Undocumented Thai workers in South Korea can earn five times more than the minimum wage in Thailand. Hundreds of thousands of Thais have migrated to work illegally as laborers in factories or in agriculture. Most come from the Northeast, seeking to escape the poverty in their homeland. They are called phi noi (“little ghosts”). They are the flame-of-the-forest flowers that could never bloom in the arid lands of Isaan.

Surviving as a “little ghost” in South Korea is no small feat. 

“Sah” has to work in a very public place – a popular seaside restaurant – but has to remain invisible to the immigration police who send spies into places of work like hers. She sleeps at the restaurant where she works, but never soundly because she says, “I’m always paranoid that the police will come for inspections, so I have to always be prepared.”

Ten years ago, Sah was in a dilemma: she hadn’t gone far in school, she had two kids, her family was over its head in debt, and there were no prospects she’d ever be able to save any money in her home in Buriram. “I had  to pay off my own debt and my parent’s, and who would do that for me? We are hundreds of thousands of baht in debt,” she says. “It’s a tough life for us farmers.” 

Sah says she had reached a point: “I just felt I had to do something.”

The arid land of Isaan can be so harsh that even the flowers of the flame-of-the-forest tree can fail to bloom. Sah was one of those flowers, unable to bloom in her native land. 

So she took a gamble and paid 200,000 baht (about $6,000) to a broker to smuggle her into South Korea where she’d live out her life as a “little ghost”: what Thais call undocumented workers in South Korea. She has had to work hard and live in fear, but Sah says it’s been worth it – for herself, her parents, and her children. “I’ve only done this,” she says, “because I want them to live good lives.”

Sah, a flame-of-the-forest flower, has bloomed, but just not in her native Isaan, and only as a little ghost.

Preparing the soil for farming

Thai labors going to South Korea

South Korea is a top work destination for Isaan people who go through the Employment Permit System (EPS) to become legal workers there. But the country is also a major destination for Thais who go there to work illegally.

In July 2022, South Korea’s Ministry of Justice revealed that the total number of unauthorized immigrants reached a record high of 395,068. At the time, there were 42,538 Thais authorized to stay in South Korea. But there were more than 139,000 undocumented Thais immigrants living there as well – almost three times more than the number of legal Thai immigrants.

Plastic coverings that act as insulators are laid over the soil before planting onions

Isaan farmer’s daughter to pig farmer in South Korea

“Sah,” a 42-year-old who did not want to have her real name used, is not one of those who came into South Korea legally through EPS. She was smuggled in and started a six-year stint on a pig farm in South Korea’s central region.

Sah’s initial monthly wage was about 1.2 million won (about 32,000 baht, or $950). She was able to save on expenses because she stayed at the farm where housing, meals, and everyday costs were taken care of.

Sah went to work boxing radishes for a few years and now has two part-time jobs: one at a pig farm and one at a Korean restaurant. At the farm, she says, “The boss takes good care of us on the farm.”

But as a part-time worker, payment of wages is not steady: “Sometimes they pay daily, sometimes you work for ten days and get paid only for three,” she says. “The rest is paid on the next pay cycle. We get the full payment, but it’s sometimes slow.” 

At the restaurant, she makes 1,400 baht a day at the restaurant [about $40]. There, she says, “I get a monthly salary, but the working hours are inconsistent and there are many issues.” Sometimes the restaurant is packed. “During festivals,” she says, “there are so many customers that there’s no time to eat or drink. But when I’m free, there’s time to relax.”

At a high-tech pig farm, she is responsible for paperwork, raising and breeding pigs, and farrowing piglets, for which she receives the same daily wage as at the restaurant.

She finds the financial compensation for her work to be “satisfactory.” In a country more developed than Thailand, she’s been able to get along financially. 

And that’s what matters. Her main reason for coming to South Korea was to support her parents and provide for her children’s education.

“Even though I’m not a millionaire,” she says. “I’m able to support my family.”

The basics: speaking and eating in South Korea

Language was at first an obstacle for Sah. “I didn’t study Korean from the start,” she says, “and I learned Korean through the back door. When I work, I keep a pen to take notes.” 

