South Korea Needs Foreign Workers, but Often Fails to Protect Them

Samsung phones. Hyundai cars. LG TVs. South Korean exports are available in virtually every corner of the world. But the nation is more dependent than ever before on an import to keep its factories and farms humming: foreign labor.

This shift is part of the fallout from a demographic crisis that has left South Korea with a shrinking and aging population. Data released this week showed that last year the country broke its own record — again — for the world’s lowest total fertility rate.

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government has responded by more than doubling the quota for low-skilled workers from less-developed nations including Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, the Philippines and Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of them now toil in South Korea, typically in small factories, or on remote farms or fishing boats — jobs that locals consider too dirty, dangerous or low-paying. With little say in choosing or changing employers, many foreign workers endure predatory bosses, inhumane housing, discrimination and other abuses.

One of these is Chandra Das Hari Narayan, a native of Bangladesh. Last July, working in a wooded park north of Seoul, he was ordered to cut down a tall tree. Though the law requires a safety helmet when doing such work, he was not given one. A falling branch hit his head, knocking him out and sending blood spilling from his nose and mouth.

Bangladeshi migrant workers Badhan Muhammad Sabur Kazi, Asis Kumar and Chandra Das Hari in Haksa Village, a small complex of cheap and rundown apartments in Pocheon, a town northeast of Seoul. Once inhabited by Korean students, the village is now occupied by migrant workers and international students.Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

After his bosses refused to call an ambulance, ​a fellow ​migrant worker ​rushed him to a hospital, where​ doctors found internal bleeding in his head and his skull fractured in three places. His employer reported only minor bruises to the authorities, according to a document it filed for workers’ compensation for Mr. Chandra without his approval.

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