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Thai workers found dying in S. Korea

Hundreds of Thai workers found dying in S. Korea

The deaths of hundreds of mainly undocumented Thai migrant workers in South Korea have been uncovered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, prompting the United Nations to call for inquiry into the fate of migrants known as “little ghosts”.

At least 522 Thais have died in South Korea since 2015 – 84% of whom were undocumented – according to data from the Thai embassy in Seoul obtained via a freedom of information (FOI) request.

Four in 10 deaths were recorded as due to unknown causes while others were health-related, accidents and suicides.

The number of worker deaths hit a record annual high this year – 122 as of mid-December – according to the newly-revealed data from the Thai embassy, amid growing concerns about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on labour conditions.

More Thais died in South Korea – 283 – than any other foreign country between 2015 and 2018, according to data obtained via a separate FOI request to the Foreign Ministry. Statistics were not available for 2019 and 2020.

“(The data) is concerning and requires attention and investigation,” said Nilim Baruah, a specialist on labour migration at the UN International Labour Organization (ILO).

“Undocumented migrant workers are the least protected and their health and safety are a concern.”

Current and former migrant workers, campaigners and Thai officials said tens of thousands of undocumented migrants in South Korea were overworked, unable to access healthcare, and unlikely to report exploitation for fear of being deported.

Data on migrant deaths is not made public by either government so there is little attention on labour conditions or scope to improve the situation at a time when the fallout from Covid-19 has left more foreign workers at risk, activists said.

The UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it was “concerned” about the data uncovered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and was monitoring the situation.

The South Korea ministries for labour, justice and foreign affairs declined to comment on the data. The South Korean embassy in Bangkok did not respond to request for comment.

At least 460,000 Thais work abroad, legally and illegally, data from the Foreign Ministry shows. South Korea is the top destination, home to about 185,000 Thai migrants who can earn significantly more than they would receive in Thailand.

While a visa-free travel arrangement between the two nations was established in 1981, labour experts said many Thais migrated for work ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and ended up staying as undocumented workers at factories and on farms.

One former migrant worker – who asked to remain anonymous – said he paid 120,000 baht to a Thai broker in 2014 for a job in South Korea, and ended up working on a pig farm in the southeastern city of Daegu where he was allowed no days off.

When he didn’t get paid his salary after three months, the 51-year-old decided to run away. Before leaving, he said he wrote a message in Thai on his bedroom wall to warn others.

“To Thai friends: if you are sent to work here, beware that you won’t get paid,” it read. 

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