Dead end of the Korean Dream

Bandana Timalsina reaches out to touch her husband‘s face one last time before his cremation at Pashupati in August. Kedar Timalsina hung himself at a seafood factory in Busan where he worked. Photos: Ki Mindo/ The Seoul Shinmun

For many Nepalis, it is dream to find work in Korea where they expect to earn many times more than in Nepal. Yet, there is a dark side to the Korean Dream: between 2009 to 2018, there were 143 deaths of Nepali workers in South Korean soil, and of them 43 were suicides.

The 31% suicide rate is much higher than workers from other nationalities. Among Burmese workers, there was a total of 51 deaths and 4 involved suicide, from 2011 to August 2019. Suicides rate is relatively low among Vietnamese migrant workers with zero suicide out of the 14 deaths from 2017 to August 2019.

Most of these deaths involved E-9 non-professional employment visa holders who had been employed at farms and factories that suffer a chronic labour shortage. While these tragic deaths repeat every year, the South Korean government does not have a clue why so many migrant workers make such an extreme choice.

"Nepali migrant workers who come to South Korea under the employment permit system tend to be highly educated," notes Seo Seonyoung, a Sociology researcher at Yonsei University. “Their families have great expectation for them, but as soon in Korea they find themselves at the lowest rung of the workforce ladder. The unbearable stress could eventually force them to commit suicide."

A mother holds the photograph of her son, who suffered from depression while working in South Korea, and died after he returned. There have been 43 suicides by Nepali workers in Korea between 2009-2018.

There are growing voices calling for a systematic improvement to end the vicious cycle. The South Korean government has been trying to improve ties as part of its 'New Southern Policy' to balance its need for migrant workers to address the shortfall of workers.

There are now 2.42 million migrant workers in Korea, and the number has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. Local farms and factories cannot function without migrant workforces.

Hong Sung Soo, Law professor at Sookmyung Women's University says: "Discrimination and xenophobia towards migrants are not only inappropriate, but also not clever at all if we consider our industrial and demographic reality."

Labour rights groups and health activists have been trying to find out why there is such a high suicide rate among Nepali migrant workers in farms and factories in South Korea.

"It is not just a single factor, there is a web of complex reasons that trap migrant workers towards the extreme choice," explains Jeong Young-seob, Co-director of the group, Migrants Act.

A field survey in August of 141 migrant workers from Nepal by the Seoul Shinmun newspaper, Green Hospital and the Migrants Trade Union showed that there were four main factors: gap between expectation and reality of working in Korea, lack of exit, high expectations from loved ones back home, and ruined relationships in Nepal.

Great Expectations = Great Disappointments

To aspiring Nepali migrant workers, South Korea is a land of opportunity, where they hope to earn five to eight times more than in a job back home. Even highly educated young Nepalis apply for an E-9 visa to South Korea. But when they arrive, they often struggle with harsh labour conditions and discrimination. 

Of the respondents in the survey, 28% cited a gap between the reality of their work and the expectations they had. Like Surendra, 28, who has been working in a mushroom farm for three years. He has a degree from Tribhuvan University.

He says: "Before I came here, I was excited about earning Rs300,000 a month, but I had no idea about working and living conditions. Back home we rarely experience working for 12 hours without any real break. I was not even learning any skills, it was simple manual labour.”

The survey showed that 45.6% of the respondents worked more than 52 hours a week, and 19% said they worked 60 hours a week, and only 26% said they had a normal 5-day work week.

No Exit

After working in South Korea for 16 months, Nepali migrant worker Shrestha, 27, jumped from the rooftop of his company dorm in June 2017. He had been suffering from insomnia as he struggled to adjust to alternate day and night shifts. 

His suicide note said: ‘I have been seeing doctors for health problems and sleep disorders. It did not improve. I wanted to quit and find another job but the company did not allow it. I wanted to go back to Nepal to recover, but the company said no.’ 

The survey showed that 71% of respondents had tried to find a new job, and 36% of them said this was because of long working hours and dangerous conditions.

