'Ghosts' return to Korean haunts

'Ghosts' return to Korean haunts

Promise of bumper pay packets far outweighs reality of unscrupulous bosses and little in the way of welfare for isolated illegal workers

Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop Bhuridej and his team visit Seoul's Metropolitan Police Agency. (Photo: Wassayos Ngamkham)
Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop Bhuridej and his team visit Seoul's Metropolitan Police Agency. (Photo: Wassayos Ngamkham)

Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) representatives recently took a trip to South Korea, to meet with their counterparts to try to find a solution to the problem of illegal Thai labourers, known as phi noi or little ghosts.

The meeting was led by the commissioner, Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop Bhuridej, who was accompanied by officers from the Royal Thai Police's Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division (ATPD), attorneys and related sectors working on the issue.

He said that the trip was more than just a knowledge exercise, and they had discussed the systematic resolution to labour problems, especially those that might lead to human trafficking.

The team also had a discussion with the Royal Thai Embassy in South Korea before getting the ball moving on changes to the law that the Immigration Bureau is set to advise on.

According to information gathered by the Royal Thai Embassy in Seoul and its legal authority, before Covid-19, at least 170,000 Thai labourers worked in South Korea. Most of them were blue-collar workers. The number rose to 200,000 after the situation with the disease improved, said Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop.

However, only 40,000 of that number are legally employed. In other words, at least 75% (160,000) have no official permission, and that total exceeds the annual limit allowed under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on access to the Korean employment market.

"The number of those working illegally is more likely to increase in the future," warned Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop.

Pol Col Marut Kanjankhankul, the ATPD's deputy commander, who was also on this trip, said that the illegal labourers mostly came to work in the agricultural and industrial sectors.

Interestingly enough, even though news had surfaced about those illegal workers being deported and then blacklisted, Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop said that the public tended to overlook their welfare and the lack of power that they have to bargain with their Korean employers.

The group are often exploited by their employers, who demand long hours or pressure women into prostitution.

"So, it is down to the RTP and related public sector agencies to take better care to solve the problem," he said.

magnet of better pay

Thais who work illegally in South Korea might be attracted by the higher rates of pay that are offered for similar roles abroad, Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop said, adding that one of the ideas under discussion to dampen demand is to provide more information on what he called the "reality" of working in a new country.

On the suppression side, he said that CIB will exchange information with the South Korean authorities as part of a crackdown on illegal agencies, he added.

The CIB representatives also met with the Prosecutor General of the Supreme Prosecutors' Office of South Korea to shape future cooperation on the legal side.

What Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop saw arising from the discussion was closer coordination between the Korean police and Thai prosecutors.

Jirabhop: Number of illegals will rise

An improved justice system, he said, would be the result of both law enforcement parties working together and using their electronic systems to share real-time information about each case.

"I think that Thailand's law enforcement units -- police, prosecutors, courts, and prisons -- must adopt new technology, and it might take some time to reach that point," he said.

A discussion with representatives of the Thai Labourers Network of South Korea is also ongoing.

According to Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop, the network said that wages known to reach 60,000 baht a month in some professions, as well as seductive social media adverts, had seen demand rise in recent years.

The flow of blue-collar labourers is linked to the fact that Korean job seekers tended to avoid what they called "3D jobs", where "D" stands for difficult, dirty, and dangerous roles.

Those labourers were lured by the higher pay without knowing much about the downsides, such as how their lack of language skills and permitted residency would leave them isolated and vulnerable unscrupulous bosses and tempted to sink yet further into committing criminal acts themselves, Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop said.

"It appeared that most of the Thai labourers who died overseas during the Covid outbreak period were those working in South Korea. The fact that 2,000 of those, including the illegal ones, were sent back to Thailand during the beginning of the pandemic reflected the fact that the illegal labourers had only the Embassy Office to rely on when they were in trouble. Those who worked illegally did not get help from their employers," he added.

Finding solutions

Palita Song from the Expats Labourers Help Centre in South Korea told the Bangkok Post that illegal labourers had even harder accessibility to its public health system and tended not to be paid by their employers when they get sick.

Interestingly enough, she said that some of the illegal labourers had worked there legally but were later left with little choice if they wished to remain except take work in the grey sector due to strict labour laws and regulations.

Massage is a good example of a profession where the lack of protection provided to illegal workers often puts them at an extreme disadvantage, according to Arporn Upakarnrot, labour attaché of the Royal Thai Embassy in South Korea. She added that that the country allowed only Koreans with vision disabilities to apply as masseurs.

However, many Thai nationals, mostly women, were willing to take the risk and offer massage services. Most of them were reportedly persuaded by their employers to sell sex as well, she said.

Pol Col Marut said that those illegal labourers, however, refused to meet the ATPD's representatives to discuss their problems, saying they are voluntarily illegal and their families' lives seem to be improved by what they do.

"The ATPD, however, is still worried about them being abused by their employers or being involved in any trafficking circles nonetheless," he added.

Pol Lt Gen Jirabhop said that the bilateral meeting with the Korean authorities had yielded information about the illegal labourers' movements which could be linked to the government and CIB's new big data system.

Active resolutions, such as providing the labourers with information on the problem of working there illegally, were one of the plans the CIB had crystallised during the discussion, he said.

Do you like the content of this article?