Friday, December 29, 2006

North Korean workers in Middle East and Europe

Stalin-style gulag in modern day Poland?

Bogdan Zaryn

Insight Central Europe 31.3.2006

Gdansk Shipyard, the cradle of Solidarity, which toppled communist rule in Poland, has a group of North Korean workers busy on the site. Shipyard officials say that the North Korean welders are filling vacancies left open by Polish workers who have left for greener pastures in the EU. But the team is said to be working in a gulag environment. Apparently, the repressive North Korean government is pocketing their wages, while the workers are constantly being watched by North Korean communist party members.

Press reports say that North Korean welders are kept under guard by communist party members brought in from North Korea. Their families are literally held hostage if they refuse to work long hours. Eye witness reports say that the workers have been in Gdansk for roughly 12 months and keep pretty much to themselves. They are driven to and from hangar KI, the largest working facility in the shipyard. Insiders say that the North Korean welders work 12 to 16 hours a day. This North Korean welder has been working at the Gdansk shipyard for the past 12 months.
"If this situation doesn't clear up, we will not work here. More people from North Korea are waiting to come here and work to fill vacancies'.
Over the past five years 75 North Koreans have worked in the area. But this employee from the Democratic People's republic embassy in Warsaw denies press reports.
"75 people working there NO way. Fact is, our people are working there and what the papers wrote about the conditions they are working in isn't entirely true."
According to press reports, the North Korean welders are kept under scrutiny by Selene, a personnel company that has employed them. After several dozen phone calls I managed to get hold of shipyard administrative Director Bogdan Oleszek who argues that the workers were not hired by the shipyard.
"The truth is that the Gdansk shipyard has hired a company to employ the Koreans. So the shipyard itself doesn't employ the Koreans directly.'
The yard has survived free market reforms, but Poland's accession to the European Union two years ago has led to a drain of skilled workers. Many welders and other qualified workers have jumped ship in search for better paid jobs in other countries of the Union.
"There is a lack of welders and assembly men. Most of our people have left Poland to work for better paying jobs elsewhere in the Union'
Market analyst Robert Strybel from the Polish American Journal says that the situation at the yard is ironic. According to him, the Solidarity past of the plant belies what's going on there right now.
"It's on the one hand ironic that the cradle of the Solidarity movement that led to the collapse of communism across the continent is employing people from one of the most brutal totalitarian regimes that exists today. However this is basically an economic issue because Poland is loosing may of its skilled workers who are going to the West"
Gdansk shipyard officials say that the North Koreans have all the requirements needed to carry out their duties. Meanwhile, press reports suggest that Polish security agents often visit the yard and ask workers whether the newcomers have been caught doing something else that just welding.

North Koreans in Czech jobs: Slave labor?

Mindy Kay Bricker

International Herald Tribune 8 November 2006

NACHOD, Czech Republic: At a time when North Korea is under fire for its nuclear weapons program, nearly 400 North Korean women are quietly helping the motherland by working at humble jobs in Czech Republic and sending their wages home.
The women, mainly seamstresses, are now themselves at the center of debate, with some critics contending that their work amounts to state-imposed forced labor. Vaclav Havel, the former president, is among those who have said that the Czech Republic should not be used as a base for filling North Korea's coffers.
Although the Czech government stopped issuing new work visas for North Koreans in June, those who entered previously are still employed at various sites, including the Snezka textile factory here in Nachod, where they sew headrests and armrests for BMWs, Mercedes, Renaults and other cars sold in Western Europe.
Miloslav Cermak, general manager at Snezka, says that 82 of his 750 employees are North Korean. Aged 20 to 28, they came to this town near the Polish border on three- to four-year contracts.
The women are paid by the piece, with top workers stitching as many as 350 headrests a day, Cermak said, and earning monthly salaries of up to 25,556 koruna, or $1,165, well above the country's minimum wage of 7,955 koruna. The lowest paid North Korean worker earns 8,200 koruna, a common salary for new employees, he said.