Migrant workers who come to South Korea under the employment permit system are allowed to change workplaces up to three times within a three-year period. But it requires permission from their employers.

Hard Work

No matter how harsh and hostile the work environment in Korea, returning to Nepal is not an option for most. It was not easy for them to come to Korea in the first place, and they carry the weight of their family's expectations on their shoulders.

"If migrant workers go back, the villagers would criticise them for forsaking a great opportunity, people will laugh at their failure and brand them weak. Caught between a rock and a hard place, many Nepali migrant workers commit suicide," explained Udaya Rai, the Nepali head of the Migrants Trade Union.

Ruined Relationships

What sustains migrant workers despite harsh working conditions in Korea is love of families back home. However, when their relationship collapses, it leads to great emotional stress. Tej Bahadur Gurung, 29, had two friends who committed suicide due to family or relationship problems.

Kham Gurung, 45, recalled: "I had to deal with a family issue while I was working non-stop in Korea, but I couldn't afford to go back. That really tormented me."

Naivety and lack of exposure to the outside world among Nepali youth who need better jobs to take care of their families creates a problem, says Kapil B Dahal of the Department of Anthropology at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.

Dahal says there have been no systematic study of suicides among Nepali migrant workers in Korea, or elsewhere. The Korean Ministry of Justice keeps a record of the deaths of migrant workers by country, but does not have data on the cause of death.

"Nepali migrant workers in the Middle East and Europe also commit suicides, yet the Nepal government and politicians do not do anything. Nepali migrant workers make a great contribution to the country's economy, but their health is overlooked and their suicides are ignored," Dahal says.

The Nepal Embassy in Seoul offers counseling services for migrant workers, but Udaya Rai of the Migrant Trade Union questioned its effectiveness. "They are not interested in addressing these deaths and suicides, they fear the South Korean government might slash the quota for Nepalis if we start to speak up. That is why they stay silent and hurriedly send bodies back to Nepal."

Wrapped in cardboard, the coffin containing the remains of Kedar Timalsina arrives at Kathmandu airport in September.

Kedar Timalsina, 28

A coffin was rolled out of the arrival area of Kathmandu airport recently. Inside was the body of Kedar Timalsina who hanged himself on 20 July in Busan inside the warehouse of the seafood processing factory where he worked.

"This paper doesn't say anything about why Kedar killed himself," family members at Kathmandu airport said, examining his death certificate from South Korean police.

Kedar’s family could not understand why he would kill himself. It had been only 25 days since his wife Bandana gave birth to their first son. "I even heard Kedar threw a big party in Korea to celebrate the birth of the baby. Why would such a man kill himself? It doesn't make any sense," said Bandana’s brother. Kedar had an aging mother who just turned 60, and would need his care more than before.

What further frustrates the grieving family is the silence and indifference from both their government and the Korean authorities. For the Nepal Embassy in Seoul its responsibility was over after shipping the coffin to Kathmandu. South Korean police never investigated surveillance camera footage at the factory, or forensics on Kedar’s phone.

Bandana Timalsina with her son in her lap at their home in Dong Kharka village in September. The baby was only 25 days old when her father Kedar Timalsina took his own life while working at a factory in South Korea.

According to South Korean police, Kedar’s co-worker had told them he had recently purchased some land in Nepal, which turned out to be a fraud. Kedar’s family says that is not true because the land he bought two years ago had nearly doubled in price. None of Kedar’s personal belongings were returned to his family, and Korean police said the Embassy had told them the family did not want them back. The family said the Embassy had never contacted them about his belongings.

"We are responsible for confirming the identity and death certificate in order to promptly return the body back to family in Nepal. The Embassy does not send back items unless they are important," the Embassy of Nepal replied when asked about it.

At the cremation site in Pashupati, Bandana wept as she caressed her husband’s face for the last time. “What do I do with our baby?” she cried. It took four hours for the fire to consume Kedar’s body, and with it his ‘Korean Dream’.