Sah says that one good thing about Koreans is that “they try their best to communicate verbally and with their hands.” Her employer, she says, “tells us to remember only things related to our work. At the farm, pieces of paper with vocabulary are posted everywhere, so I try to memorize the words and practice writing.”

“I speak Isaan with my relatives at the farm, and I speak Korean with my boss.” Sah has fun with the languages. She noticed one amusing similarity, of sorts, between Korean and Isaan: “Koreans say tok kut tae [“the same”], and I would reply tok kun tae ti” [“falling from the rice field dike”]. Korean and Isaan accents, she says, “are very similar. It’s often fun to tease each other at work.”

Another instance is when an employer praises a worker by saying “jal ha nae” (잘하네 [meaning “good job”], which is often misunderstood as “sa ra nae” [meaning “to meddle”]. Laughing, she says, “We would jokingly say, ‘See, he’s saying we’re meddling!’”

Buying things in Korea was another obstacle for Sah. “I wasn’t used to Korean goods, so I had to buy Thai products and eat Thai food” which, though, she says she didn’t even know where to find them.

“But as time went by,” she says, “I started to make friends with other Thais.” She found that buying online connected her to Isaan and Thai food. She says that ordering online “it’s easy to find Thai shops or Facebook pages of Thai communities or buy ingredients to cook.”

Sah admits, “I usually eat Isaan food, which is actually easier to get than at home. For instance, red ant eggs are easy to find. They have everything,” she says: field rat, game meat, and even snake.

Sah says, “I often eat fish chili paste, som tam (papaya salad) and grilled pork, fermented fish, and fermented fish chili paste. They don’t just have all of it,” she says, “they have even more, because some dishes can’t be found at home, but they can be found here.”

With familiar food on hand, Sah doesn’t eat Korean food that often. But she says, “There are some delicious Korean foods that I like, such as japchae or pork rib soup.” The only other Korean food she eats regularly is jokpa, which she says “is similar to our fermented vegetables like garlic chives.”

One of the farms where Sah works

Some challenges

As a female worker, Sah faces some instances of discrimination. She suspects it might be because she’s a foreigner and admits that problems don’t occur at every workplace.

“Female workers at restaurants are commonly seen as sex workers, and would sometimes face verbal harassment,” Sah says. She’s been confronted with remarks like “Do you want to sleep with me?” She says she would angrily hurl an insult back at them and “they’d stop messing around with me.”

When she was boxing radishes, she was once molested by a truck driver who picked up the produce from her each day.

“One time he touched my breasts, and I punched him because I was very angry and shocked,” Sah says. “He claimed it was a Korean tradition and it was normal to tease people like that. The next day, he apologized, claiming that all Thai girls are like that, so he thought it was ok to touch me a little.”

Insecure legal status

Sah’s thought about applying  for a work visa but she knows it’s a difficult process.

She says that she works so much that she just doesn’t have the time to apply. She doesn’t have any days off. 

But as a little ghost, there is always fear, even paranoia, that she will be caught. 

“The immigration police often inspect the seaside restaurant where I work, but the owner has connections so he would be alerted whenever the police were to come and he would hide us,” Sah says.  

“We have our connections with the police,” she goes on to say with a look of concern. “The police also have spies, and they know if anyone is illegal. They can arrest people near the beach and send them back to their country.” she said in a concerned voice. 

Sah must always be on her guard, always on the ready. She says she’s safer on the farm. “If someone alerts the police, it will be difficult for me. When I was working part-time there, the police once inspected a farm nearby. But they couldn’t get [onto our farm] because they didn’t have a search warrant.”

A meal with friends and familiar food

Thoughts of home, thoughts of her decisions

When she misses home, she turns to music. “I listen to Monkaen and Tai Oratai. I like Bao Wee’s “huajai naksu” [“The Fighter”],” she says. Usually, “I like to listen to it after work, and I sing along when I cook in order to relax.” 

But when listening to music from back home, she confesses she “sometimes cries,” especially when she knows “someone at home is sick” and is unable “to go back to take care of them.”

Despite the instances of discrimination, risky legal status, and moments of homesickness, she doesn’t regret coming to South Korea. 

