Thousands of mostly Asian guest workers scrambled to leave South Korea or go underground yesterday, a day before a government deadline for undocumented workers to leave or be deported.
Two workers, men from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, killed themselves this week to avoid forced repatriation, while groups of workers and rights advocates have staged sit-ins to protest against the crackdown, police said.
The crackdown will affect 120,000 of the nearly 230,000 foreign workers, the South Korean Justice Ministry said in a statement.
Asian workers from Pakistan to Philippines have flocked to factories and other businesses, taking up the "Three D" jobs -- dirty, dangerous and degrading -- that South Koreans shun.
Overhauling an abuse-riddled industrial trainee system under which South Korea had imported cheap labor, Seoul is introducing a new program that allows shorter-term illegal workers to get proper work permits, but expels long-term undocumented workers.
Illegal workers who have stayed in South Korea more than four years face forced deportation if they don't voluntarily leave the country by today.
Only 15,321 of the 120,000 workers whom the law requires to leave had departed as of yesterday, the justice ministry said.
The ministry said 50 special squads would begin rounding up workers on Monday, immediately expelling those who had air tickets and passports. It said it would work with home country embassies to repatriate those without documents and tickets.
Media reports said that employers were taking advantage of the impending expulsions to withhold some US$2.6 million in wages owed to 1,460 workers.
The ministry said it would work to ensure payment of back wages.