Hundreds of North Korean workers are believed to be toiling in Poland under degrading conditions. An MEP calls on the European Commission to act, but the EC says it's a national matter. Others remain silent.
"I could feel the tremendous fear he was going through. The fear that something horrible would happen to his family because he did not return to North Korea," says Kati Piri, a Dutch Social Democratic politician and a member of the European Parliament (MEP).
She was talking about a former North Korean worker who appeared at a parliamentary hearing to tell his story as well as those of others like him who are forced by the East Asian nation's regime to work under harsh, inhumane conditions in foreign countries.
The ex-worker wanted to remain anonymous. That's why his name was not revealed nor were pictures taken at the hearing, Piri said. Nevertheless, his story raises stark questions about the issue of forced labor in Europe.
It is no secret that Pyongyang sends North Koreans to work abroad and pockets huge sums of their salaries. In this way, the isolated nation's ruling clique gets hold of much-needed foreign currency.
A UN report released in October 2015 estimated the number of North Koreans working in slave-like conditions in foreign nations to be about 50,000. It noted that the workers were employed in industries such as construction, mining, logging and textile manufacturing.
Their forced labor generated up to two billion euros for Pyongyang, stated the UN special rapporteur Marzuki Darusman. Likewise, British human rights organization, European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK), released a report in September 2015 on the same issue, pointing to EU member states Malta and Poland as destination countries for forced laborers.
Slaving for the country
Around 1,000 North Korean forced laborers are estimated to be currently working in Europe, out of which 800 are believed to be working in Poland. They are employed there at construction sites, shipyards and in farms. They do physically demanding and often dangerous work. The Pyongyang government negotiates their contracts directly with the foreign companies employing them, and the laborers themselves play no role whatsoever.
They also do not know how long they will work and under what conditions. Furthermore, the workers must handover their passports. And they hardly get to keep any of the money they earn - it's estimated that 90 percent of their incomes flow back into the regime's coffers.
While 12-hour shifts or longer are commonplace, the workers are closely monitored by North Korean security personnel.
"They work six days a week and the Sundays are filled with ideological sessions which are compulsory to attend," said Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
"The schedule probably varies from company to company, but they all have in common the following elements: The working days are (too) long and no overtime is paid; there is (almost) no contact between North Korean workers and other people; attending ideological sessions are compulsory; and they commute between home and work and (can't) go anywhere else," he explained.
The expert has intensively worked on this topic and he, together with his team, published a comprehensive study on this subject in May.
Research against opposition
The exploitation of North Korean workers in Poland represents a series of EU law violations, Breuker noted. "It violates both Polish and EU laws, ILO treaties and conventions, UN Human Rights Declaration and international sanctions against the North."
Kim worked abroad as forced laborer for North Korea, toiling for loggers operating in Russia, before he ran away
The workers are not allowed to leave their jobs or socialize with the local population. Even communication with one's own family in North Korea is strictly limited. Also, only those that are married and have families are sent to work abroad, in a bid to minimize the risk of their fleeing. In addition, any contact with the press is strictly forbidden.
Despite these stringent conditions, there have been attempts to uncover the exploitation and dig deeper into the lives of the workers. But journalists trying to report on the issue have been met with a wall of silence, with most workers refusing to speak for fear of reprisals back home.
Taking the EC to task
MEP Piri, however, hopes the journalists' work will change the current situation and improve the workers' lives, as public pressure has forced the European Commission (EC) to take up the issue, which it had refused to tackle before.
Piri hasn't let the issue of North Korean workers go since she first heard about it.
In September 2015, she - together with another MEP - sent a questionnaire to the EC seeking their answers. "We asked questions to find out: Are they aware of this? And if so, what are they doing about it?"
And it took them almost three months to even answer the questions, she lamented. And the commission's response delivered in January this year read: "The EC has no record of workers from third countries in the EU." It also added, "All EU member states have their own national labor laws, and it is the responsibility of national authorities and courts to enforce the rules."
Kati Piri sums it up in her own words: "The answer we got was clearly: This is not our problem. So we don't know about it, and even if we would know, this is not our problem. They didn't say this literally, of course. But they put it away as something that is not EU competence, and that they are not aware of and they are not going to investigate."
