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Deadly fire exposes lack of protection for migrant workers in South Korea

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In many developed economies in Asia and Europe, workforces are aging and shrinking. These countries have few options but to rely on migrant labor to fill the gaps. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from South Korea on a recent industrial accident that reveals the risks that some of these workers face.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In the city of Hwaseong, south of Seoul, there's a memorial altar in city hall to the 23 workers who died in a fire at the Aricell lithium battery factory on June 24. The 23 victims included 17 Chinese and one Laotian, the most foreign workers ever killed in a South Korean industrial accident.

At a press briefing, trade union and civic group activists lament that every such accident in South Korea is followed by empty promises to prevent them from recurring. Yang Kyung-soo is chairman of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YANG KYUNG-SOO: (Through interpreter) Unless the social climate that puts profits before the lives of workers changes, I believe these cruel deaths will continue. We made a law to punish companies for serious accidents. This disaster is the result of government and capital's attempts to defeat that law.

KUHN: Authorities say there were some 35,000 lithium batteries in the factory when the fire broke out. The cause of the blaze is still under investigation. Upstairs at City Hall, there's legal and psychological counseling for victims' families.

Fifty-seven-year-old Ju Haiyu lost her 37-year-old daughter in the fire. Ju is an ethnic Korean Chinese and came to South Korea with her daughter 10 years ago. Ju says the Aricell Company insists that it gave workers safety training, but her daughter told her that she never got any. Ju takes out her cell phone and shows a security camera picture of her daughter at work with smoke filling the factory floor.

JU HAIYU: (Through interpreter) You see; that's my daughter. She's still sitting there. After two explosions, if she'd had training, would she still be sitting there?

KUHN: Police identified Ju's daughter from her DNA. She says her daughter was burnt almost beyond recognition.

JU: (Through interpreter) This isn't my daughter. It isn't her. It isn't, I thought, as I tried to hold on. She was gone. The way my child looked was completely gone.

KUHN: Foreign workers are increasingly doing the job South Koreans find too difficult or dangerous. Udaya Rai, from Nepal, the chairman of South Korea's Migrants' Trade Union explains.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UDAYA RAI: (Through interpreter) Without us, South Korean industries cannot function. But our human rights, labor rights and safety are a blind spot. A lot of us work in poor conditions for long hours, and because of that, there are a lot of casualties.

KUHN: Over the past two decades, South Korea has cut industrial fatalities by two-thirds, but it still ranks 34th out of 38 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. And the proportion of foreigners among those deaths has increased from 7% in 2010 to 10.4% last year. At a government meeting, labor minister Lee Jung-Sik promised a raft of reforms in response to the fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE JUNG-SIK: Safety training will be expanded and strengthened. Support for improving hazardous working environments will be strengthened. And support and inspection for sectors that employ a large number of foreign workers, such as the construction industry, will also be strengthened.

KUHN: But Ju Haiyu says, she only has two demands.

JU: (Through interpreter) I want to get justice for my daughter, and I want her to be buried quickly.

KUHN: Ju says most Ethnic Korean Chinese come to South Korea just to earn some money, after which they want to go home. In hindsight, she says, she and her daughter would have been better off staying in China - a bit poorer, but at least still alive. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hwaseong, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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