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Deadly Fire Exposes Harsh Conditions Migrant Workers Face in South Korea

They were descendants of Koreans who ​moved to Northeast China​, fleeing Japan’s brutal colonial rule ​in the early 20th century. In a twist of history,​ many like them have come to South Korea in recent decades,​ looking for better-paying jobs in their forebears’ homeland, ​now one of the world’s richest countries.

For more than a dozen of them, their Korean dream came to a horrifying end on Monday, when a toxic inferno engulfed a lithium-battery factory where they had found work. The 22 laborers killed​ in the plant in Hwaseong, a city south of Seoul, included 12 women and five men from China, ranging in age from 23 to 48, officials said. Most were ethnic Koreans.

The disaster drew new attention to the stark ​realities faced here by migrant workers, from China and from elsewhere. South Korea, with its shrinking population, has been rapidly increasing the number of workers it accepts from abroad to ​toil at the lowest rung of ​its labor market. They do the so-called 3-D ​jobs — dirty, difficult and dangerous ​— that locals shun.​

Such work can be especially deadly in South Korea, which has one of the highest workplace fatality rates in the developed world. Foreign workers are nearly three times as likely as the average South Korean to die in a work-related accident, according to a recent study.

“These ethnic Koreans from China are a byproduct of Korea’s painful history,” said Samuel Wu, head of the Asan Migrant Workers Center near Seoul. “They come to South Korea with hopes for a better life for them and their children. But they often end up with discrimination and jobs without proper safety protection.”

The fire in Hwaseong offers a glimpse of the problem.

South Korea is home to major producers of lithium batteries,