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Twelve North Koreans are currently awaiting work permits allowing them employment in a Chinese clothing company in Malta, according to local newspaper The Malta Independent.
The DPRK employees are set to begin work in a factory owned by state owned Chinese firm, Leisure Clothing. The firm produces luxury clothes for top European brands like Armani, however is currently being investigated by Maltese police for human trafficking and breaching labour laws.
Despite the charges, a Leisure Clothing spokesperson told the Independent that clearance on the North Korean work permits was “imminent”, and that they would be given a three year employment contract.
“Certainly planeloads [of North Koreans] are sent to the middle-east to work at well-established shady enterprises, I’ve not heard of it with Europe” Andray Abrahamian, director at Choson Exchange, which helps organise foreign internships and training for North Koreans told NK News.
While the DPRK government is well known for exporting cheap labor to other countries, with as many as 65,000 North Koreans working abroad, it is unusual for North Koreans workers to be sent by a third party and even more so to an EU country.
As part of the EU, Malta has a minimum wage requirement of approximately 700 euros ($824) a month. Traditionally the North Korean government keeps a sizable percentage of the wages of its foreign work force, however it is unclear in this case where the wages are going.
“Surely the EU has some regulation about paying directly to the employee, right? That’s not usually the MO for [North Korean] laborers sent abroad. I have heard it quipped that only the US and the DPRK tax citizens on salaries earned while abroad – no doubt the state will get its share,” Abrahamian added.
According to local media reports, Leisure Clothing’s payment practices are already similar to those of North Korea. In October another Maltese news outlet reported that the Chinese company was being charged for withholding their employees’ salaries.
Further reports, which could not be independently verified by NK News, came from a Maltese language only newspaper which claimed that Chinese workers at the factory had attempted to leave Malta after being paid only a small fraction of the 600 euro ($706) salary they were promised.
The North Korean workers are supposedly being brought in to replace Vietnamese staff, some of whom attempted to escape Malta using fake documentation after Leisure Clothing withheld their passports.
The company claims that hiring foreign workers in general is part of an existing agreement with Maltese government.
“The Employment and Training Corporation will only grant and issues work permits according to the quota and it has been customary that the same ETC checks the quota on a regular basis,” a company spokesperson said in comments carried by the Maltese Independent.
Leisure Clothing is a subsidiary of China Chongqing International Corporation for Economic and Technical Cooperation (CICET), who at the time of writing could not be reached for comment. CICET appears to work in numerous sectors internationally and has a number of foreign subsidiaries in the middle-east, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
“[Leisure Clothing] is the only Chongqing state-owned clothing company in Europe and the sole qualified company in Malta approved and permitted to employ over 150 Chinese employees by Malta Government … Up to now there are near 200 employees in this company”, the CICET website reads.
There is little information on Leisure Clothing in the Maltese Company Register, which does not even say if it is currently active, however the firm has been awarded clothing production for top European brands, including Jaeger, Karen Millen, Aquascutum, Ted Baker, Austin Reed, Whistles, Hobbs, Coast, and Daks.
Its exports from Malta are estimated to be between 3-5 million euros ($3.5 – £5.8 million), with its main target market being the UK.