SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Twenty-five-year-old Malaysian Rina (not her real name), had imagined a life similar to what she saw on Korean dramas when she responded to an advertisement about jobs in South Korea.
Posted on Facebook by a Malaysian agency, the advertisement said applicants could make a lot of money quickly and eventually obtain legitimate work permits in South Korea if they worked hard.
Rina (her name has been changed to protect her identity) knew it would be illegal, but it was a risk she felt worth taking.
Her decision cost her dearly: She lost four fingers on her right hand in a workplace accident in South Korea.
"The factory I worked at had very bad work safety. The only protective gear I had was a pair of gloves,"she told The Korea Herald.
"Two people were supposed to work together, but I didn't know about it. Nobody told me that."
"The factory kept the automatic censor of its machines turned off. My fingers were stuck and cut off," said Rina, who worked at a factory in Eumseong county in North Chungcheong province.
"The employers didn't care about our safety maybe because we had no visa or we are foreigners."
Rina is among 251,000 illegal migrant workers in South Korea. The Justice Ministry said the number of such workers from Malaysia increased last year (2017).
South Korea allows nationals from 16 South-east Asia and Central Asia countries to work in the country under the Employment Permit System (EPS). Malaysia is not on the list.
There are about 279,000 foreigners on the EPS scheme, taking up low-skilled jobs in sectors such as manufacturing, fishing and agriculture. These jobs are shunned by South Koreans because of the poor working conditions and low wages.
The EPS holders are allowed to work in South Korea for three years, after which their work permits can be extended for another year and 10 months upon their employers' approval.
Employers have called on the government to increase the quotas for the EPS scheme to meet labour shortages in some sectors, but the government remains cautious due to a public backlash over foreigners taking jobs away from South Koreans.
Activists say privately-run recruitment agencies are exploiting foreigners' desire to work in South Korea and the South Korean authorities' failure to provide protection to undocumented workers put them at a greater risk of workplace accidents and abuses.
The illegal migrant workers are usually hired on a day-to-day basis and are often sent to a different address each day. They are made to work immediately without any training, which puts them at a higher risk of being injured.
Most of the undocumented foreigners are those who overstay their work permits and student visas, the Justice Ministry said.
Others like Rina used their three-month tourist visas to find jobs in South Korea.
In the case of 19-year-old Hafizy (name has been changed to protect his identity), the Malaysian paid 800,000 won (S$983) in fees, which covered a one-way flight ticket and two nights' stay at a guesthouse, to a Malaysian agency. The agency connected him to a Korean agency in Seoul to which he paid another 100,000 won.
"I knew it was illegal, but I had to come because the salary was not good in my country, so I had no choice. I thought that everything would be good and nice and I could get a good job," he said.
"But when I came here, it was not the same (as I expected.)"
He was paid 60,000 won to work 13 hours a day at an apple orchard last year, which worked out to be lower than South Korea's minimum wage of 6,470 won per hour.
He left the job due to the low pay and heavy workload, but in order to find another job, he had to fork out 100,000 won to the Korean agency.
"After that, I got a job at an aluminium factory and worked on a rolling machine. I got four of my fingers stuck and lost them in October last year. I was sent to a hospital and stayed there for two months," said Hafizy, who had worked at a factory in Goesan in North Chungcheong province.
A Malaysian activist, who asked to be identified by the name Hilmi, said:"Many agencies are putting up fake advertisements. They say (the) salary would be good, applicants would get free food and house. But when they come here, things are different from what was described (in the ads)," he said.
"The agencies are selling them out."
In 2017, the South Korean Justice ministry deported 31,237 unauthorised migrant workers and referred 6,460 brokers to the prosecution.
This year, it raised the number of immigration officers in charge of detecting unauthorised workers to 1,400; extended the crackdown period to 22 weeks; and designated 34 places, including construction sites and factories, as the crackdown sites, according to the ministry.
"There is supply because there is demand. The fact that there are a lot of unregistered workers means that there are jobs here for them. The government should thoroughly review the situation to make the immigration policy align with the market," said Park Mi Hyung, head of the Seoul Office of the International Organisation for Migration.
"Without official routes to come to Korea, low-skilled foreign workers are often forced to pay commissions and the process is not transparent," she said.
"Migrant workers are the ones who are victimised the most."
Under the Labor Standards Act and the Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance Act, foreign workers are eligible to receive compensation for work-related injuries from the government regardless of their immigration status. They can file applications without their employers' consent.
But foreign workers find it difficult to claim compensation due to language barriers, low awareness of the scheme and fears that they might be identified by immigration authorities and deported, labour rights activist Seok Won jeong said.
Shekh al-Mamun, a Bangladeshi official from the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants' Trade Union, said that the government should legalise undocumented workers to bring them within the legal framework.
"They are not machines that can be abandoned after three years," he said.
"Above all, South Korea needs foreign workers amid a falling birthrate and shrinking population. The government can impose taxes on them in a transparent way so that they can contribute to the Korean economy."