More than eager to cross the border

More than eager to cross the border

Thai workers set to return to South Korea despite tougher labour rules

Thai workers which were approved to re-enter South Korea on work visas take a group picture prior to departing from Suvarnabhumi airport's departure terminal on Feb 18. (Department of Employment photo)
Thai workers which were approved to re-enter South Korea on work visas take a group picture prior to departing from Suvarnabhumi airport’s departure terminal on Feb 18. (Department of Employment photo)

The Covid-19 pandemic has kept Kamonsiri Rungfha from her job in an auto parts factory in South Korea longer than she had planned. But now, she said, the wait is up and she is over the moon.

The job abroad had allowed her to not only feed her child and her relatives but also provide a degree of financial security that allows her to envision a better future for her entire family. So when she received news from South Korea that she could return to work at the factory, Ms Kamonsiri, 27, wasted no time packing her bags.

Ms Kamonsiri was among the 400 Thais which qualified to re-enter South Korea on a work visa, according to the Human Resources Development Services of Korea (HRD Korea), which acts as a middleman connecting South Korean companies and their investors abroad.

She said she learned of the news from her supervisor, which told her on Facebook that starting in January, South Korean authorities were allowing some foreign workers who had been unable to return to their jobs due to Covid-19 border restrictions to return.

Ms Kamonsiri, who hails from Nakhon Ratchasima, flew home in May last year as her employment contract ended after four years and three months. She had intended to renew her contract and return in August last year, but her plans had to be put on hold as the pandemic forced borders to close.

What was meant to be a three-month hiatus turned into a 10-month break.

“I missed the close-knit working environment and my boss, who takes care of us like his own family,” said Ms Kamonsiri.

Ms Kamonsiri said her employer has promised to re-hire her, saying her contract will be as long as her first — but recent changes to labour rules meant her employer can only renew her contract if he can prove that Ms Kamonsiri can acquire new skills from her job that would allow her to seek out higher-paying opportunities in South Korea.

She said during her time in South Korea, she was well-trusted by her bosses, which meant she was often asked to fill in for other workers who fell sick or were on leave.

“My goal is to take a test to show that I’ve upgraded my skills, which would give me the chance to stay and work in South Korea a lot longer,” Ms Kamonsiri said.

If she succeeds, her E9 non-professional work visa will be converted to an E7-4 visa which is reserved for skilled foreign workers.

While her job in South Korea has given her the financial security she wanted, Ms Kamonsiri said she is also looking at the possibility of seeking employment in Israel or Japan, which also employ a large number of Thai workers.

She said she is confident of her prospects as a migrant worker, saying she learned the ropes from her parents and other relatives, many of whom had worked blue-collar jobs in Taiwan. In fact, Ms Kamonsiri said, her parents sold their house to cover the expenses of securing a job abroad.

Ultimately, she said, their gamble paid off as not only were they able to settle their debts, her parents were able to build a new house, and even buy a new car. “It runs in our veins. Now, my niece has passed the Korean language test and is looking forward to working there as well,” Ms Kamonsiri said.

She said if it wasn’t for the money she earned in South Korea, she would not have been able to afford to raise her child.

“It’s for my own security, as well as my child’s future,” she said.

Ms Kamonsiri said she has saved more than a million baht, which she plans to spend on starting a mechanised farm that is not dependent on costly, manual labour.

The Department of Skill Development (DSD) said out of the 400 Thai workers approved to re-enter South Korea, 40 left for South Korea on Friday to take up jobs mostly in the industrial sector.

Suchart Pornchaiwisetkul, the department director-general, said the Labour Ministry plans to export at least 100,000 Thai workers overseas this year.

Last year, Thai workers abroad sent some 194.96 billion baht in remittances, according to figures from the central bank.