Korean dream jobs sour

Poowadon Leamdee: “One day, I really sick and vomitted in blood. I asked my Korean boss for a couple of days off, but he fired me instead.” (Photos by Patipat Janthong)

An ex-worker in South Korea is telling Thai people to think twice if they want to be called “phi noi”, or little ghost, by working illegally and risking arrest there in exchange for high wages.

The lives of phi noi are not as beautiful as romanticised by Poowadon Leamdee, an electronic gadget seller who tried almost every popular under-the-table job in South Korea, from farm to factory work.

Speaking amid reports that Korean authorities are considering ending a visa waiver for Thais after Thailand topped a list of illegal migrant workers, Mr Poowadon sent a warning to those who are planning to follow him on the same path.

In the view of former phi noi like Mr Poowadon, the visa privilege should not be exploited by “fake” Thai tourists who overstay their visas to make secret earnings.

Seeking a bright future

After graduating from high school in Nakhon Ratchasima province four years ago, Mr Poowadon, at the age of 20, imagined a life similar to what he saw in Korean dramas when he found an advertisement about jobs in South Korea posted on Facebook.

The advertisement said applicants could get at least 40,000 baht a month, including free accommodation, food supplies, wifi and a kind boss.

Mr Poowadon knew it would be illegal, but it was a risk he felt worth taking to work there.

“In my village, at that time, people who had big houses and nice cars all had family members working abroad, so my parents encouraged me to follow the same path because the salary in Thailand was not good for a mere high school graduate like me,” he said.

Mr Poowadon said his parents had to mortgage their land to pay an agency and gave him pocket money because they did not have enough cash at that time.

“Normally, Thais wishing to work illegally in South Korea have to pay around 70,000-80,000 baht in fees to an agency and buy tour packages to disguise themselves as tourists. Once they pass through the immigration booth, they are off to work leaving the real tourists behind,” he said.

Walking on a rough path

Mr Poowadon said he got his first job at a mobile phone factory, working 13 hours a day and had to stay with five other foreign workers in one small room.

“I worked there for almost two months without getting paid, so I ed my agent telling him to find me a new job. I left the first job and was sent to work at a plating factory in another city,” he said.

Mr Poowadon said that, at this plating factory, he had to walk up the mountain for several kilometres to work every day and only had boiled eggs, bananas, kimchi and instant noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“The factory I worked at had bad work safety. The employers didn‘t care about our safety maybe because we had no formal working visas or we are foreigners. One day, I got really sick and vomited blood. I asked my Korean boss for a couple days off, but he fired me instead,” he said.

When the workers fell sick, they avoided going to see the doctor since medical fees in South Korea are among the highest in the world. Workers have to pay their own hospital bills, Mr Poowadon said.

“The medical fees for one day could be higher than what we earn the whole month, so nobody goes to hospital. There were many sick people who died in their rented rooms,” he said.

After getting fired from the second factory, Mr Poowadon said he moved with other Thais to work in farm, harvesting carrots, cabbages and radishes.

“Here, I had to wake up as early as 3am and worked until 6pm. The workload was heavy. I kept doing it until I got around 100,000 baht in savings. However all the money, including my other belongings were stolen by a roommate. At that time, I only got a bag of rice to start over again,” he said.

After the incident, Mr Poowadon decided to move to work at an automobile parts factory where he earned up to almost 50,000 baht a month.

“Everything seemed going well there, but in just a few months later the factory was raided by immigration officials and I was arrested. I was detained inside a detention centre for nine days before being deported back to Thailand,” he said.

A bird‘s eye view of Klong Lord 2 market near the new southern bus terminal. Poowadon Leamdee now owns a shop selling electronic gadgets there after he was found illegally working in South Korea, arrested and deported back to Thailand.

Ringing alarm bells

Mr Poowadon, who now owns an IT store in Klong Lord flea market 2 near a new southern bus terminal, warned Thais wishing to earn big money in South Korea to think hard before making a decision because many things can turn out differently from what is described in advertisements.

“If you really want to go, you must obtain legitimate work permits in South Korea first.” he said.

“There is no easy money over there, you have to work very hard. There is a high possibility that you will be taken advantage of by employers or busted by immigration officials. Many people, including me, had to borrow money to pay fees to agencies. It is not worth taking the risk.”

Embracing risks

Mr Poowadon said he has no intention to go back to work in South Korea again even though he could earn a lot more than selling IT gadgets in Thailand.

“In Thailand, we always say “sabai sabai” [to chill out], but in Korea they always say “pari pari” which means “hurry up, hurry up”. There is too much stress working there, especially when you‘re violating the law,” he said.

Yet Mr Poowadon‘s experience may fail to convince some people who are ready to shift their gears from sabai sabai to the other extreme if the switch promises them a fortune.

“We‘ve tried to prohibit them, tell them and warn them against the risk of arrest and exploitation from employers, but they prefer to take risks,” said Mongkhon Phairo, chief of Udon Thani-based labour group, who set up the group to help Thai workers duped to work abroad.

Despite Mr Poowadon‘s unfortunate experience, there are also stories of migrant workers who have managed to escape detection by Korean authorities for years and are able to make handsome incomes, he said. These keep newcomers‘ hopes to be “successful” phi noi alive.

According to Mr Mongkhon, many prospective workers give up on procedures to work legally under a government-to-government contract and South Korea‘s Employment Permit System for Foreign Workers because they fail to meet strict requirements, such as a yearly quota of foreign workers, age limits and a satisfactory grade required on Korean language tests.

Language is always a weakness for Thai workers, Department of Employment chief Anurak Thotsarat admitted.

Going along a rosy route

Thong (surname withheld), a 54-year-old Udon Thani resident, was among those who decided to work secretly in South Korea. She went there seven years ago when her age was already above the limit and she had little educational background.

Her work as a farmhand ended in the same manner as Mr Poowadon — getting arrested, blacklisted and deported back to Thailand. But years before she was met by police she drew a picture others have come to envy.

She had been paid 40,000 baht a month, a wage she could only dream of if she worked in Thailand. Her boss was kind. He treated his employees to breakfast and lunch and gave her “Thai time” in the evening when she cooked Thai food.

Ms Thong admitted she was worried about being arrested, but illegal workers kept up with news and often knew in advance when the officers will conduct raids.

“If the officers came, we just worked in a field to avoid them,” she said.

Disguising as tourists

Stories like Ms Thong‘s encouraged other job seekers to follow suit. They, together with illegal job brokers, employed various tricks, trying to convince South Korean immigration officers to grant them an entry into the country.

They, often pretending to be tourists, know they are likely to be rejected if their passports are empty, so one method is to make themselves appear to be “real” travellers, according to a former illegal migrant worker, who declined to be named.

“The broker told us to travel to Laos first to get stamps on passports,” she said, believing this will make their travel documents look less suspicious.

Other tricks include not bringing a lot of clothes with them in order to make it appear as if they have come to South Korea for a short visit.

“Once they enter the country, the brokers, who accompany them, handle the employment,” she said.

Thai authorities are limited in their ability to stop these fake travellers. An Immigration Bureau officer said his agency has no power to block Thai people who want to go overseas, while a labour inspection officer said his unit can put a brake on their travel if irregularities are found at check-in counters, but many avoid being caught by going through check-in requirements via automatic machines.

Struggling to deal with phi noi

Labour officials believe the number of phi noi shows no sign of decreasing, though their jobs are not guaranteed and illegal workers are not protected under labour rights laws.

“Korean authorities are going to announce new rates of minimum wages. This will urge brokers to lure more people to work illegally there,” Mr Anurak said.