The Organized Export of Labor


Desperate times call for desperate measures



Earnings derived for the North Korean state through the organized export of labor and the abuses inflicted upon those workers have long been a hobby horse of mine. Kim Jong-un’s apparent re-emphasis on this earnings stream together with financial constraints imposed by the tightening sanctions regime is bringing this practice into sharper focus.

Recent reporting has emphasized several themes. First, in authoritarian countries with few worker protections such as China, Russia, and Qatar, stories of abuse are leaking out. Radio Free Asia reports that 112 deaths occurred among North Korean contract laborers between January 2015 and April 2016, a rate of 7 per month. Russia was the leading death trap with 61 deaths. These typically are a product of unsafe working conditions, such as falls from multi-story construction sites. The pay-offs to families of the deceased are reportedly less than $1,000.

Not surprisingly, morale is not good among the workers. The Daily NK has begun a multipart series on conditions at these worksites in China, Russia, and Mongolia. It reports that workers who have attempted to flee forced labor have been subjected to punishments such as severing Achilles tendons, and being forced to lay down and have their legs crushed with an excavator. When repatriated to North Korea, the disabled workers and their families are allegedly sent to prison camps.

Even workers who toe the line are subject to abuse. The Daily NK story reports that those injured while working are forced to pay for medical treatment out of pocket (which means that many injuries go untreated) and if they miss work due to injury, they are subjected to prohibitive fines and confiscation of their meager wages.

It is always hard to assess the veracity of these kinds of reports, but they strike me as plausible: they are consistent with past cases of abuse which have better documentation, and in the case of the Daily NK, they seem to have visited multiple work sites and spoken with a variety of individuals who have interacted with the workers and are familiar with prevailing practices. Who knows if they land in the gulag when they return home?

Within North Korea these overseas assignments are considered pretty good jobs, and given the possibility of exposure to foreign cultural influences and escape, the regime tries to select politically reliable candidates.

In democratic Europe, no Achilles heels are being severed, but the fact that Poland, Malta and other European countries continue to employ North Koreans has emerged as a point of embarrassment. Some years back, the Czech Republic stopped issuing work visas to North Koreans after abuses inflicted upon female garment workers became public. Poland, which in 2015 reportedly issued 156 visas and 482 work permits for North Korean workers, has apparently followed suit (post-Brexit, they’re to need those jobs for returning Poles), but there is no word yet on action on Malta, or other European countries allegedly employing North Koreans. Willy Fautre at Human Rights Without Frontiers offers up a comprehensive set of policy suggestions for the EU on this issue.

Sanctions legislation adopted in the US earlier this year and the accompanying Executive Order on implementation explicitly target the organized export of labor, as well as North Korean financial transactions more broadly. Europe, too, is tightening financial sanctions. It would appear that the confluence of the need for money and the increased difficulties obtaining it, are encouraging the North Koreans to enter into ever more desperate arrangements. In the “Rime of the Juche Mariner,” Committee for Human Rights in North Korea Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu (full disclosure: I’m on the HRNK board) documents how a firm in Montevideo, Uruguay hires North Korean sailors who are sent to work on mostly Taiwanese vessels. (In a recent post, I documented how unsafe vessels and abusive labor practices had landed North Korean flagged ships on the industry black list.) As Scarlatoiu mentions in passing, the belongings of one sailor which were lost in transit and became the basis of the piece, suggest that he has relatively good songbun, or status. It’s a reminder that within North Korea these overseas assignments are considered pretty good jobs, and given the possibility of exposure to foreign cultural influences and escape, the regime tries to select politically reliable candidates.

Another tack would be to dump civilian candidates altogether and just send soldiers. UPI’s Elizabeth Shim, again channeling RFA, reports that North Korea is doing precisely this: after labor unrest at work sites, the regime is sending soldiers to construction sites in Qatar and Kuwait. Apart from being subjected to brutal disciplinary methods, as the article observes, soldiers are under the command structure of the North Korean military and “don’t need to be compensated like civilians.”   

Still, whoever you send, you have to get the funds back to North Korea. Earlier this year, Yonhap reported an intriguing story about two North Koreans detailed while in transit in Sri Lanka when they were found to be carrying nearly $170,000 in cash. (Amounts above $10,000 must be declared.) The two claimed that the money had been earned by themselves and co-workers on a construction site in Oman. The Yonhap report did not make clear whether the two were officials carrying the usual wage skim home, or if they were actually workers who were carrying what they and their comrades had managed to amass while sweating bullets in the Arabian sun, though the fact that there were only two individuals traveling together makes me suspect the former. A local paper reported that in the end, the Sri Lankan authorities decided to confiscate the cash as justified by UN sanctions and authorized under local law, and imposed an additional criminal fine. 

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