"If someone calls it slavery," Cermak said, "I'm not the person responsible for that."
But some do. The situation of such women, said Petra Burcikova, director of La Strada, a leading Czech anti-trafficking organization, "could remind one of state-imposed forced labor."
Since 2004, the year this formerly Communist country joined the European Union, Czech officials have been monitoring the working conditions of North Koreans employed here.
Currently, 408 workers of whom 392 are women are employed in the country. Labor inspectors have found no gross violations of labor law, Deputy Labor Minister Petr Simerka said in a telephone interview.
But unofficial information gathered by the Czech police indicates that the North Koreans deposit nearly 80 percent of their salaries into one collective bank account, according to Lenka Simackova of the Interior Ministry's strategy and analysis unit.
Officials suspect that these salaries are delivered to the North Korean government or its embassy in Prague rather than to the workers' families in North Korea, as these women have maintained to investigators.
"To prove human trafficking or forced labor, we would need testimony from the potential victims, which we didn't get," said Jakub Svec, deputy head of the Interior Ministry's strategy and analysis unit.
"They all say that they are satisfied, and that they are much better off than they were back in North Korea," he said. "We don't know how to motivate these women to testify against their embassy, or their country, actually."
Without testimony, Svec said, officials cannot begin an investigation to gather bank information. He said Prague had stopped issuing visas to North Korean workers at least until the end of this year.
"It's not forever," he said. "But it's our reaction to the problem."
Prague imposed its visa ban after the European Parliament heard testimony in March from Kim Tae San, a former North Korean diplomat who was stationed in Prague before defecting to South Korea in 2002. While at the embassy, Kim brought North Korean women here to work, he said.
"Almost their entire monthly salaries," Kim testified, "are deposited directly in an account controlled by the North Korean government."
He said that 55 percent was skimmed from the top of the women's salaries as a "voluntary" contribution to North Korea. After additional deductions - for accommodation and items like birthday gifts for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il - the women were left with around $20 to $30 a month, he said.
Nonetheless, human rights activists say, the opportunity to work abroad is enticing for North Koreans.
"They probably weren't brought against their will," said Kay Seok, the North Korea supervisor for Human Rights Watch, in a telephone interview from Seoul. "They probably chose to go, and would choose to stay."
"What we want," she added, is to ensure "that they get paid appropriately and that they can do what they want outside work hours."
Investigators have been unable to ascertain the extent of the North Koreans' personal freedoms, like speech and movement, Svec said.
In Nachod, the North Korean workers socialize with their foreign co-workers at the Snezka factory. They speak Czech and talk about work, but never socialize after work hours, colleagues said, and they are watched over by a translator who most often answers for them.

Without having the freedom to speak, "that means that they don't have any freedom at all on the ground of a democratic country," said Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers. "This is just more evidence that the women are hostages of North Korean officials."
Some Czech officials defend the practice of hiring North Koreans.
Asked whether the program would be halted definitively, Simerka replied, "We don't think about it at all." The fact that the North Koreans "work in a democratic country and see different working conditions" and a different way of thinking, he added, could be of benefit when they return home and "talk about how different it is."
Pyongyang has sent workers out to a wide variety of countries, according to rights activists, among them Bulgaria, China, Kuwait, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Russia and Yemen. Most of the male workers are employed in the timber industry in Siberia, Fautre said.
Last month, Istvan Szent-Ivanyi, deputy chairman of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with the Korean Peninsula, proposed that the delegation officially look at the issue by the end of this year.
"The problem is that their personal liberties are severely limited here in the European Union," he said. "We have to provide not only for our own citizens, but for everyone, the same freedom."