Pointing fingers at each other
But the response didn't please Piri. It instead made her angry. In Europe, we talk about decent work and we have EU regulations setting out what decent work is about, she said.
"All alarm bells should be ringing when you see - knowing the regime in North Korea - that some 800 people are asking for a work visa in Poland. But instead of alarm bells, everyone is looking the other way," she told DW.
But the Commission says this doesn't fall under the purview of the EC, she said. "They say it is a national competence and it is the responsibility of national labor authorities to check if there are problems in factories or not."
This is where authorities start pointing fingers at each other, the MEP accused, saying that Polish officials, for their part, refuse to act claiming they don't have the power to investigate this matter.
Piri criticizes this shying away from responsibility. And she also questions: "How can we have financial sanctions in place against Pyongyang and still allow hundreds of workers to be exploited in Europe while we know that their income is going directly into the pockets of the dictatorship in North Korea?"
She also stresses that the European Commission has an obligation to intervene, because "we found out that some of these factories receive European Union funding." Even if there is no EU funding involved, she added, the EC has to act if it gets signals that we have slavery in the European Union, that people are being abused, and that the EU sanction regime toward Pyongyang is not being implemented.
On this front, however, the Dutch MEP moans the lack of support to tackle the problem.
An extensive network
At least 32 Polish companies - from large shipyards to small horticultural businesses - employ workers from North Korea, concluded the report published by the research team at Leiden University.
The Polish and North Korean governments also own stakes in some of these firms, it noted. And several of the businesses have even received millions of euros in funds from the EU, the researchers claimed, pointing out that it meant North Korea has indirectly benefited from EU subsidies. This is "extremely problematic," they lamented.
MEP Kati Piri agrees, saying "it shouldn't be the case that the EU offers financial support to companies without examining the working conditions."
One of the shipyards concerned is even certified to serve NATO ships. Over 50 Polish ships, according to the report, have undergone maintenance operations there in recent years, with some North Korean forced workers also allegedly involved in the work.
Remco Breuker, professor of Korean studies at Leiden University, led the team which published a comprehensive study on the issue
It was very difficult to gather reliable information, says Remco Breuker. "We started with publicly available information (visa and work permits issued etc), and we talked to North Korean workers who had fled. But we decided not to interview workers who are presently employed in Poland on account of security issues."
Between gray area and illegality
The Polish authorities are aware of the North Korean workers in their country; they have issued the visas and work permits for them. US media outlet Voice of America reported in June that Poland's foreign ministry had informed it that its officials issued a total of 482 such work permits in 2015. This figure is consistent with the results of the Leiden study, which stated that almost 2,800 visas were issued between 2008 and 2015.
In principle, hiring DPRK workers can be legal, notes Breuker. "That is the attractive thing about hiring them. They are not just cheap and highly-skilled, but they also come with all the paperwork needed because it is the North Korean state that 'exports' them, not an illegal and underground subcontractor," he explained.
But even though the hiring is legal, their exploitation is not, he said.
"They must have employment contracts, they must receive their legal pay (instead of the company receiving everything), pay taxes and social taxes, have similar pay to other EU workers in their region, have the same rights as their EU colleagues etc."
Will anything change?
Last week, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported a new development; during a routine press briefing, a spokesperson for South Korea's foreign ministry revealed that the Polish government had decided earlier this year "not to issue any new visas to North Korean workers." The decision was taken in response to the fourth nuclear test Pyongyang conducted in January, which led to a tightening of the international sanctions on the isolated regime, the spokesperson said.
Kati Piri also saw the media reports and she hopes it turns out to be true. The parliamentarian also wants to see the EU act, as no one can claim now not to have been aware of the problem.
Still, Remco Breuker remains less optimistic. "I also heard about it. But the workers that are in Poland are still there. And I think the Polish government is embarrassed by the situation."
The expert argues that even if the workers are sent back home, that would only represent "a superficial solution to a complicated problem."
"I have proposed both to the Dutch government (which presides over the EU council at the moment) and to the EU to use the importance of EU labor for the North Korean state as leverage to try and get the regime to talk seriously to the EU and find real solutions to the human rights problems."
But there hasn't been any official response to his suggestion so far.
Nonetheless, Breuker says one thing seems clear: "Simply sending the workers back home to North Korea will just mean that more North Korean workers will be sent to non-EU countries."