Source Asia Sentinel

HONG KONG, SAR: In the aftermath of a June 24 blaze that torched a lithium battery factory south of Seoul, killing 23 workers, an elderly Korean man from China came looking for his daughter, who had perished in the fire. She was about to be married shortly, he said, and he was wondering if he could salvage at least a necklace that could help identify her. Visiting the site on the next day, an equally grim-looking Chinese ambassador Xing Hai-ming issued a stern warning that “this should be a painful lesson” in protecting the lives of Chinese workers.

Thus South Korea is earning the dubious distinction of running one of the world’s most hazardous industrial workplaces, as large factory fires continue to consume the lives of dozens of workers each year, with significant numbers of them foreign guest workers required to keep the country’s economic engine turning while one of the world’s lowest birthrates robs its workplace of laborers. The government’s failure to keep workplaces safe for industrial workers remains a glaring blot on the country’s otherwise historical achievement of having successfully transformed what was once an agrarian nation into a first-rate industrial power. Big factory fires have become an almost an annual occurrence in the past two decades, according to the mass-circulation Hankook Ilbo newspaper, with workers - both locals and foreign – losing lives numbering as many as 282 since 1998.

The lithium battery factory fire took the lives mostly of ethnic Korean women workers from China, and one Laotian spouse married to a Korean man, throwing Korean society into a collective breast-beating as to what has gone wrong with their industrial management. Of those who perished in the gas-filled lithium-battery manufacturing plant, 15 were ethnic Korean women from China, one was a Laotian spouse of a Korean man, and the remainder were South Korean men. They were mostly poorly paid illegal daily wage workers.

Aricell, where the latest blaze occurred, is a small lithium-battery maker, unlisted and contract-supplying to a bigger battery supplier. On the day it exploded, workers were packing and moving highly inflammable batteries on the third floor of the factory building. Boxes containing them were stacked near the exits when some of the batteries began emitting smoke. Within a matter of minutes, huge explosions shook the three-story building blowing up the entire stock of 35,000 packs of batteries stacked up all over the place. Continuous explosions kept firefighters from entering the building. Workers on the ground floor managed to escape, but not those on the third-floor storage place, where women workers, untrained in handling explosive materials, were caught in the blaze. They were all killed by poisonous smoke and billowing flames. Most were unrecognizable, a sad frustration for the elderly man searching for his daughter.

Against stated policy and rule, worksite safety at Aricell had last been checked by government officials five years ago, despite the fact that the factory was handling highly inflammable material. Adding to the danger was the fact that workers there had come from China with practically no experience of working at industrial factories. They were mostly illegal daily wage workers. Being unskilled, they had no official employment contract giving them a variety of protection.

South Korea is attempting to make up for its shortage of workers by robotizing its factories faster than any other country, with a robotics density of 1,012 per 100,000 workers in 2022. But that doesn’t include companies like Aricell, which operated mostly outside the purview of official attention, fitting the category of what locals call 3-D category of jobs: Dirty, Dangerous, and Difficult. “We must now add a fourth D, which is Death,” said a local civic organization worker who does volunteer services helping foreign workers in the area.

“Small companies like Aricell take advantage of illegal workers by giving low wages (for dangerous jobs),” fumed a government party legislator of the National Assembly, ranting over what has long been a well-known fact. But it is not just the problem of exploitation of illegal foreign workers that the latest tragedy has brought up. Aricell’s explosion has brought into focus the government’s own laxity of worksite supervision. An investigation into Aricell’s explosion is now expected to spur a government review of the problems besetting the import work issue. The central government must now review the shortage of inspectors on industrial plants, big and small. Defending the government's position, Minister of Labor Lee Jung Sik lamented, “One government inspector has to supervise two thousand worksites.”

With the entire South Korean society shaken by the Aricell fire, and shocked by the death of so many women workers, the government has come under a great deal of pressure to review the entire issue of foreign workforce. The immigration authorities are becoming acutely concerned over the need to update immigration laws to provide more flexibility in dealing with the presence of foreign laborers. The present system restricts foreign workers, once inside the country, from moving out or changing their worksites, to require new labor contracts each time it expires from one workplace.

The present restrictive system, critics say, has helped produce a rising number of illegal foreign workers who are forced to accept oppressive working conditions. According to published reports, the number of illegal foreign workers has risen from around 390,000 to 415,000 in the past five years. To complicate matters, at least 170,000 of them are young children dependent on illegals, raising the problem of their education and welfare.

Legal or illegal, the blunt fact today is that the South Korean economy runs on the help of over 920,000 “Gastarbeiters,” or 3.2 percent of the country’s workforce. But the number of their deaths related to industrial accidents stands at an alarmingly high rate of 10.4 percent, putting the government on the defensive at public debates. The number of industrial accidents involving foreign workers remains alarmingly high, from 6,404 in 2012 to 8,286 in 2022 with about 100 deaths said to be occurring every year, according to one unconfirmed press report.

For all the shock these indicators cause, the cold fact is that South Korea, with a steadily declining labor force, is in acute need of more foreign labor, especially in its sizable heavy industry sector. According to a recent government projection, the country’s shipbuilding sector is in acute need of several hundred thousand more foreign workers to keep its vast industry operating. Some shipbuilders are ready to open education and training schools to train new foreign recruits at higher levels of technology for longer term needs, not just temporary workforce.

The need for large numbers of foreign workforce is prompting the government to open a new, higher-level bureaucracy to deal exclusively with the problem of foreign workforce and immigration in general. How soon it would be created and how effectively it would deal with the challenge of import labor remains to be seen as South Korea goes on facing the challenge of its globalizing economy in the face of a shrinking number of workers.