There are growing voices calling for a systematic improvement to end the vicious cycle. The South Korean government has been trying to improve ties as part of its ‘New Southern Policy’ to balance its need for migrant workers to address the shortfall of workers.
There are now 2.42 million migrant workers in Korea, and the number has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. Local farms and factories cannot function without migrant workforces.
Hong Sung Soo, Law professor at Sookmyung Women’s University says: “Discrimination and xenophobia towards migrants are not only inappropriate, but also not clever at all if we consider our industrial and demographic reality.”
Labour rights groups and health activists have been trying to find out why there is such a high suicide rate among Nepali migrant workers in farms and factories in South Korea.
“It is not just a single factor, there is a web of complex reasons that trap migrant workers towards the extreme choice,” explains Jeong Young-seob, Co-director of the group, Migrants Act.
A field survey in August of 141 migrant workers from Nepal by the Seoul Shinmun newspaper, Green Hospital and the Migrants Trade Union showed that there were four main factors: gap between expectation and reality of working in Korea, lack of exit, high expectations from loved ones back home, and ruined relationships in Nepal.
Great Expectations = Great Disappointments
To aspiring Nepali migrant workers, South Korea is a land of opportunity, where they hope to earn five to eight times more than in a job back home. Even highly educated young Nepalis apply for an E-9 visa to South Korea. But when they arrive, they often struggle with harsh labour conditions and discrimination.
Of the respondents in the survey, 28% cited a gap between the reality of their work and the expectations they had. Like Surendra, 28, who has been working in a mushroom farm for three years. He has a degree from Tribhuvan University.
He says: “Before I came here, I was excited about earning Rs300,000 a month, but I had no idea about working and living conditions. Back home we rarely experience working for 12 hours without any real break. I was not even learning any skills, it was simple manual labour.”
The survey showed that 45.6% of the respondents worked more than 52 hours a week, and 19% said they worked 60 hours a week, and only 26% said they had a normal 5-day work week.
After working in South Korea for 16 months, Nepali migrant worker Shrestha, 27, jumped from the rooftop of his company dorm in June 2017. He had been suffering from insomnia as he struggled to adjust to alternate day and night shifts.
His suicide note said: ‘I have been seeing doctors for health problems and sleep disorders. It did not improve. I wanted to quit and find another job but the company did not allow it. I wanted to go back to Nepal to recover, but the company said no.’
The survey showed that 71% of respondents had tried to find a new job, and 36% of them said this was because of long working hours and dangerous conditions.
Migrant workers who come to South Korea under the employment permit system are allowed to change workplaces up to three times within a three-year period. But it requires permission from their employers.