Thousands of Illegal Thai Workers Flood Korea

  • By Kim Seung-jae

    November 05, 2018 11:48

    Increasing numbers of Thai women are drawn to illegal massage work and other service jobs in Korea, according to the Justice Ministry.

    The ministry estimates that the number of illegal Thai residents soared from 68,449 last year to 122,192 as of August this year, overtaking illegals from China. Of the 60,000 who are women, some 50,000 are believed to be working in massage parlors.

    Not all of them are fronts for prostitution. According to the Korea Thai Massage Association, which groups legitimate businesses here, the number of Thai massage parlors in Korea started surging in 2010 because more and more Koreans visit Thailand.

    Baek Oh-hyun, chairman of the association, said, "Demand increased after more and more massage shops opened, prompting brokers to bring women from Thailand who work for low wages. This has caused Korean masseuses and Chinese massage parlors to lose customers."

    Massage parlors remain illegal in Korea unless operated by blind people, but there are around 50,000 offering foot massage, sports massage and acupressure, and they employ some 300,000 workers, creating a gargantuan headache for the government even as they relieve the pains of their customers.

    Thai women need to work here for just one month to repay the airfare and broker's fee. One 21-year-old Thai woman and single mother who came to Korea in April says she left her four-year-old daughter in the care of her parents. She was told by a friend that she could earn in a year in Korea what it would take her 10 years to make in Thailand.

    She paid W2.5 million to a Korean broker she met in Thailand and flew to Korea on a 90-day visa waiver (US$1=W1,120). She has no employment contract since she is working here illegally and lives in a room near the massage parlor and goes to work whenever she gets a phone call. She says she earns W3 million a month, whereas in Thailand she made just W300,000 a month working in a restaurant.

    But the job comes with its own risks. One 22-year-old Thai woman who works as a masseuse in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province said, "I almost get raped every week, and six out of 10 customers ask for sex."

    Many offer sexual services as a matter of course. The owner of one Thai massage parlor in Gangnam said, "Even if I try to run a legitimate business, I have no idea what happens in the room between a client and a masseuse who wants to make more money."

    In Thailand, newspapers have picked up on stories of women who were duped by shady brokers and ended up being sold off to pimps or denied their pay. In September alone, the Thai government stopped 243 women from leaving Thailand on suspicion that they were attempting to work illegally in Korea.

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