North Koreans Toil Abroad under Grim Conditions

Barbara Demick

Los Angeles Times 27 December 2005

Women provide badly needed labor in Czech towns and elsewhere. Pyongyang keeps a tight rein on them and takes most of their wages.
Zelezna, Czech Republic - The old schoolhouse stands alone at the end of a quiet country road flanked by snow-flecked wheat fields. From behind the locked door, opaque with smoked glass, comes the clatter of sewing machines and, improbably enough, the babble of young female voices speaking Korean.
The elementary school closed long ago for lack of students. The entire village 20 miles west of Prague has only about 200 people.
The schoolhouse is now a factory producing uniforms. Almost all the workers are North Korean, and the women initially looked delighted to see visitors. It gets lonely working out here, thousands of miles from home. They crowded around to chat.
"I'm not so happy here. There is nobody who speaks my language. I'm so far from home," volunteered a tentative young woman in a T-shirt and sweatpants who said she was from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
But as she spoke, an older woman with stern posture and an expressionless face - a North Korean security official - passed by in the corridor. The young women scattered wordlessly and disappeared into another room, closing and bolting the door behind them.
Hundreds of young North Korean women are working in garment and leather factories like this one, easing a labor shortage in small Czech towns. Their presence in this recent member of the European Union is something of a throwback to before the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when Prague, like Pyongyang, was a partner in the Communist bloc.
The North Korean government keeps most of the earnings, apparently one of the few legal sources of hard currency for an isolated and impoverished government believed to be living off counterfeiting, drug trafficking and weapons sales. Experts estimate that there are 10,000 to 15,000 North Koreans working abroad in behalf of their government in jobs ranging from nursing to construction work. In addition to the Czech Republic, North Korea has sent workers to Russia, Libya, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and Angola, defectors say.
Almost the entire monthly salary of each of the women here, about $260, the Czech minimum wage, is deposited directly into an account controlled by the North Korean government, which gives the workers only a fraction of the money.
To the extent that they are allowed outside, they go only in groups. Often they are accompanied by a guard from the North Korean Embassy who is referred to as their "interpreter." They live under strict surveillance in dormitories with photographs of North Korea's late founder Kim Il Sung and current leader Kim Jong Il gracing the walls. Their only entertainment is propaganda films and newspapers sent from North Korea, and occasional exercise in the yard outside.
"This is 21st century slave labor," said Kim Tae San, a former official of the North Korean Embassy in Prague. He helped set up the factories in 1998 and served as president of one of the shoe factories until he defected to South Korea in 2002.
It also was Kim's job to collect the salaries and distribute the money to workers. He said 55% was taken off the top as a "voluntary" contribution to the cause of the socialist revolution. The women had to buy and cook their own food. Additional sums were deducted for accommodation, transportation and such extras as flowers for the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
The women even had to pay for the propaganda films they were forced to watch. By the time all the deductions were made, each received between $20 and $30 a month. They spent less than $10 of it on food, buying only the cheapest local macaroni.
"They try to save money by not eating," said Kim, the former embassy official. He says that his wife, who accompanied him on visits to the factory, was concerned that women's menstruation stopped, their breasts shriveled and many experienced acute constipation. "We were always trying to get them to spend more on food, but they were desperate to bring money home to their families."
Kim said that Czechs often mistook the North Korean women for convict laborers because of the harsh conditions. "They would ask the girls, 'What terrible thing did you do to be sent here to work like this?' "
In fact, the women usually come from families deemed sufficiently loyal to the government that their daughters will not defect. With salaries at state-owned firms in North Korea as low as $1 per month, the chance to work abroad for a three-year stint is considered a privilege.
Having shed its own communist dictatorship, the Czech Republic is sensitive to human rights issues. On the other hand, the country has to employ about 200,000 guest workers, largely to replace Czechs who have left to seek higher wages in Western Europe.
At the beginning of December, there were 321 North Korean garment workers in six locations in the country, according to the Czech Labor Ministry. The North Koreans declined to speak publicly about the factories.
"It is not in our interest to provide information. This is a private thing and nobody should care about it," said a North Korean Embassy employee supervising factory workers in Nachod, a town near the Polish border.
