The fires highlight the harsh working conditions that immigrants face in South Korea

They are descendants of Koreans who migrated to Northeast China, fleeing the brutal Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century. In a turning point of history, many people like them came to Korea. Nations in recent decades in search of better-paying jobs in their ancestral homeland, now one of the world’s richest countries.

For more than a dozen of them, their Korean dream came to a shocking end on Monday, when a toxic fire engulfed the lithium battery factory where they had found work. The 23 workers who died at the factory in Hwaseong, a city south of Seoul, included 12 women and five men from China, ranging in age from 23 to 48, officials said. Korean people.

The disaster has drawn new attention to the harsh realities that migrant workers, from China and elsewhere, face here. Korea with The population is increasingly shrinkingwas Speed ​​up The number of workers it accepts from abroad to toil is among the lowest in the labor market. They do so-called 3-D jobs — dirty, difficult and dangerous — that locals shun.​

Such work can be especially dangerous in South Korea, where it is available one of the highest workplace fatality rates in the developed world. Foreign workers are almost three times According to a recent study, the average chance of dying from a work accident is equivalent to that of a Korean person.

“Koreans from China are a byproduct of South Korea’s painful history,” said Samuel Wu, head of the Asan Migrant Labor Center near Seoul. “They came to Korea with the hope of a better life for themselves and their children. But they often end up being discriminated against and having to work without proper safety protections.”

The fire in Hwaseong provides a glimpse of the problem.

South Korea is home to major manufacturers of lithium batteries, which power smartphones, electric vehicles and many other products. Lee Yong-jae, a fire prevention professor at Kyungmin University north of Seoul, said the country’s regulations still largely treat lithium as an environmental concern rather than a potential fire hazard. , which leaves gaps in the safety standards governing plants that handle this material. .

The factory in Hwaseong is run by Aricell, a small company that supplies batteries to the South Korean military and other customers. In general, small companies in the chemical and battery industries tend to have poorer safety records than large companies, industry experts say.

“Fatalities in these types of fires are very rare,” said Emma Sutcliffe, project manager at EV FireSafe in Melbourne, Australia, which tracks battery fires.

Battery manufacturing facilities are typically limited to one floor, to make them easy to evacuate in an emergency, and separate from any other offices or buildings, Ms. Sutcliffe and other experts said. At Aricell’s Building 3, workers packaged batteries for delivery on the second floor, where the fire broke out – directly above where they were manufactured.

Like other small manufacturers in South Korea, Aricell relies heavily on migrant workers to cut costs. Working on short-term temporary contracts, such workers rarely receive adequate safety training or work long enough in a factory to become familiar with its structural features, experts say. it, like an emergency exit.

The walls of Building 3 are constructed of thin metal panels with plastic insulation – which is highly flammable – in between, Lee said. Fire department officials said the factory also kept flammable materials near the second-floor emergency exit, another safety lapse.

Once a lithium battery catches fire, its interior heats up to a point where it is very difficult to extinguish. At Aricell, the fire started when a battery near an emergency exit began to emit white smoke, according to internal security camera footage cited by the fire department in the report. Within 37 seconds, multiple batteries began to explode with orange-white flames. Seconds later, the floor was filled with thick, toxic smoke.

Almost all of the dead were found clustered near the wall opposite the emergency exit. That wall has no exit.

The bodies were so badly burned that they were numbered until DNA testing and family members from China could help identify them.

Lee Geon-ho, an ambulance driver, said after taking a victim to the funeral home: “The body was charred black, the clothes melted to the skin. “You can’t tell who it is.”

Park Sun-gwan, head of Aricell, apologized for the deaths on Tuesday. However, he denied that his factory lacked safety measures, adding that they had trained workers on what to do in an emergency. Police said they planned to question Mr. Park and other company officials about possible criminal charges of violating industrial safety laws.

Human rights groups have long protested working conditions at many of South Korea’s small farms and factories, most of which could not operate without workers from poorer countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, and the Philippines. and Bangladesh. But for many people in those countries, and among the roughly two million ethnic Koreans in China, the opportunities to make more money far outweigh the dangers.

“Three days’ income is equivalent to a month’s work in my hometown,” said Li Fugui, 33, a Korean carpenter from northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province.

He said he plans to work in Korea for another two years. “I will save some money and return to my hometown,” he said. “It will be enough for the rest of my life.”

Because Korean-Chinese people, known as “dongpo” or “people of the same blood,” understand the language and culture, many managers in Korea prefer to hire them. But not everyone welcomes them. Labor unions complain that they take jobs from Koreans and reduce wages, and many view them as low-skilled workers who speak Korean with an accent.

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

Kim Dal-sung, a Methodist pastor who also lobbies for migrant workers, partly blames the South Korean government for their dangerous working conditions.

Two years ago, the country enacted a law under which executives of companies hiring temporary workers could be jailed if fatal accidents occur due to negligence. But until this year, the law had not been applied to factories employing fewer than 50 workers.

Xu Guo Li, 58, an ethnic Korean who has run a supermarket in Hwaseong for five years after immigrating from China in 2008, said the recent weak economy has prompted many Chinese to want to work in factories like Aricell.

But she said she was still surprised that the number of foreign workers at the battery factory outnumbered Korean workers.

“Everyone wonders why everyone is a foreigner,” she said. “Why don’t Koreans work there?”

Government policies give immigrant workers little say in choosing or changing employers, which advocates say leaves them vulnerable to predatory, discriminatory employers. discrimination and abuse. They often need permission from their employer to change jobs.

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

Report contributed by John Yoon from Hwaseong, South Korea, Keith Bradsher from Shanghai, Akira Davis River from Tokyo and yen Trang from Seoul. Copper Joy And Ly Huu contributing research.


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