“If I had stayed home, what would I be able to do?” she asks. “It’s hard to sell something, it’s hard to grow rice, and I don’t want to invest any money into it. Whenever I think of going back home, I ask myself what I would do.” 

“I’ve been working in Korea for 10 years,” says Sah. “Time has gone by very fast.” When she first came to South Korea, she was often subjected to criticism. But she says she “accepted it, and everything started to be ok within two to three months.”

“Even though it was hard to adapt in the beginning in terms of food, housing, and weather where there are four seasons in a single day, I’ve been able to do all the work.”

“I’ve always fought and never considered going back home.” 

A scene with heavy snow, far away from Mon’s home country

Not just Isaan people migrating to South Korea

“Mon,” who declined to give her real name, is a former insurance agent who had lived in the Central Region of Thailand. She originally traveled to Korea as a tourist. She initially didn’t have plans to work, but on the advice of a relative, she decided to stay and work.

She started in 2008 at a jeans factory where mostly foreigners, many without visas, worked. At the time, Mon says she got a monthly salary of 700,000 won (about $550-$630). It was then that she met my husband and so she decided to stay longer. Laughing to overcome her shyness, Mon says, “I waited for my visa to stay, but stayed longer because of love.”

After a time, she became an interpreter. Sometimes she interprets for masseuses who entered with a tourist visa, while some others didn’t have visas.

The one thing that Thai workers in South Korea share is a legacy of debt. “Out of 100 people, almost everyone is in debt,” Mon says. “If they’re not in debt, it would be hard for them to work. The pay would not be worth the hard work.” Mostly they come by what they learned word of mouth, “following in the steps of relatives.”

From her time mingling with both Thai workers who came to Korea legally and those who had not, Mon says that agriculture work is the most common form of contract work. Work begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 2 or 3 p.m. If someone finishes work early, they can get off work early. Mon says female workers earn $100 a day while male workers bring in $120 a day.

Mon says there “not much suppression [of immigrants] anymore” because South Korea is in need of labor. She says further that illegal workers even have some advantages over legal ones. Illegal workers can switch their jobs if they’re unhappy with their employers. In fact, she says, “it’s actually easier” for illegal workers to switch jobs because “legal workers have to go through a long process.”

As she’s constantly meeting many people, Mon says in her experience most Thais don’t want to go home.

In South Korea, for instance, masseuses can earn as much as 100,000 baht per month [$3,000]. “If they sleep with their customers,” she goes on, “they can earn several million won a night [more than 10,000 baht/$300] because Koreans give big tips.”

The COVID-19 pandemic had affected immigrants, but Mon says that the South Korean government was responsive. Those with a visa received a little more than $300 [a month] in relief money. Those without a visa could register for relief, a process, Mon says, that was “not complicated and could be completed at the district [office]” that also allowed applicants to obtain an ID to receive free vaccination.

“They have a support center for people without a visa to register for health insurance,” she says. But those without a visa would have to pay twice the cost of hospitalization compared to those with a visa. 

Adapting to the “pali pali” culture

Thais are familiar with the Thai saying equivalent to “Rome wasn’t built in a day”: jai yen yen, sabai sabai [be calm, chill out]. But for Koreans, the phrase pali pali [quick quick] governs Korean life.

“Koreans like to do things fast,” Mon says. “They like to say ‘pali pali’. Everything needs to be fast, so Thai workers need to work fast.”

The post 2000 K-Wave 

The Korean wave – Korean food, music, and culture – has become increasingly popular as a Korean export to Thailand. But there’s one thing that Korea imports from Thailand: labor. 

Dr. Phaiboon Petasen, head of Thammasat University’s Korean Studies program at the Institute of East Asian Studies, says working overseas is seen as a way to solve bread-and-butter issues. In the 1990s, popular destinations included Japan and Taiwan. South Korea was not that popular then, due to the country’s high birth rate resulting in sufficient labor, as well as not yet having an open-door policy for foreigners.

Dr. Phaiboon says that after 2000, the K-Wave started to penetrate Thailand, resulting in the import of Korean products. Several industrial sectors also lacked a workforce, since the new generation of Koreans were unwilling to work in dirty, dangerous, and difficult jobs.

