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Death of high school student in Jeju factory raises furor

Nov 27,2017
Candlelight vigils were held last week for an 18-year-old high school student who died from injuries sustained while working in a vocational training program at a juice factory in Jeju.

The factory is now under fire for attempting to cover up the student’s death, while Jeju’s education office is receiving flak for failing to ensure the safety of students in the program.

The student, Lee Min-ho, was a senior at a specialized high school in Seogwipo, Jeju, when he began working at a juice factory in July as part of a vocational training program. He hoped to work at the factory full-time after graduation.

On Nov. 9, while working alone, Lee got his neck caught in a machine and suffered serious damage to his brain and respiratory system. He was discovered five minutes later by another trainee and rushed to the hospital. After 10 days in the intensive care unit, Lee succumbed to his injuries.

The school did not know about the incident until it heard about it from another student.

The Specialized School Rights Association, which comprises students from specialized high schools, began organizing candlelight vigils in Seoul on Nov. 20. On the group’s Facebook page, members used the slogan, “Why should you have to die during vocational training?” Residents in Jeju placed a sign on the corner of a Jeju bus station that read, “We’re sorry Min-ho. We will try to create a safer society.”

For many Koreans, the incident was reminiscent of the Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014, when 250 students died after crew members told them to stay put on a sinking ship. As in Sewol, the public blamed the irresponsibility of adults in charge for Lee’s death and criticized the juice company for signing a separate contract with Lee that allowed him to work 10 to 12 hours a day.

The original agreement between the company and school only permitted Lee to work eight hours.

The company explained that it “wanted the student to receive the same [welfare] benefits as the rest of the workers,” adding, “Because we signed on to this program of industrial-educational cooperation with good intentions to create new jobs in Jeju, we really regret this incident.”

Lee’s death has also brought to light the role of vocational support workers in specialized high schools. In 2015, Jeju’s provincial education office laid off vocational support workers at 10 specialized high schools due to budget constraints. Their responsibilities included vocational counseling and on-site monitoring.

All 70 specialized high schools in Seoul currently have vocational support workers.

The Jeju branches of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union and Korean Confederation of Trade Unions released statements affirming the importance of vocational support workers and advocating reform to vocational programs so that students will no longer have to work in dangerous situations.

During a meeting with National Assembly lawmakers on Thursday, the minister of employment and labor, Kim Young-joo, said her ministry was investigating allegations that the juice company tried to cover up the student’s death.

The association plans to hold candlelight vigils in Suwon, Gyeonggi, through Wednesday.

BY CHOI CHOONG-IL, KIM EUN-JIN [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]