BANGKOK/SEOUL (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - The deaths of hundreds of mainly undocumented Thai migrant workers in South Korea have been uncovered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, prompting the United Nations to call for inquiry into the fate of migrants known as "little ghosts".
At least 522 Thais have died in South Korea since 2015 - 84 per cent of whom were undocumented - found data from the Thai embassy in Seoul obtained via a freedom of information (FOI) request.
Four in 10 deaths were recorded as due to unknown causes while others were health related, accidents and suicides.
The number of worker deaths hit a record annual high this year - 122 as of mid-December - according to the newly-revealed data from the Thai embassy, amid growing concerns about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on labour conditions.
More Thais died in South Korea - 283 - than any other foreign country between 2015 and 2018, according to data obtained via a separate FOI request to Thailand's foreign ministry. Statistics were not available for 2019 and 2020.
"(The data) is concerning and requires attention and investigation," said Nilim Baruah, a specialist on labour migration at the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO).
"Undocumented migrant workers are the least protected and their health and safety are a concern."
Current and former migrant workers, campaigners and Thai officials said tens of thousands of undocumented migrants in South Korea were overworked, unable to access healthcare, and unlikely to report exploitation for fear of being deported.
Data on migrant deaths is not made public by either government so there is little attention on labour conditions or scope to improve the situation at a time when the fallout from Covid-19 has left more foreign workers at risk, activists said.
The UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said it was "concerned" about the data uncovered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and was monitoring the situation.
The South Korea ministries for labour, justice and foreign affairs declined to comment on the data. The South Korean embassy in Bangkok did not respond to request for comment.
At least 460,000 Thais work abroad, legally and illegally, data from Thailand's foreign ministry shows. South Korea is the top destination, home to about 185,000 Thai migrants who can earn significantly more than they would receive in Thailand.
While a visa-free travel arrangement between the two nations was established in 1981, labour experts said many Thais migrated for work ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and ended up staying as undocumented workers at factories and on farms.
Difficult and dirty work
About a tenth of the 185,000 Thai migrants in South Korea work there legally through a labour migration scheme called the employment permit system (EPS), the Thai embassy in Seoul said.
The rest are migrants without legal documentation - called "phi noi" or "little ghosts" in Thai - who pay brokers in Thailand hefty recruitment fees to organise jobs abroad. The payment can include flights and accommodation in South Korea.
These migrants - who become undocumented after overstaying a 90-day limit for visa-free travel for Thais in South Korea - said they could earn at least 1.2 million Korean won (S$1,450) a month, which is more than triple the minimum wage in Thailand.
Thailand's foreign affairs ministry said its embassies were duty-bound to look after Thai people regardless of their status, but gaining access to undocumented workers was difficult.
The Thai embassy in Seoul compiles data on migrant deaths based on reports from hospitals or police for deaths that occur at work or home. All deaths are followed up with an autopsy but the results are not made public, according to the embassy.
"Many illegal Thai workers die unexpectedly during sleep, likely due to overworking and personal health problems without proper medication," said Thai official Bancha Yuenyongchongcharoen, a minister at the embassy in Seoul.
"These workers undertake hard and dirty work and do not have access to state healthcare," Bancha said by phone.
The Asan Migrant Workers Centre (AMWC) said there were concerns that undocumented workers from other nations such as Nepal, Indonesia and Vietnam were also dying of unknown causes.
"If you have no visa, your access to medical care is cut off and it'll cost you 10 million won to go to the hospital and get surgery," said Woo Sam-yeol, manager of the civic group.
"So many undocumented migrants who are ill, including Thais, swallow their pain until it takes a lethal toll on them." After the death of a Burmese worker in 2018, South Korea's human rights commission made recommendations to the justice ministry on how to stop further deaths, such as taking responsibility for accidents and suspending crackdowns on undocumented workers.
The ministry was responsive to some of the recommendations, saying it would clarify its safety protocol for crackdowns and improve education for officials, according to the commission.
The justice ministry did not provide comment on the commission's recommendations to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We are little ghosts"
The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to seven current and former undocumented Thai migrant workers in South Korea who described being paid less than the minimum wage and working long days in difficult conditions, ranging from dirty to dangerous.
Nid - who did not give her real name for fear of retribution - was working as a cleaner in a motel in the central city of Cheongju when she fell ill with a fever in July.
Having worked 15-hour shifts with only one day off a month - in violation of Korean labour laws - the 32-year-old said her fevers left her unable to work for almost four months.
"I thought I would go to sleep and never wake up," said Nid, who now works as a masseuse - her tenth job since 2016 when she paid brokers 100,000 baht (S$4,431) to find work in South Korea.
Nid said she contacted the Thai embassy in Seoul after falling ill and asked for assistance to return home. She said she was placed on a waiting list, which currently contains about 10,000 Thais in South Korea, according to data from the embassy.
"It's as if they already made a judgement - we are phi noi (little ghosts) and chose to come here illegally, so we have to put up with the situation," she said by phone.
Some organisations, such as the Namyangju City Migrant Welfare Centre, provide free healthcare to undocumented migrants but said the coronavirus pandemic had disrupted their services.
"For example, there are many undocumented workers who need medicine for their diabetes, but since we cannot roll out our free services now due to Covid-19, their conditions are worsening," said Lee Young, a priest who works with the group.
In April, South Korean health authorities vowed to fight"quarantine blind spots" by guaranteeing undocumented migrants access to coronavirus testing without fear of repercussions.
South Korea's justice ministry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that undocumented migrants were able to voluntarily leave the country without any penalties after the onset of the pandemic, but said that the option came to an end in June.
The Thai embassy in Seoul said it had helped at least 10,000 migrants to return to Thailand from South Korea this year.
Outside the law
The Thai labour ministry said people who migrate to South Korea through the EPS - and their families - are eligible for government compensation in case of illness or death.
"The problem is most people are illegal workers and are therefore outside the protection of the law," said Suchat Pornchaiwiseskul, head of the ministry's employment department.
The Thai government said it has introduced several measures to prevent its citizens from working illegally abroad in recent years, such as producing educational videos and cracking down on unscrupulous online recruitment websites.
But labour rights campaigners said such measures would not solve the problem of illegal migration and urged the Thai government to make it easier for people to work legally abroad.
"There is stigma associated with irregular migrants, who are not human beings in the eyes of Thai people," said Roisai Wongsuban from The Freedom Fund, an anti-slavery organisation.
"The Thai government does not have an understanding of the importance of making migration safer," the program adviser said.
One former migrant worker - who asked to remain anonymous - said he paid 120,000 baht (S$5,317) to a Thai broker in 2014 for a job in South Korea, and ended up working on a pig farm in the southeastern city of Daegu where he was allowed no days off.
When he didn't get paid his salary after three months, the 51-year-old decided to run away. Before leaving, he said he wrote a message in Thai on his bedroom wall to warn others.
"To Thai friends: if you are sent to work here, beware that you won't get paid," it read.