Malta Shifts Policy, but Employers Shrug Off Critics and Actively Seek North Korean Workers

Companies based in Malta are seeking laborers sent abroad by North Korea to earn foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime, despite recent criticism leveled at the island nation over conditions Asian workers face there. In 2014, media reports slammed Chinese-owned Leisure Clothing—which produces clothing for Italian and British brands—for underpaying workers from North Korea, China, and Vietnam and subjecting them to poor living and working conditions in Malta.

Malta’s government claimed as recently as July that it is restricting new visas and visa extensions for North Korean workers, while companies such as Leisure Clothing that had employed them in the past say those workers have been sent home. But other companies based in Malta, such as the Bilom Group construction firm, told RFA’s Korean Service they are actively seeking to employ North Korean workers and are in the process of applying for permits from the government.

The Jobsplus building, an employment and training center for workers in Malta. Photo: RFA

“We applied for work permits and visas to hire North Korean workers,” said Gilbert Gujeya, a representative of Bilom.
“We applied for two or three workers, but one was denied,” he said, adding that his company was still awaiting approval for the other visas.

Paul Sant, who oversees Korea for Malta’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, refused to comment on restrictions facing workers, while repeated attempts by RFA to contact the Ministry of Justice—which issues foreign visas—have gone unanswered.

According to figures provided to RFA by Jobsplus—a government agency in charge of employment and training—three North Koreans were living in Malta on work visas as of July 2016, down from 33 and 30 in January and February, respectively. Prior to 2016, the number of North Koreans working in Malta had grown from one in December 2009 to 50 at the end of 2014 before dipping slightly to 44 in 2015, Jobsplus said.

Tough conditions

North Koreans work mostly in the manufacturing, construction, and service industries in Malta, and often toil long hours in unfavorable conditions for little pay.

Local media reported in 2014 that North Koreans at Leisure Clothing endured poor living standards in Malta’s capital Valletta and were forced to pay some 6,000 euros (U.S. $6,620) for work permits while earning tens of euros (1 euro = U.S. $1.11) per month, instead of the 600 euros (U.S. $670) they were promised when hired.

A Mexican restaurant, which is in Gżira, Malta, that was once a North Korean restaurant, before its North Korean employee fled. Photo: RFA

The reports by In-Nazzjon and Times of Malta, local newspapers, said North Korean workers received 70 euros (U.S. $78) monthly for working 14-hour days, six days per week, while Chinese managers at the company received 30,000 euros (U.S. $33,450) in annual bonuses. Bin Han, Leisure Clothing’s managing director, told RFA that all North Korean workers had since been sent home, but were treated fairly during their time with the company.

“Workers were treated according to Malta labor standards and no illegal issues were found, even after several on-site inspections were carried out,” he said.

“Well-known European brands that subcontract us ordered us not to hire North Korean workers due to pressure from the international media. Our customer companies do not want to risk sullying their good names, which is reasonable.”

According to Han, some 40 North Koreans—all of whom were women—had worked for Leisure Clothing as sewing machine operators. They were “highly-skilled” and “lived quite happily in Malta,” he said. Han said the North Koreans had access to entertainment and recreation at their residences, cooked meals in kitchens there, and were free to go shopping or sightseeing in Valletta and other areas.

Other companies based in Malta known to have employed North Koreans told RFA they had also sent workers home amid fallout from media reports, but the criticism has failed to deter firms such as Bilom, which said they would continue to apply for permits to hire them.

International shame

Malta’s Bilom Group, which applied for permission to hire North Korean workers. Photo: RFA

Malta’s government pledged to South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se during his first visit to the country in July 2016 that it was working to end the hiring of North Korean workers through new visa regulations.

The announcement sought to appease the global community amid international sanctions leveled at North Korea for developing nuclear weapons and missiles with funds collected by dispatching workers abroad to earn foreign currency.

In a report on human rights in North Korea submitted to the U.S. Congress in August 2016, the U.S. State Department named Malta as one of 23 countries that actively use laborers sent to earn cash for the isolated nation.

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