February 14, 2020 13:12
Korean companies in China reopened early this week after closing down due to the new coronavirus outbreak which coincided with the Lunar New Year holiday.
But only absolutely necessary Korean personnel have returned to China to man offices and factories there. According to Justice Ministry data, 27,050 Koreans left for China from Feb. 1 to 11, a mere fifth of the numbers in the same period of 2019.
Cosmetics manufacturer Kolmar Korea has a factory in Wuxi near Shanghai, around 700 km from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak and considered at greater risk than Beijing or Guangzhou, which are over 1,000 km away.
On Monday, 27 Kolmar staff there resumed their work even as all restaurants are closed and store shelves were emptied long ago.
"We can't even buy vegetables or meat and are subsisting on canned food and instant noodles we brought from Korea," one staffer said. "We are avoiding taxis or public transport and are taking turns driving each other to work."
Korean expats say every day is a struggle to survive. The biggest difficulty they face is buying face masks. One 31-year-old staffer at a trading company in Dalian said, "Online and offline stores have all run out of face masks." One person can buy only up to five face masks so they have to reuse them.
Some expats have been unable to return to their homes in China due to restrictions on movement. Apartments are preventing unregistered cars and outsiders from entering and expats returning from abroad fall into this category, they say.
"Some people have not been able to unpack their bags since they returned and are staying at the homes of their coworkers," an expat said.
The coronavirus outbreak has brought about other changes. Expats are leaving thermostats off for fear that the virus could creep in through the ducts and keep their thick coats on in the office.
"We used to eat together in the company cafeteria, but we eat by ourselves at our own desks," another expat said. "We also had two or three meetings a day with our subcontractors, but now that's all done via conference call and we even talk to our colleagues in the same office on messenger."
Korean expats are also afraid of damaging their health with the poor nutrition and wide fluctuations in daytime and nighttime temperatures. Those who catch a cold or develop stomach problems cannot go to hospital due to the virus.
One expat in Guangzhou said, "I forgot to bring enough medicine when I left Korea."
Many Korean companies in China have problems with their Chinese workers being unable to return to work. The Chinese government imposed a two-week ban on workers returning from out of town.
A staffer at a Korean car parts maker in Suzhou said, "Around 20 Korean workers returned to work after the Lunar New Year, but only 300 out of 1,500 Chinese workers have come back. Korean managers are doing the work of four or five employees in crisis-management mode."
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