Working Conditions in Europe for North Koreans Draw Political Scrutiny, Investigations

The European Union must hold its member countries accountable for labor law violations that have led to the abuse of workers from North Korea earning foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime, experts say. North Korea routinely sends workers abroad who labor in various industries, often for long hours and amid dangerous conditions, for little pay—most of which is sent home by their handlers to a government under international sanctions for developing a nuclear weapons program.

North Koreans are known to have worked in EU member countries Poland and Malta, where sources say they are housed in secure facilities with officials from Pyongyang who closely monitor their activities. They receive little free time and are prevented from interacting with other workers, the sources said. Remco Breuker, an expert on forced North Korean labor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told RFA’s Korean Service that the public is well aware of human rights violations against North Korean workers in the EU, but the European Commission (EC)—which oversees the implementation of EU policies—has done little to address the problem.

Entrance and security guard post at Sarnów T. Mularski Farm. Photo: RFA

“It’s very simple what you can do—enforcement of the existing rules,” Breuker said.

“Member countries think that there is no problem with employing North Korean workers because the EU allows it, and the EU insists that it cannot force the member countries to observe labor laws.”

Breuker said that the EC should cooperate with the EU Labor Union to improve the rights of North Korean workers. He also urged EU member countries to deny visas to North Korean workers, who he said see up to 90 percent of their wages pocketed by the regime.

Poland report

In May 2016, Breuker and his team at the Leiden Asia Centre released a report titled, “North Korean Forced Labor in the EU: The Polish Case,” documenting the illegal treatment of North Korean workers in Poland. Their investigation found that the workers, most of whom were employed at shipyards, regularly labored at sites different than those indicated in their work permits, had salary payments delayed, and worked hours above and beyond the legal limit in conditions that violated industrial safety regulations.

Kyu Wook Oh, a researcher who works with Breuker, said workers had regularly avoided answering sensitive questions about the conditions they endured on the job when interviewed for the report in April 2016. But he told RFA that he was able to infer information about human rights violations by asking them about other aspects of their lives.

Workers leave work one by one from Nauta shipyard. Photo: RFA

“Once I asked a worker whether he had any family members in North Korea, and he said that he never even had a phone conversation with his family members, let alone saw them, since arriving in Poland two years earlier,” Oh said.

“Just this fact alone showed me that while living in Poland these workers were deprived not only of their freedom to move and live, but also of basic rights every human being should enjoy, such as corresponding with your family.”

While the National Labour Inspectorate of Poland is currently auditing companies known to have hired North Koreans, Oh said the agency’s jurisdiction is limited to reviewing their documentation, and he called on Poland’s government to conduct a more thorough investigation into labor violations against the workers. According to Oh, other EU member nations—such as Austria and Italy—are believed to have issued work permits to North Koreans until recently, but investigations into labor practices there could not be conducted due to lack of research materials.

“There wasn’t enough data on the number of permits issued, the number of workers, or the exact dates indicating the length of the work period,” he said, adding that the EU should order its member governments to release such information.

“We think that Austria and Italy should release this data, even if the North Korean workers are no longer there … because such information can be used as an important reference tool to find out how the North Korean workers were dispatched to Europe, to which field, and what kind of environment they worked in.”

MPs speak out

In July 2015, after European lawmakers Kati Piri and Agnes Jongerius of the Netherlands and Thomas Handel of Germany repeatedly urged the EU to take action over the treatment of North Koreans in Malta and Poland, the government of Malta declared that it would no longer issue employment permits or entry visas for the workers.

The Polish government stopped issuing entry visas to workers from North Korea after the country’s fourth nuclear weapons test in January 2016, while major shipyards in northern Poland said they had stopped employing North Koreans in response to complaints over the practice by Norwegian shipping companies responsible for most of their orders.

However, Oh cited information from local sources suggesting that many North Koreans still work at the sites in Poland and that some companies have reneged on their promises.

“It appears they are commuting to work in a minivan of sorts that a local manager has arranged for them—I think that’s why it is harder to catch a sight of them … it appears as if they are being extra cautious,” he said.

The reports were corroborated by Korean Community Association in Poland president Young Kwan Kwon, who told RFA he had visited Gdynia-based Crist Shipyard—one of the companies that claimed to have stopped employing North Koreans—in November and was informed by Polish workers that the North Koreans had simply been moved to work at a smaller shipyard in nearby Gdansk.

Member of parliament Piri said the whole EU must work together to ensure that laws regulating working hours, hygiene standards, and other working conditions are applied equally to workers, regardless of whether they are from an EU member country or from North Korea.

“With so much pride in its human rights record, the EU should not allow cruel human rights violations against North Korean workers to take place in EU territory,” she said.

“North Korea is currently maintaining its regime by exploiting the wages of these workers and at the same time violating United Nations sanctions against it. In this situation, it is time that the European Commission take the issue more seriously and stopped this from happening.”

Reported by Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.