands are justice for her daughter and a quick burial.

Anthony Cohn/NPR


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Anthony Cohn/NPR

While China accounts for only a small portion of those permits, a much larger group of Chinese nationals live and work in South Korea and make up the majority of the foreign population — those with an ethnic Korean background, like Jo and Bae, Who are also often fluent in Korean.

Korean-Chinese nationals, known as joseonguk, are given special visas that give them wider work options and an easier path to permanent residency than other foreign workers.

Many of them come to South Korea from the Korean regions of northeastern China in search of better-paying jobs than those at home. Most work as manual laborers in industries such as manufacturing, construction and restaurants, enduring industrial hazards, near-minimum wages and even backbreaking work. social discrimination.

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Jo says she and her daughter arrived in South Korea from the northeastern Chinese city of Yanbian in 2014.

She tells NPR that her daughter had worked at Arisel for about a month before the accident.

“They don’t make a lot of money,” Jo says of workers like her daughter. “And not everyone wants to do these jobs.”

Her daughter was working near a pile of batteries on the second floor of the building, as were most of the victims, when an explosion in the pile triggered another explosion and erupted into flames and smoke within seconds.

They ran to the side that had no way out.

The floor was used for assembling and filling batteries, and many employees were there, Cho Seon-ho, head of the Gyeonggi Provincial Fire and Disaster Management Department, said at a press briefing on the day of the incident. Temporary workers He was not directly appointed by Aricell.

He explained that a large number of them fled the fire towards one of the sides of the building, which had no exit.

Joe’s daughter was one of them. Joe showed NPR surveillance footage of the scene, saying, “You see? That’s my daughter. She’s still sitting there, after two explosions.”

Emergency personnel carry the body of a victim at the site of a fire at a lithium battery factory owned by South Korean battery maker Arisel in Hwaseong on June 24.

Emergency personnel carry the body of a victim at the site of a fire at a lithium battery factory owned by South Korean battery maker Arisel in Hwaseong on June 24.

Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images


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Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

She says her daughter had no safety training. “If she had had proper training, how could she not have known what to do? If she had known what to do, she wouldn’t have run, would she? She didn’t understand anything about explosions.”

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Officials from the factory owner Arisel insisted that Press Conference The company said it provided regular safety training and placed emergency manuals in Korean, English and Chinese throughout the factory.

“We don’t come here to die, but because South Korean society needs us.”

Following the incident, South Korea conducted emergency inspections of battery-related workplaces. Labor Minister Lee Jong-sik said the government would draw up a plan to strengthen safety training and more thoroughly support and monitor industries that employ large numbers of foreign workers.

But activists say such measures always come too late, after lives have already been lost.

“What migrant workers fear most is whether they will be able to leave the country alive,” Udaya Rai, head of the migrant workers’ union, said at a news conference held in front of an altar for the victims at Hwaseong City Hall this week. “We work in anxiety because we work in unsafe workplaces.”

“We don’t come here to die, but because South Korean society needs us,” he said.

NPR’s Anthony Cohn contributed to this report from Hwaseong.