BANGKOK/SEOUL • 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 - according to 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 at the middle of this month - 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. There are no available statistics for last year and this one.
"(The data) is concerning and requires attention and investigation," said Mr Nilim Baruah, a specialist on labour migration at the UN International Labour Organisation, adding: "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 said it was "concerned" about the data uncovered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and was monitoring the situation.
South Korea's ministries for labour, justice and foreign affairs declined to comment on the data.
The South Korean embassy in Bangkok did not respond to a request for comment.
At least 460,000 Thais work abroad, legally and illegally, according to statistics from Thailand's Foreign Ministry.
South Korea is the top destination, home to about 185,000 Thai migrants who can earn significantly more than they would receive in Thailand.
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, the Thai embassy in Seoul said.
The rest are migrants without legal documentation - called phi noi in Thai or "little ghosts" - who pay brokers in Thailand hefty recruitment fees to organise jobs abroad.
The fees can include payment for 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 Ministry has said that its embassies are duty-bound to look after Thai people overseas regardless of their status, but gaining access to undocumented workers is 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," the official said by phone.
The Asan Migrant Workers Centre said there were concerns that undocumented workers from other nations, including 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 the civic group's manager Woo Sam-yeol.