Work stress, loneliness and culture shock are leading Nepalis to commit suicide in South KoreaOver thirty percent of deaths between 2009 to 2018 among Nepalis in South Korea were suicides.
In August, Kedar Timilsina, a migrant worker from Bethanchowk, Kavre, was found dead in his apartment in Busan, South Korea. The 27-year-old had hung himself. A news site run from South Korea by the Nepali community reported that Timilsina, who had gone to South Korea to work for the second time, was struggling with depression.
Timilsina’s death is part of the growing suicide statistics of Nepali migrant workers in South Korea, where jobs for Nepali men and women opened in 2008. As of June 15, a total of 62,227 Nepalis had entered South Korea for work.
Even as Nepali migrant workers continue to die in staggering numbers in various labour destinations across the world due to “natural causes”, in South Korea, the leading cause of death is suicide.
The Seoul Shinmun, South Korea’s oldest daily newspaper, in a special report—’The 2019 Migrant Report: Betrayed Korean Dreams’—covering the plight of migrant workers recently reported that Nepali workers are committing suicide after failing to achieve their ‘Korean Dreams.’
The newspaper reported that over 30 percent of deaths of Nepali workers are due to suicide, but “the South Korean government does not have a clue why so many migrant workers make such an extreme choice.”
For thousands of Nepalis, South Korea may be a lucrative labour destination, but there are also many pitfalls—such as harsh working conditions, culture shock, loneliness and depression—that could take a severe mental and emotional toll on them.
According to the Nepal Embassy in Seoul, 43 out of 143 deaths of Nepali workers reported in South Korea between 2009 and 2018 were due to suicide.
Gokul Dhorje Tamang, a Nepali worker based in Hwaseong city, said loneliness, workload and language barriers were the leading factors driving workers to depression and in some cases, suicide.
“After landing in South Korea, Nepali workers suddenly find themselves in harsh working conditions which they had never experienced before,” Tamang, who is from Shailung Rural Municipality in Dolakha, told the Post over the phone. “The situation is even worse for those who are in Korea for the first time. Unable to communicate clearly with their employers, they often experience yelling from their employers, and they end up feeling bad and depressed.”
Bal Bahadur Gurung has had bitter experiences working in South Korea.
“Nepali workers are not treated with respect in South Korea. Migrant workers, especially from South Asia, are treated as inferior,” said Gurung, who worked in South Korea from 2008 to 2018. “They talk in harsh language and belittle Nepali workers. Employers are not always big companies and they do not treat Nepali workers nicely.”
Culture shock is another big challenge that Nepali workers go through after reaching South Korea. Adjusting and assimilating is not easy for everyone.
“Nepali workers should learn and adapt to South Korean culture and their ways,” said Gurung.
The Seoul Shinmun reported that suicides among migrant workers from other countries are significantly lower when compared to Nepali workers. Only four deaths among a total of 51 from Mynamar, between 2011 to August 2019, involved suicide, according to the newspaper. Likewise, there were no suicides out of the 14 deaths of Vietnamese workers from 2017 to 2019.
Tamang, the Nepali worker in Hwaseong, believes that the modality of selecting workers through language test is also to be blamed for the high suicide rate among Nepalis in South Korea.
Passing the Test of Proficiency in Korean is the only qualification that one needs to work in South Korea. This qualification, Tamang says, is not enough.
“Nepali workers only have a theoretical understanding of working in South Korea. They have no idea what the work looks like in a workplace where one has to work for 12 hours,” said Tamang. “Anyone who has never worked in their life but is good at studies can pass the language test. But once they get to their jobs, which is physically straining, they find themselves unable to cope, fall sick and depressed, and finally commit suicide.”
The Nepal government, however, has not looked into the reasons behind the high number of suicides among Nepali workers in South Korea.
“There will be a study regarding the suicide of Nepali workers in major labour destination countries. Based on the recommendations of the study, there will be a policy-level intervention,” Rajan Prasad Shrestha, executive director at the Foreign Employment Board, told the Post.
Following the rise in suicide cases among Nepali workers in South Korea, the Nepali Embassy in Seoul and the local Nepali community have been mobilising teams to provide entertainment and psycho-social counselling to workers, according to Shrestha.
“Nepali workers need training and counselling on stress management and workplace safety. We began sending out teams through the embassy from this year,” he said.
But these training and counselling sessions are not taking place as regularly as they should.
“Doctors’ visits are irregular and the Nepali embassy is woefully understaffed. There are four or five staff catering to thousands of workers,” said Tamang. “Imagine the remittance sent by Nepali workers back to the country. The government seems to hardly care for them.”
Recently, a 30-year Nepali woman from Ramechhap was sent back to Nepal after she began to display depressive behaviour. She was the only Nepali at her workplace in Kwando and had completely stopped talking to her colleagues and the employer. The woman was lucky that she came in contact with the Nepali community in South Korea and was sent home. Not everyone is that fortunate.