“Isaan people are starting to face the ‘Sandwich Generation’ condition, where people need to take care of their parents and children, since their parents are getting old and are no longer working,” Dr. Phaiboon points on. 

It fell on people like Sah to find a way to take care of both her parents and children. Dr. Phaiboon argues that people in Sah’s position face a dilemma: “They have a double burden and can’t come back [to Thailand]. If they do come back, they won’t be able to provide financial support for their families, and everyone will be unhappy. Even though family members miss them, wouldn’t it be better if they stay in South Korea?”

In short, “Going to Korea meets the hopes and expectations of all family members.”

Dr. Phaiboon explains why it’s often better to be a little ghost. “If you pass the EPS, you don’t know how long you have to wait until the employer calls you. It might be three months, six months, or up to a year.”

But “those who go illegally can’t accept the uncertain timing, because if their family needs money,” continues Dr. Phaiboon. But even if a family “has to put up its land as collateral,” going through a “broker” who “takes care of everything,” allows a person like Sah to get into South Korea “without having to waste time” going through EPS.

Economic realities

Dr. Phaiboon said despite South Korea’s high demand for labor at 5,000-10,000 people per year, it is still not enough to serve the demand of the industrial sector, especially in the suburbs and agriculture sector. 

According to the most recent data from the Ministry of Labor’s Department of Employment, the quota of Thai workers in South Korea for 2023 has increased for three visa groups, from 2,500 people to 15,000. 

It’s convenient for potential little ghosts from Thailand to seek jobs in South Korea through social media, where there are advertisements for several types of jobs, including those that are not supported under EPS. 

Going through brokers provides a short cut, with relatively few downsides.

From the data he’s collected, Dr. Phaiboon says brokers are typically “former workers who promise employers that they will bring a certain number of people in.” Employers are able to smuggle in workers “without having to pay any insurance or other legal payment.”

Being caught with undocumented workers carries with it a 20-million-won fine [about $16,000). If that factory “also employs EPS workers, they will be prohibited from employing EPS workers for a certain period.”

But because of the high labor demand, Dr. Phaiboon says, South Korean authorities are being less stringent in enforcing these laws. For economic reasons, South Korea can’t afford to “eliminate undocumented workers,” instead tolerating the number at “an appropriate level.”

Due to the oversupply of undocumented Thai workers in South Korea, the Justice Ministry has recently offered an amnesty to foreigners staying illegally in the country who voluntarily leave the country from November 7, 2022 and February 28, 2023. 

To help stem the flow of illegal migrants, South Korea’s immigration authorities have started using a new screening mechanism which requires registration through Korea Electronic Travel Authorization (K-ETA).

Perils and possibilities for little ghosts

Dr. Phaiboon said undocumented workers are in a vulnerable position and risk being exploited by their employers. If they are invisible, the law cannot protect them.

In addition, those smuggled in often have to be smuggled back out. The Royal Thai Embassy in Seoul, says Dr. Phaiboon, now has to deal with cases of helping little ghosts return to Thailand legally.

But the opportunities – and the difference – are too great. Korea’s per capita GDP is 4.55 greater than Thailand’s. South Korea needs labor. In its view, South Korea might see Thailand as a labor-exporting country beset with military coups that creates “major obstacles to development,” Dr. Phaiboon says. 

But for Thais with few prospects to improve their lot in life in Thailand, going to work in South Korea may seem as both haven and heaven.

Dr. Phaiboon says, “I once talked to a Thai person who had lived in South Korea for decades who told him they never thought about returning to Thailand.” The reasons they gave was that by staying and working in South Korea, “they felt comfortable there, and they were able to feed ten other family members”.

He is sympathetic to their plight: “What can they do in Thailand’s countryside? What can a middle school graduate do? Would it be better to go to Korea and earn millions of won? These are what those workers are thinking about.”

For Thais like Sah, she recognized that she was unlikely to be that flame-of-the-forest flower that could bloom in the impoverished atmosphere of Isaan. But even a little ghost can bloom, and Sah has, but in a foreign land. Such is a common fate of Isaan people.

Note: This feature is part of the Journalism that Builds Bridges (JBB) project, which is supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands, the Embassy of Finland, the Embassy of New Zealand, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Read in Thai version here