North Koreans Toil Longer for Less in Poland as Pyongyang Takes Most of Their Paycheck

Workers earning foreign currency in Poland for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un regime are not receiving fair wages and face restrictions on their activities, the head of a government labor agency said, citing interviews during spot inspections at job sites. Jaroslaw Lesniewski, director of Poland’s National Labour Inspectorate (PIP), told RFA’s Korean Service his agency had determined through an ongoing investigation that some employers are exploiting North Korean workers in the country.

“Audits on all employers of North Korean workers were conducted, as well as 15 inspectional visits of 400 companies carried out this year alone,” Lesniewski said of 2016, without providing the names of firms targeted by PIP.

“Individually [with workers], in meetings and through conversations with civic group officials and experts … one can see many signals that indicate problems of wages not being paid properly and constraints being placed on workers. It’s just that it is impossible to confirm.”

No evidence of human rights violations was discovered during inspections, Lesniewski added, though most North Korean workers in the country cannot speak Polish well and are afraid to express discontent, making it difficult in interviews to conclude whether abuse has occurred. PIP conducts regular audits of companies to ensure that they follow local laws regarding maximum work hours, number of allotted employee breaks and holidays, overtime payment, and minimum wages for foreign workers.

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

"The agency protects workers’ interests through measures such as prosecuting Polish or North Korean employers of North Korean laborers that violate … Polish laws and expose them … to dangerous conditions,” Lesniewski said.

“A large-scale investigation of companies that employ more than 100 North Korean workers is now under way in many different areas of Poland,” he said, adding that PIP was currently auditing “a company specializing in growing fruits and vegetables.”

According to Lesniewski, the government launched its investigation following reports by media and rights groups beginning in 2013 that said workers in Poland are subjected to oppressive living conditions, much like those they experience back home in North Korea. Poland and Malta are the only two countries in the European Union that grant work visas to North Korean laborers, who Kim Jong Un’s regime sends abroad to earn foreign currency used in the development of nuclear weapons. A recent report by Vice News in Germany said that Kim’s government earns around U.S. $35,000 per year for each worker it sends to Poland.

Rights organizations in South Korea, the Netherlands and the U.K. say they have obtained signed documents that show a single North Korean official is responsible for the monthly wages of all North Korean workers in Poland. They say that in addition to being deprived of around 90 percent of their own wages, Poland-based North Koreans work up to 12 hours per day and are subjected to mental and physical abuse by their overseers on the job.

Agricultural work

In Sarnow, a small town located around 300 kilometers (185 miles) southwest of the capital Warsaw, an agricultural company called Tadeusz Mularski employs dozens of North Korean workers on its farm. A green house at Sarnów T. Mularski horticultural farm, where about 100 North Korean women work. Photo: RFA A security guard at the company told RFA that “nearly 100” women from North Korea live and work growing tomatoes and cucumbers there, and that the North Korean Consul visits them a few times each week.

“There are other foreigners working here [in addition to the North Koreans] but they all live outside of the farm,” the guard explained in Polish. He refused to comment on how many hours the North Koreans work per day or how many holidays they get each year.

According to the guard, the women had learned a bit of Polish from their coworkers and he indicated that they were given one day off each weekend during which they could leave the farm after sitting through ideology lessons in the morning. RFA was unable to meet with the North Korean workers, but it was clear from the guard that their handlers strictly controlled their activities both on and off the job.

Shipyards

In 2014, a North Korean welder named Kyung Su Cheon died from severe burns he suffered to more than 95 percent of his body while building a Norwegian ship called the Polar Express at the Crist Shipyard in northern Poland’s port city of Gdynia. Kyung had not been wearing protective clothing at the time of the accident. After Kyung’s death, in the summer of 2015, several Norwegian shipping companies including Kleven and Ulstein threatened to stop placing orders with Crist if it continued to hire North Korean workers, citing concerns over their labor conditions.

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

Crist claims that as of Aug. 1, 2016—when the company was building 10 of 13 ships for Norwegian firms—all of its North Korean workers had been returned home. Management did not respond to requests for an interview, but an RFA reporter visited the shipyard in September and encountered no North Korean workers at the time.

DNV GL, a Norway-based international risk management firm issued 140 certificates to North Korean laborers working at sites such as the Crist Shipyard from 2011 to the first half of 2016, while a company called Armex had hired the workers locally for Crist and another shipyard in nearby Gdansk called Nauta. No North Koreans could be found working at the Nauta Shipyard during an RFA reporter’s visit in September.

North Koreans have largely taken on lower paying jobs that Polish nationals left behind for better salaries in neighboring countries after Poland joined the EU in 2004. Investigations have revealed that even workers sent by North Korea to EU member countries like Poland are subject to exploitation amid pressure to produce cash for a Kim regime battered by international sanctions.

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs told RFA in November that it had issued no visas to North Korean workers since Pyongyang conducted a nuclear weapon test in January 2016.

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