Maiya Gurung looks at a picture of her daughter with her husband Bal Bahadur Gurung, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Seoul in June. After failing to secure a new job, Gurung was facing deportation back to Nepal.

Bal Bahadur Gurung, 32

"He really loved the children. These kids remind me of my husband every time I see them," said Maiya Gurung, 28, wiping tears with a tissue under her shades.

Maiya's husband Bal Bahadur Gurung jumped off the Wolleung Bridge in Seoul, on 12 June, and died instantly after being hit by a passing vehicle. CCTV footage showed Bal Bahadur walking nervously back-and-forth over the bridge several times, hesitating. He had become an ‘unregistered’ migrant two days ago, and feared deportation.

Bal Bahadur entered South Korea with a proper work visa in October 2017. In March, he left the company and registered himself at the Ministry of Labor to find another job. Migrant workers automatically lose their right to stay in the country if they fail to secure employment within three months. Bal Bahadur went back to Nepal to spend a short time with his family then returned to Korea, but had no luck finding a job within the three month deadline.

Maiya Gurung came to South Korea to take her husband’s remains. Her neighbours tell her that her husband looked so happy when he was visiting Pokhara two months before his suicide. Shocked by his youngest son’s tragic death, Bal Bahadur’s father, a former soldier, is suffering from amnesia.

Maiya’s seven-year-old daughter asks her: “Did Daddy die?”

“No,” she replies, “your father has gone abroad to work." Maiya Gurung weeps as she tells us later, “I want to die, too. But when I think of these poor children, I can't."

Dhan Raj Ghale’s hand-written suicide note in English. He took his own life eight years ago in Korea after an altercation with a Mongolian worker.

Dhan Raj Ghale, 40

I am enocent. I have no mistake. Company cheating me. I am no crazy […]

company take my signiture [...] please investigation please’

This is the note left by Dhan Raj Ghale’s hand-written suicide note in English before he hanged himself in 2011 while working at a futon factory in Daegu City. Dhan even had a plane ticket booked to go back to Nepal.

Upon seeing a Korean reporter in August in Pokhara, Dhan’s wife Man Maya Ghale, 48, and Dhan’s younger brother Bhim Raj Ghale, 36, recalled the events of eight years ago.

Bhim said his older brother was a hard-working man who loved his family more than anything else in the world. “After seeing the letters, I thought Dhan must have been bullied at work,” Bhim recalled.

Dhan also left another short letter written in Nepali: ‘I’ve done nothing wrong. I once fought with another worker from Mongolia. I don’t know what that Mongolian guy told Korean people…

He also wrote twice to the manager of the company: ‘You don’t talk to me anymore. I don’t understand. Please tell me why.’

Dhan Bahadur Ghale's brother Bhim with his suicide note at the family home in Pokhara in September.

The company, however, denied there was bullying, and that Dhan was never asked to sign any document. Dhan may have found Korea’s alternate day and night shifts difficult, and had been working night shifts for two months before his death. “My husband told me he could not sleep when he was working night shifts,” Man Maya recalled.

Dhan’s daughter and son were ten and five at the time of their father’s death. Now they are in college and school. "I will never forgive those people who mistreated my father,” Dhan's son vows revenge, and the siblings have made joint promises to themselves they will never go overseas to work no matter what.

Nevertheless, Man Maya and Bhim said they did not hate Koreans. “You see in South Korea, as well as in Nepal, there are good people and bad people. Sadly, my husband met bad people. I don’t want to blame all Koreans because of them. I just want those bad ones to be punished.”

Some names have been changed.

Ki Mindo is a reporter for The Seoul Shinmun [email protected] 

These articles are reprinted under special arrangement with the Seoul Shinmun which published the stories in Korean on 23 September, 2019 as part of a Special Series titled 'The 2019 Migrant Report: Betrayed Korean Dreams'.

More stories from Nepali Times on Nepalis in Korea:

Korea Kafala by Om Astha Rai and Seulki Lee in Seoul

Doing it the right way by Seulki Lee

“Hope Nepal’s difficulties end soon” Interview with Korean Ambassador hoe Yong Jin