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A deadly fire exposes the lack of protection for migrant workers in South Korea

Firefighters gather at the site of a fire at a lithium battery factory owned by South Korean battery maker Aricell in Hwaseong, South Korea, on June 24.
Anthony Wallace
/
AFP via Getty Images
Firefighters gather at the site of a fire at a lithium battery factory owned by South Korean battery maker Aricell in Hwaseong, South Korea, on June 24.

HWASEONG, South Korea — Bie Limei texted her mother daily, on her way to and from work. She never missed a day.

But on June 24, her text did not arrive. “I waited and waited. I waited until 9 p.m., which is when she gets off, if she works overtime,” says Bie’s mother Ju Haiyu, a 57-year-old woman of Korean descent from China.

It was the day when a deadly fire broke out at Aricell lithium battery factory in the city of Hwaseong, south of the South Korean capital of Seoul, where Bie worked.

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

It was South Korea’s deadliest industrial accident to date for foreign workers, according to migrant advocates. They say the high foreign casualties exposed the lack of protection for migrant workers’ rights and safety in South Korea, a country that increasingly depends on labor from abroad as its population ages.

Over the last 25 years, South Korea’s number of deaths from industrial accidents per capita has steadily declined. But the proportion of foreigners among the deaths has increased, up from 7% in 2010 to 10.4% last year, according to the country’s Labor Ministry.

In the June incident, victims’ colleagues and families say escape routes were blocked and there was no safety training. The company has denied both claims.

Foreigners work in "3D" jobs as the population ages

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

To fill those jobs, South Korea in recent years has been accepting markedly more laborers from abroad to work in a wider range of industries.

The Labor Ministry has announced it plans to issue non-skilled work permits to 165,000 foreign workers in total, triple the 2020 quota.

Ju Haiyu, an ethnic Korean resident of China, looks out from a window at Hwaseong City Hall, south of Seoul. Ju lost her 37-year-old daughter Bie Limei in the Aricell lithium battery factory fire. She says her only demands are to get justice for her daughter and give her a quick burial.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
Ju Haiyu, an ethnic Korean resident of China, looks out from a window at Hwaseong City Hall, south of Seoul. Ju lost her 37-year-old daughter Bie Limei in the Aricell lithium battery factory fire. She says her only demands are to get justice for her daughter and give her a quick burial.

While China accounts for only a slight fraction of those permits, a much larger group of Chinese nationals lives and works in South Korea and makes up a majority of the foreign population — those with Korean ethnic background, like Ju and Bie, who are also often fluent in Korean.

Ethnic Korean Chinese, known as Joseonjok, are granted special visas that allow them wider employment options and an easier path to permanent residence, compared with other foreign workers.

Many of them come to South Korea from Korean enclaves in northeast China for jobs that pay better than those at home. Most work as manual laborers in industries like manufacturing, construction and restaurants, enduring industrial hazards, near-minimum wage and even social discrimination.

Ju says she and her daughter arrived in South Korea from China's northeastern city of Yanbian in 2014.

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

“They don’t make that much money. And it’s not that everyone wants to do these jobs,” Ju says about workers like her daughter.

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 led to another one and to an engulfing flame and smoke all within seconds.

They ran away to the side that had no exit

Cho Seon-ho, the head of Gyeonggi province’s fire and disaster response, said in a briefing on the day of the accident that the floor was for assembling and packaging batteries, and many of the staffers there were temporary workers not directly hired by Aricell.

He explained that many of them ran away from the fire toward a side of the building that had no exit.

Ju’s daughter was one of them. Showing CCTV footage of the scene to NPR, Ju says, “You see? That’s my daughter. She’s still sitting there, after two explosions.”

Emergency personnel transport the body of a victim at the scene of a fire at a lithium battery factory owned by South Korean battery maker Aricell in Hwaseong on June 24.
Anthony Wallace / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Emergency personnel transport the body of a victim at the scene of a fire at a lithium battery factory owned by South Korean battery maker Aricell in Hwaseong on June 24.

She says her daughter never received any safety training. “If she had had proper training, how could she not know what to do? If she knew what to do, wouldn’t she have run away, right? She didn’t understand a thing about the explosions.”

Officials from the factory owner Aricell insisted in a press conference that the company provided regular safety training and placed emergency manuals in Korean, English and Chinese languages around the factory.

“We come here not to die, but because South Korean society needs us”

In the wake of the accident, South Korea conducted an emergency inspection on battery-related workplaces. Labor Minister Lee Jung-sik said the government will devise a plan to strengthen safety training and more thoroughly support and monitor industries that hire large numbers of foreign workers.

But activists say such measures always come too late, only after lives are already lost.

“What migrant workers fear the most is whether they’ll be able to leave the country alive. We work in anxiety because we work in unsafe workplaces,” said Udaya Rai, who heads Migrants’ Trade Union, at a press conference in front of an altar for the victims at the Hwaseong city hall this week.

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

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

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