Czech officials say the North Koreans are model workers.
"They are so quiet you would hardly know they are here," said Zdenek Belohlavek, labor division director for the district of Beroun, which encompasses Zelezna and Zebrak, a larger town where about 75 North Korean seamstresses stitch underwear.
Belohlavek displayed a thick dossier of photos and vital statistics of the women, most of whom were born between 1979 and 1981. All their paperwork is in perfect order, and the factories appear to be in full compliance with the law, he said.
Belohlavek acknowledged that labor investigators had only communicated with the workers through an interpreter from the North Korean Embassy. He said they were troubled by the women's apparent lack of freedom.
"They have guards. I don't know why. It's not like anybody would steal them," he said.
Another labor investigator, Jirina Novakova, who has visited the factories, also complained that the women's salaries were deposited into a single bank account in the name of a North Korean Embassy interpreter.
"Frankly, we have some difficulty with that," she said. "But if they do it voluntarily, there is not much we can do about it."
Jiri Balaban, owner of the Zelezna factory, said it was none of his business what the workers did in their free time or how they spent their money. "My business is that they work," he said.
In theory, the women could escape. Although the doors are locked from the inside in Zelezna, the windows are not barred. But where would they go?
Few speak any language other than Korean. Zelezna has one pay phone, a mayor's office that is open once a week for two hours and a general store so small that you have to order bread a day in advance.
In Zebrak, the North Koreans only go downtown to the supermarket in groups on Fridays between 4 and 6 p.m. They live in a pleasant-looking, lemon-yellow dormitory that was recently constructed across the parking lot from their factory. Blinds are kept drawn and the doors locked. Deliverymen must leave packages on the front stoop.
The Baroque town square in Nachod, its Christmas lights, Chinese restaurant and movie theater showing "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "March of the Penguins," was off-limits for the 40 North Korean women who stitch leather suitcases and belts along with guest workers from Vietnam, Mongolia and Ukraine.
"They can't go anywhere. You can't talk to them," security guard Antonin Janicek said. "The other women go to the pub and the cinema. Some get married here. But not the Koreans."
Last year, when a Czech television crew attempted to film a shoe factory in Skutec, a group of irate North Koreans broke their camera. After the incident, the factory decided it would no longer employ North Koreans because of bad publicity and human rights concerns.
"They oftentimes do not even have enough [money] for food," Vaclav Kosner, financial director of the factory, was quoted as telling the CTK news agency. "They are sometimes truly hungry."
The seamstresses were first sent abroad at the height of North Korea's famine to raise money to buy raw materials for North Korean shoes and clothing. North Korea officially was a partner in the factories through two trading companies, but former diplomat Kim said that this was a front to cover the government's embarrassment about having to send workers abroad. The factories are mostly Czech-owned, but the underwear factory in Zebrak is owned by an Italian company.
By far the largest number of North Koreans working outside their country are in Russia, where they do mostly logging and construction in military-style camps run by the North Korean government. When the camps were set up in the early 1970s, the workers were North Korean prisoners. But as the North Korean economy disintegrated in the late 1980s, doing hard labor in Siberia came to be seen as a reward because at least it meant getting adequate food.
Kim Yong Il, who got a job in mine construction in the 1990s because of his brother's political connections, said he and a dozen other men were kept in a house with bars on the windows and a padlock on the door. He received no money, but his family in North Korea received extra food rations. He defected in 1996 and now lives in Seoul. He is one of about 50 North Koreans who escaped the camps in Russia and are now living in South Korea, according to the Christian North Korean Assn., a defector group in Seoul.
There have been no such incidents with the seamstresses in the Czech Republic. The fact that they come from Pyongyang, home only to the most loyal North Koreans, means that their families have privileges that could be taken away in an instant if a relative were to defect.
"If they were to run away, their families would vanish into thin air and they would never see them again," said Kim, the former diplomat.
In 2002, the diplomat and his wife defected in Prague and sought asylum from South Korea. Soon afterward, their adult son and daughter were taken away. He believes they were sent to a prison camp.
Kim, 53, recently asked a contact in North Korea to gather some information about relatives. "Even my wife's relatives, down to the second cousins, have disappeared," he said. "We couldn't find a trace of them."

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