[The Korea Times]
Korean builders alarmed by rising deaths of foreign workers
By Park Jae-hyuk
Link : Korean builders alarmed by rising deaths of foreign workers (koreatimes.co.kr)
Two Chinese workers and one Vietnamese laborer lost their lives last week in accidents at construction sites managed by Daewoo E&C, Hyundai Engineering and SM Samwhan, prompting the Ministry of Employment and Labor to start investigating the builders and their top executives for alleged violations of the Serious Accidents Punishment Act, according to industry officials, Monday.
Executives at Doosan E&C were already being investigated since May for the death of a Chinese worker at the company's construction site in Gwangju.
The builders are cautious about commenting on the matter, given that investigations are under way to clarify the causes of the accidents.
Construction industry insiders, however, have continuously expressed concerns about difficulties in managing the safety of foreign workers since the Serious Accidents Punishment Act went into effect in January, entailing potential prison terms for company CEOs if a fatal industrial accident occurs at a worksite found to have failed to enforce sufficient safety measures.
The law also applies to industrial accidents involving undocumented foreigners, because a Supreme Court ruling in 2008 said even undocumented immigrant workers are protected by Korea's Labor Standards Act.
Some builders took preemptive measures even before the new law took effect. Hyundai E&C has hired foreigners to train immigrant workers, while Lotte E&C has distributed safety rules translated into English, Chinese, Vietnamese and Bahasa Indonesian to its construction sites nationwide.
POSCO E&C offered free medical services last Saturday to foreign workers at its construction site in Busan, saying that the company expects their wellbeing to enable better safety management and improve productivity.
However, questions remain over the effectiveness of such measures in preventing foreign workers from industrial accidents.
"It is difficult to warn foreign workers of the dangers of possible accidents," a construction industry official said on condition of anonymity. "It is also difficult to teach them safety rules at construction sites in different languages."
Another problem is that it could be illegal for large builders to train foreign workers belonging to their subcontractors, according to the Act on the Protection of Temporary Agency Workers. Some managers even complained about foreign workers refusing to wear proper safety gear.
Despite such difficulties, the government has maintained a strict stance.
"I want the labor ministry to be extra careful about the safety of foreign workers facing difficulties in communication," President Yoon Suk-yeol told Labor Minister Lee Jung-sik last Friday following a briefing.
Industry officials fear that the risk of fatal industrial accidents involving foreign workers could continue to increase at construction sites nationwide, due to a shortage of Korean workers.
A survey by the Construction Workers Mutual Aid Association showed that foreign laborers accounted for 16.7 percent of the workforce at all construction sites in Korea last year. That proportion is expected to rise this year, as the supply of Korean workers seems to remain at 1.5 million, despite the need for 1.7 million workers.
Experts said the government should also fulfill its responsibility to create safer workplace environments, instead of just blaming companies for industrial accidents.
"For migrant workers to trust in the government and work safely, it is important to enhance preliminary inspections of workplaces in terms of their labor conditions and safety," Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs researcher Jung Youn said in a recent report.