By Jisoo Hope Yoon
Edited by Nicholas Everson Welch & Naryeong Kim
CW: This page contains graphic images that some viewers may find disturbing.
Members of ASSIST had the opportunity to speak with three migrant workers who received emergency medical assistance through our program. The following article is a retelling of their stories.
Asian-Maeul Director Cho Hye-Suk (Top Left) and members of ASSIST (Hope Yoon & Naryeong Kim) interviewing Beng, Sichuan, and Miguel (recipients of ASSIST's medical aid program) on January 21, 2023.
When Beng first left her home in Thailand to pursue work overseas, her impression of Korea was a beautiful land where white snow falls in the winter. With the goal of getting a job at a factory to earn money to send back to her family, she landed in Incheon with a full heart. Beng is not the only worker with an immigrant background on which Korea’s winter made a particular impression. When asked about the hardest part of life in Korea, Miguel, originally from the Philippines, answered, “The weather”—the four distinct seasons of Korea were new to him when he arrived. Now relatively acclimated to his surroundings, Miguel lives in Korea with his wife and two children, popping popcorn and watching Netflix on weekends.
For Saichun, originally from Thailand, Korea’s cold brought devastating consequences. His first job in Korea was at a mushroom farm in Mokpo, where the work involved constantly submerging his hands in below-freezing-temperature water. Having to dip his hands in and out of freezing water without safety measures or protective equipment, Saichun ended up severely frostbitten. Unable to pick mushrooms to meet the demands of his employer, he was fired from his workplace without any form of care and compensation. Two weeks later, Saichun was finally able to access hospital care—but it was too late: his hands had completely atrophied due to the frostbite; it was so painful that he was prescribed opium patches. Eventually, through ASSIST’s emergency medical assistance program, he received surgery to amputate the affected areas. The pain has since largely subsided—but the damage to his hands is irreversible.
Unfortunately, social protections for migrant workers in Korea are still severely lacking, leaving them at risk of dangerous accidents at work, without access to adequate medical or legal services. Beng is among those affected: during her employment at a snack factory in Korea, her fingers were caught in a large, outdated manufacturing machine; her fingers were completely severed due to the incident. Her employer refused to file an accident report—and when she managed to fight for medical care, the employer deducted the associated costs from her pay. Enraged, she quit her job.
Beng’s status as an undocumented migrant, however, made it difficult for her to obtain medical care and health insurance. She was able to afford the necessary surgical procedure with funding from ASSIST, but she continues to feel anxious, as her employment visa is set to expire soon.
According to Miguel, health insurance is the most pressing need for his community. While legal immigrants have ways to obtain health insurance, undocumented migrant workers are not protected under the national plan, which drives the cost of medical care beyond what they can afford—even when the need is urgent or life-threatening. Miguel’s daughter needed vaccinations for school, which would have been free with insurance—but they were handed a bill over ₩100,000 [~US$75]. ASSIST was able to cover the vaccination costs, but Miguel continues to passionately speak up about the need for undocumented migrants to have a stable source of care, especially when they are much more prone to work-related injuries than non-immigrants due to the lack of safety policies and protections.
Despite the various difficulties they have experienced, Miguel, Beng, and Saichun all agree on one thing: they would rather stay in Korea (and find new jobs) than return home. The employment opportunities in Korea continue to present a significant incentive to them. Even so, until a minimum safety net is established to protect migrants’ health and rights, exploitative labor dynamics and devastating injuries will continue to occur. The necessity of emergency funding—such as that provided by ASSIST, alongside work that contributes to systemic policy-level changes—is clearer than ever.
Worachai (another recipient of ASSIST's medical assistance program) receiving rehabilitation therapy after his surgery. (Photo courtesy of Asian-Maeul), Left.
Health clinic funded and directed by ASSIST in December, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Asian-Maeul, partner organization that hostedthe health clinic), Middle & Right.