Thais told not to flee Korea tour groups
3-day trips 'front for migration racket'
The Labour Ministry is urging Thais who are looking to work in South Korea to register with the relevant authorities prior to departing, instead of fleeing tour groups once they arrive on Korean soil as it threatens to harm cooperation between the two countries.
A source in the ministry said the government is working hard to tackle the issue of phi noi or "little ghosts" -- Thai workers who travel to South Korea to work illegally -- whose numbers have spiked since Seoul opened the nation's borders to tourism in April.
Even before the pandemic, there were an estimated 140,000 Thais working illegally in South Korea, far more than the 22,000 who had permits to work in the country.
When South Korea opened its borders to tourism in April, it allowed tourists to enter without a visa -- as long as they register for a Korea-Electronic Travel Authorisation (K-ETA) before arriving in the country. However, tourists bound for Jeju island -- a famous romantic getaway for couples -- were initially not required to register for a pre-travel authorisation.
Many Thai workers seeking to migrate to South Korea pounced on the chance, but many were turned away by immigration authorities at the border. In fact, the ministry source said more than half of the passengers on at least two chartered flights to Jeju were denied entry recently.
In response to the spike in illegal attempts to stay in the country, South Korean authorities recently began requiring travellers bound for Jeju to register for a K-ETA.
Thai authorities fear the persistent problem might have a negative impact on other areas of bilateral cooperation, especially in the labour sector.
For instance, Seoul allows a fixed number of Thais to work in certain sectors each year, and prospective employees can look for jobs through the official Employment Permit System, which it has set up to facilitate such exchanges. Failure to address the issue may result in the ending of such privileges.
"We're working with South Korean authorities to solve the matter to ensure Thailand's labour quota doesn't get cut," the source said.
Under the current agreement, Thai workers aged between 18-39 years of age, who do not suffer from congenital and transmissible diseases and have no criminal records are eligible to apply for a job in South Korea through the EPS.
That said, the system requires applicants to pass a Korean language proficiency test, a requirement which many Thai applicants find difficult to meet, the source said.
The source noted out of the 40,000 applicants every year, only about 2,000 pass -- the majority of whom are women. South Korean companies, however, prefer to hire men, as they are seen as more capable of enduring harsh working conditions.
Speaking to the Bangkok Post, Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin said the ministry will work with the Sports and Tourism Ministry to root out cheap tours to South Korea which are nothing but a front for migrants to go abroad illegally in search of work.
Authorities will focus on companies offering three-day all-inclusive packages for as low as 13,000 baht per person, which the minister called "impossible" to justify.