European enterprises accused of exploiting North Korean workers


He refuses to give his name, not even a pseudonym, so great is his fear for his family who have stayed in North Korea.

He is one of 50,000 workers that the Pyonyang regime “leases” throughout the world for a (very) low price to both private and public enterprises, according to information revealed by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB).

Our interviewee recalls the conditions he experienced for three years “in a Middle Eastern country” that he refuses to identify, working in the construction industry.

“We worked up to 16 hours a day for a salary of US$150, from which housing costs and charges were deducted. In reality we received US$80 at best. There was no medical insurance, and if we fell ill that was also deducted from our pay.”

The men were billeted seven to a room only ten metres square and infested with cockroaches and rats, with no heating or air conditioning, recalls the man who today lives in South Korea, where he has been granted the right to asylum.

“In North Korea, I earned US$0.25 a month, barely enough to buy half a kilo of rice.”

The North Korean workers’ contracts with foreign enterprises systematically go through the Pyongyang regime’s intermediaries, explained Yeo-sang Yoon, director of the NKDB, at a seminar in the European Parliament on 16 September.

What that means in practical terms is that 90 per cent of the workers’ pay is deducted by the government. But the regime’s control doesn’t stop there: workers are strongly advised against, or simply forbidden from, communicating with the outside world, and the regime sends its agents to constantly watch their every move. Their passports and visas are also confiscated. Our interviewee also told us that a bank account had been opened in his name, yet he had never been told about it and never had access to it.

While these seconded workers are often labourers, these slave-like contracts also affect doctors, computer programmers and even military personnel, as data published by NKDB shows.

Of the approximately 50,000 seconded North Korean workers in the world, many are in Russia (20,000) and China (19,000) – in other words countries where labour legislation is weak and conditions are difficult. There are 2,000 North Koreans in Mongolia, 1,800 in Qatar and 300 in Malaysia.

Even more shocking is the fact that a European Union member state is host, according to NKDB, to 800 workers supplied by Pyongyang: Poland.


Poland under scrutiny

In an interview with Equal Times, Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), points out that this is not the first time Poland has been criticised for practices of this kind.

As early as 2006, Gazeta Wyborcza reported that North Korean workers were being employed at the Gdansk naval shipyards, renowned for being the birthplace of the trade union Solidarnosc.

“The authorities then announced that they had stopped hiring North Korean workers, but a few years later there was a new case, also revealed by Gazeta Wyborcza, about a Polish-North Korean association that brought in young people as “trainees”. They worked in the orchards, among other things. Apparently quite a few enterprises have taken up this practice again while the Polish government turns a blind eye,” says Fautré.

The names of the enterprises concerned remain secret for the moment, but NKDB may decide to publish them in future he told us.

Equal Times contacted the national labour inspectorate of Poland, but has had no reply to date.

Fautré notes that other EU countries have also been singled out by his organisation, notably the Netherlands, where a restaurant in Amsterdam employed North Korean staff in dubious conditions.

While the seminar organised in the European Parliament may be a hopeful sign, the European institutions have so far shown a blatant lack of interest.

“I have raised the issue several times, in 2012 and 2013, but I have never had any reaction from the European institutions. The European Union should clean up its own act before criticising others,” protests Fautré, whose organisation is very active on this matter.

NKDB and HRWF recommend that the EU’s restrictive measures towards Kim Jong Un’s regime should take into account the violation of North Korean migrants’ labour rights, and should specifically target the companies concerned.

“A gradual approach is need. First use ‘naming and shaming’, as in the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. For companies that persist, more targeted measures should then be used,” says Fautré.

Human rights organisations would also like the European Parliament to at least make a symbolic gesture, such as adopting a resolution condemning these practices. But there isn’t much enthusiasm.

Asked about the possibility of proposing a resolution, Kati Piri, the Social Democrat MEP who opened the seminar on this subject in the European Parliament, told Equal Times: “It is important to raise the wider public’s awareness of this issue. That can be done in several ways, a resolution being one of them.”

She added that, while there is “no place for workers’ exploitation in the EU in the 21st century,” it is “important that trade unions, human rights organisations and workers put this subject on the political agenda so that concrete action can be taken to protect workers.”


This story has been translated from French.