Hanna Lee, a volunteer translator at Paros Missionary Society, a church for Thai-speaking people in the Seoul suburb of Sihwa, was finishing her supper with other volunteers last December when four Thai men suddenly burst through the doors of the mission house.
On their backs, each was carrying a woman. The men lowered the women to the floor.
“We need help,” one shouted in rapid-fire Thai. “They are sick.”
The women ― who had been working illegally since August 2004 for an electronic components maker in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi province ― had been exposed to a hazardous chemical, and now all of them were paralyzed from the waist down.
“They came to me on Dec. 5 last year,” Ms. Lee said. “I remember the exact date and what I was doing then because the incident was so painful.”
Nine months have passed since the employees of Donghwa Digital were exposed to hexane, a powerful industrial solvent that can cause serious nerve damage if not used properly. A total of eight Thai women between the ages of 19 and 37 have been affected to varying degrees and face long recoveries.
The women had used the solvent to remove scratches or spots on video cassette players. They worked with their bare hands. It had been too hot in the room where they worked to wear the masks or caps that the factory bosses handed out.
An investigation would later show the workers had been working with hexane in an enclosed room for up to 12 hours a day with only a small fan for ventilation.
Malichan Toson, 35, was the first to feel sick. She said she often felt dizzy when assigned to work with hexane. She had passed out several times on the job, and she noticed that her co-workers were walking slower and often tripping. Even when some girls slumped to the floor one day, she said, she thought they were suffering from cramps or chronic fatigue because they often worked overtime. No one spoke up about their ailments for fear of losing their job.
When the JoongAng Daily visited them recently, the eight women were still hospitalized. The effect of the toxic exposure was most serious for Sirinan Phinijmaneerat, 37, the eldest of the group. She lost control of all four of her limbs. She did not care when the company stopped paying her. All she wanted to do at that point was go home to her 7-year-old daughter at her family farm in Thailand.
Rochana Nusairam, 31, another of the stricken women, said she had come to earn money for five years here and return home to her fiance and her mother. She had had a good job at the Hilton International Hotel Bangkok. She was paid 12,000 Thai baht or about $300 a month, nearly as much as a college professor earns in Thailand. She spoke English, and she was proud that she had won several beauty pageants held in her town. She always carried photos of herself wearing a long party dress and a princess crown on her head.
But the money from her hotel job was not enough to send her three promising nephews to college. Her relatives suggested she go to Korea. They told her, “You can become rich quickly.” Her mother told her not to go, saying sending an unmarried girl abroad alone was dangerous. Still, Rochana paid 200,000 Thai baht ― 16 times her monthly wage ― to a broker who later introduced her to a factory in November 2003 on the outskirts of Gyeonggi province.
For Thais, there was a silent understanding. Illegal migrants could earn a basic wage of 450,000 won ($450) a month, but by working overtime and on the weekends, they could earn as much as 930,000 won a month.
The Justice Ministry estimates there are about 190,000 migrant workers who entered Korea without visas. Ms. Nusairam claims 80 percent of all Thai workers in Korea are illegal.
It was last summer when Donghwa Digital assigned Ms. Nusairam and seven other Thai girls to a special workroom. The room was new, a converted metal container. They began working with hexane.
After several weeks as their health declined, company officials told the women they did not have to work. The women thought the worst had happened, but they were not fired. Instead, they were confined to a room. Food was delivered to them on trays. The company told them not to visit the hospital because they would recover in a few days. But as the weeks passed, their condition worsened.
That was when the company said it would give them plane tickets back to Thailand, three accepted and left in December 2004.
Without treatment or compensation, Ms. Nusairam was one of the three who went back home. When her mother saw her come off the plane in a wheelchair, she wept for three days afterward. She said her relatives were sorry that “she could no longer get married to anyone.”
It was up to the Ansan Migrant Shelter and Paros Missionary Society to help the rest of the Thai girls from the factory and get them into a state-designated medical center for industrial accidents in Korea.
Park Cheon-eung, pastor and the head of Ansan Migrant Shelter, went to Thailand in January and brought workers Ms. Nusairam, Sirinan Phynijmaneerat and Saraphee Yindee back to Korea. He promised them they would receive medical treatment from the Korean government.
“But it was an arduous fight between the company and the Thai workers,” said Ms. Lee from Paros.
When she and civic groups workers visited the factory in December, company officials told them there were no Thai workers left inside. At one time, the company had 52 workers, including 13 foreigners, eight of whom became ill, according to the Labor Ministry.
