Fire Exposes Harsh Work Conditions Migrants Face in South Korea

They were descendants of Koreans who ​moved to Northeast China​, fleeing Japan’s brutal colonial rule ​in the early 20th century. In a twist of history,​ many like them have come to South Korea in recent decades,​ looking for better-paying jobs in their forebears’ homeland, ​now one of the world’s richest countries.

For more than a dozen of them, their Korean dream came to a horrifying end on Monday, when a toxic inferno engulfed a lithium-battery factory where they had found work. The 22 laborers killed​ in the plant in Hwaseong, a city south of Seoul, included 12 women and five men from China, ranging in age from 23 to 48, officials said. Most were ethnic Koreans.

The disaster drew new attention to the stark ​realities faced here by migrant workers, from China and from elsewhere. South Korea, with its shrinking population, has been rapidly increasing the number of workers it accepts from abroad to ​toil at the lowest rung of ​its labor market. They do the so-called 3-D ​jobs — dirty, difficult and dangerous ​— that locals shun.​

Such work can be especially deadly in South Korea, which has one of the highest workplace fatality rates in the developed world. Foreign workers are nearly three times as likely as the average South Korean to die in a work-related accident, according to a recent study.

“These ethnic Koreans from China are a byproduct of Korea’s painful history,” said Samuel Wu, head of the Asan Migrant Workers Center near Seoul. “They come to South Korea with hopes for a better life for them and their children. But they often end up with discrimination and jobs without proper safety protection.”

The fire in Hwaseong offers a glimpse of the problem.

South Korea is home to major producers of lithium batteries, which power smartphones, electric vehicles and many other products. But its regulations still largely treat lithium as an environmental concern, not as a potential fire hazard, which leaves loopholes in the safety standards governing factories that handle the material, said Lee Yong-jae, a professor of fire protection at Kyungmin University north of Seoul.

The factory in Hwaseong was operated by Aricell, a small company that supplies batteries for South Korea’s military and other customers. Generally speaking, small companies in the chemical and battery industries tend to have worse safety records than large ones, industry experts say.

“Having fatalities in these types of fires is rare — 22 fatalities is absolutely unusual,” said Emma Sutcliffe, project director at EV FireSafe in Melbourne, Australia, which tracks battery fires.

Ms. Sutcliffe and other experts said that battery production facilities are typically limited to one floor, to make them easier to evacuate in an emergency, and separated from any other offices or buildings. At Aricell’s Building No. 3, workers packaged batteries for delivery on the second floor, where the fire broke out — just above where they were manufactured.

Like other small manufacturers in South Korea, Aricell relied heavily on migrant workers to cut costs. Working on short-term temporary contracts, such workers seldom receive adequate safety training or work long enough in a single factory to become familiar with its structural features, like emergency exits, experts said.

The walls of Building No. 3 were built with thin metal plates with plastic insulation — highly vulnerable to fire — in between them, Mr. Lee said. The factory also kept combustible materials near an exit door of the second floor, another safety lapse, fire department officials said.

Once lithium batteries catch fire, they become so hot inside that they are very hard to put out. At Aricell, the fire started when a battery near the exit door began emitting white smoke, according to images from an internal security camera that were cited in a report by the fire department. Within 37 seconds, a series of batteries began exploding with white-orange flames. A few seconds later, the floor was completely filled with thick, toxic smoke.

Almost all of the dead were found clustered together near the wall opposite the exit door. That wall had no exit.

​The bodies were so badly burned that they were assigned numbers until DNA testing, and family members arriving from China, could help establish their identities.

“The body was charred black, and the person’s clothes were melted to the skin,” ​said Lee Geon-ho, an ambulance driver, ​after bringing one of the victims, to a funeral home. “You couldn’t tell who it was.”

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

Human rights groups have long protested the working conditions at many small South Korean farms and factories, most of which could not operate without workers from poorer countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, the Philippines and Bangladesh. But for many people in those countries, and among the estimated two million ethnic Koreans in China, the chance to make far more money outweighs the dangers.

“Three days’ income is equivalent to a month’s work in my hometown​,” said Li Fugui, 33, a Korean Chinese ​carpenter from ​the northeast Chinese province of Heilongjiang​.

He said he planned to work in South Korea for two more years. “I’ll save some money and go back to my hometown​,” he said. “It will be enough for the rest of my life.​”

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

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

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

Two years ago, the country enacted a law under which executives for companies that hire temporary workers can be sent to jail if there is a fatal accident involving negligence. But until this year, the law was not applied to factories that hired fewer than 50 workers.

The government’s policies also give migrant workers little say in choosing or changing employers, which advocates say leaves them vulnerable to predatory bosses, discrimination and abuse. They often need an employer’s permission to switch jobs.

“Under such a system, they can hardly complain about unsafe working conditions,” Mr. Kim said. “The system helps encourage workplace accidents.”

Reporting was contributed by John Yoon from Hwaseong, South Korea, Keith Bradsher from Shanghai, River Akira Davis from Tokyo and Yan Zhuang from Seoul. Joy Dong and Li You contributed research.

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