Fatal battery factory fire exposes Korea’s hazardous labor conditions for migrants

Police, fire fighters and National Forensic Service investigators arrive at a lithium battery factory that went up in flames in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province to conduct a joint investigation, Tuesday, into the cause of the fire that broke out the previous day killing 23 workers. Joint Press Corps

A devastating fire at a Korean lithium battery factory claimed the lives of 23 workers. The fact that 18 of the victims were foreign nationals highlights the harsh working conditions and exploitative contracts endured by migrant laborers, activists said, Tuesday.

The incident, one of the worst industrial accidents in the nation’s history, could also be the deadliest single workplace disaster in terms of migrant worker fatalities.

The blaze erupted at the plant operated by Aricell in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, at around 10:30 a.m., Monday, with 102 employees present at the time. According to rescue authorities, 23 people died — five Koreans, 17 Chinese nationals and one Laotian. Of the five Koreans, one was a naturalized Korean originally from China. The fire authorities revised their earlier announcement from Monday regarding the victims’ nationalities, clarifying that not all 20 were foreign nationals.

Udaya Rai, a Nepalese worker-turned-activist who has lived in Korea for over two decades, described this as the deadliest tragedy for migrant workers in recent memory. He also heads the Migrants’ Trade Union.

“I remember previous incidents where one or two foreign nationals were involved in workplace accidents or fires, but the loss of over a dozen migrant workers is devastating news for our community,” Rai told The Korea Times.

He pointed out that the migrant workers may have failed to evacuate promptly after the fire broke out, noting that mandatory safety education sessions for foreign workers in factories are often skipped due to negligent employers citing language barriers, although officials at Aricell claim they provided sufficient safety education.

“No one should lose their life on the job, regardless of nationality — whether Korean or foreign. But unfortunately, foreigners are often treated as tools, not human beings. Employers care more about how fast they can work, not about safety measures or fire evacuation plans,” he said.

Government data show that over 900,000 migrant workers, primarily from Southeast Asian nations and ethnic Koreans of Chinese descent, are currently employed across various sectors, predominantly in agriculture, manufacturing, construction and fisheries, taking on jobs that are largely shunned by Koreans.

However, due to a lack of regulations and monitoring, foreign workers are more prone to occupational accidents and fatalities than their Korean counterparts.

According to a 2022 report by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, while the total number of occupational deaths decreased from 1,114 카지노사이트킹 in 2010 to 855 in 2019, fatalities among foreign workers increased from 78 to 104 during the same period. These accounted for 7 percent of the total deaths in 2010 but rose to 12.2 percent in 2019.

Furthermore, as of 2020, the occupational fatality rate among migrant workers was 1.39 per 10,000 individuals, significantly higher than the general rate of 0.07 for all employed persons.

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