Members of the civic group entered the factory and searched the place. At the end of one corridor, next to the shower room, they found Waree, the youngest one, sprawled on the floor. She couldn’t walk. Her co-workers had been carrying her to the bathroom. Ansan Migrant Shelter officials immediately took her out of the factory.
In January 2005, the government acknowledged the case qualified as an industrial accident. Lee Hwa-seob, a plant manager, and Song Jae-kwan, president of the company, were arrested and charged with improperly exposing their employees to a toxic substance.
Both men spent about a month in jail before their trials. The Suwon district court gave Mr. Lee a six-month suspended sentence plus two years of probation. Mr. Song received a 10-month suspended sentence, three years of probation and a 3 million won fine. They are free today.
Donghwa Digital was also fined 20.6 million won for not giving workers proper protection and installing an effective ventilation system. Under Korean law, factories that use toxic chemicals such as hexane are obliged to inspect their working environments and report to the ministry regularly.
While the Suwon branch of the Korea Industrial Safety Association was responsible for inspecting factories including Donghwa Digital, the Labor Ministry ordered a 90-day suspension after the plight of the Thai workers became public.
The case of the Thai workers prompted a three-week examination by the Labor Ministry of 367 factories nationwide that use hexane. In February, the ministry announced 189 factories were fined more than 400 million won for breaking safety regulations.
Among them, 46 factory owners were handed over to the prosecutors after they found that workrooms were not equipped with adequate ventilation systems. Some were caught not distributing protection such as masks and gloves.
“A factory without ventilation could be fined up to 50 million won and the head could be sentenced to jail for five years,” said Lee Jeong-in, an official at the industrial environment department of the Labor Ministry. “That’s usually the maximum limit for breaking Korean industrial laws.”
“It is a structural problem,” Mr. Lee said. “The reality is that not many Koreans want to do the hard work on production lines, so migrant workers come to fill the posts, and they are mostly illegal.”
“When they are caught, they are kicked out of the country, so they tend to stay quiet even when they are being mistreated,” he said.
The ministry launched an inspection of about 5,000 factories where more than five migrant workers are employed. It was the first time that a nationwide inspection was conducted of companies that employ migrant workers. More than 1,250 factories have paid 41 million won in fines so far for various violations including ventilation problems, failure to provide regular medical checkups and failure to report environmental checks. The government said it will expand the special inspections to 4,000 more factories by the end of this year.
“It was a month of nightmares,” said Ms. Lee. “The Thai girls did not trust us at first, and we thought the company officials would come and get them.”
The Thai women say after they left the factory in December, Donghwa Digital officials made threatening phone calls to them, saying if they publicized the issue of their medical conditions, they would be kicked out of the country. In January, their situation was first written about in a Korean newspaper, and the Labor Ministry started taking action.
As their conditions worsened, the women secretly sought treatment at night at Osan Seoul Hospital, the designated medical center for Donghwa workers. But the visits were expensive, and they could not understand orthopedic surgeons who told them they had no problem with their leg bones.
But civic groups later moved the women to Ansan Choongang General Hospital for more specialized treatment. Kim Woo-jae, chief of neurosurgery at the Ansan Choongang, has been in charge of treating the eight women since March 18. He said he has never seen a case of such severe industrial poisoning.
Dr. Kim said he had seen many cases of migrant workers who came to the hospital with external wounds. “It was shocking to imagine what kind of environment they were in to see them in such horrible condition,” he said.
He said they are slowly recovering. They go through physical therapy for four hours a day. Their legs are strong enough to stand up now, but some of them still prefer wheelchairs. When some of the women walk, they must steadily clutch the side of the bed.
He expected the regular treatment should go on for at least three year until they are completely recovered. But they are scheduled to be discharged in June.
“The Gyeonggi government has set aside about 100 million won to support the Thai workers after they are discharged from the hospital,” said Jeung Se-won, welfare department official from Gyeonggi Province Office. “They will have shelter, some living expenses and financial aid to visit doctors regularly.”
Officials from the Ansan Migrant Shelter said they were relieved to hear the news.
“It is a great relief the provincial government is willing to help,” said Gim Young-john, a reverend and a public relations manager at the shelter. “We were worried how we were going to help them after they were out of the hospital.”
Meanwhile, Donghwa Digital has since been sold. It is now a plastics producer, and there are no Thai workers there.
Ms. Nusairam frowned when told that the factory is now owned by a completely different person.
“I don’t want to hear about the place anymore,” she said. “What’s important is that we are getting better. I just hope I can go back home soon.”
by Lee Min-a