Despite a special UN investigation expressing concern about the harsh conditions North Korean laborers endure overseas, recently published data and defector testimony suggests competition for foreign work opportunities remains high.
With conditions that include up to 20-hour work days, insufficient food, and a significant degree of wage confiscation, UN special rapporteur on N. Korean human rights Marzuki Darusman said on Wednesday that more than 50,000 workers are currently working overseas.
“DPRK nationals have been sent to work in many parts of the world, laboring under conditions that amount to a subjection to forced labor, both by their own and host governments,” Darusman said, warning that companies employing DPRK nationals in such conditions “become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labor.”
Yet despite the tortuous conditions, surprising competition for the jobs exists, with multiple rounds of bribery required to get the postings, a recent report published by the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) suggests.
“About $20-30 to get recommendations, $20-40 to examiners at Party levels, and $10-100 for each physical discrepancy during the physical exam,” KINU’s White Paper on North Korean Human Rights said of the initial bribes required.
“After this process, you still have to offer $70-80 of ‘gasoline fee’ to the (Workers’) Party (of Korea) staff who came down for a personal interview. Finally, you have to offer $100 to the Party secretary during the final interview,” the report continued, which bases its findings from extensive interviews with recently departed defectors.
And in one extreme case, the report said a soldier it interviewed “had to offer $300 per each of the staff officers and party guide in his unit” – significant amounts when the average income of a North Korean family is between $30-50 per month.
Earning between $120-150 per month, even after wage confiscation, the economic motivation for North Koreans to seek foreign work is straightforward to understand, says one expert.
‘… “forced labor” refers to the various conditions of labor, rather than an individual being physically forced to another country to undertake such work’
“After two years of working overseas, the average North Korean is likely to bring back an amount of money that will keep his family reasonably well-supplied by North Korean standards for five to 10 years,” wrote Andrei Lankov in an NK News column last year.
Yet while demand for overseas postings continues to prevail, some human rights researchers familiar with the issue say conditions are so bad that the term “forced labor” is still applicable.
“In terms of exported workers, ‘forced labor’ refers to the various conditions of labor, rather than an individual being physically forced to another country to undertake such work,” said James Burt, a researcher at the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EARHNK).
And EARNK assesses overseas North Koreans under the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) definition of forced labor, which considers “all work or service which is extracted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”
Furthermore, Burt points out that ILO indicators of forced labor fit closely with the conditions North Koreans often find themselves overseas, “such as the restriction of movement, isolation, retention of identity documents and the withholding of wages.”
Inside North Korea not only is there little opportunity to make money, but hurdles to get even common jobs exist, a further factor that one observer said can also be taken into consideration.
“Bribery, of course, is ubiquitous in the entire North Korean labor market, not just the overseas part,” said Christopher Green, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Leiden who specializes in DPRK studies. “It stems from the fact that North Koreans are systematically deprived of the right to sell their labor to whom they please.”
“Within this context, work overseas fits into a hierarchy of labor desirability: working abroad is better than working for foreign-funded joint-venture (JV) companies inside North Korea, but such JV work is superior to work with domestic enterprises, and so on down the hierarchical ladder,” he said, noting that “some overseas regions are preferable to others, and some types of work abroad are preferable to others as well.”
And adding to the complexity of the situation, Green pointed out that many of the laborers who bribe their way into overseas postings may not even aware of the harsh conditions they’d be expected to work under.
‘In the end, it is good news that North Koreans are leaving North Korea to go to other countries to work’
Yet with many of the destinations that North Koreans go to work in themselves known for their poor labor rights records, should more be done to prevent companies around the world from hiring from the DPRK?
“That’s why the ILO exists, and while North Korea is not a member of the ILO, the countries that the country’s citizens go to work in are,” said Green. “As such there are obligations that employers can be encouraged, cajoled or just coerced into making good on.”
But pushing for improved conditions need not necessarily lead to an end in overseas opportunities for North Korean workers, Green continued: “In the end, it is good news that North Koreans are leaving North Korea to go to other countries to work.
“Nobody who has given any serious thought to the matter should be advocating for halting the flow. It helps bring money into communities inside North Korea, and when people who leave then return, they bring not simply their savings but also ideas, aspirations, and new ways of seeing the world.”
But others, such as Burt, find the benefits of overseas North Korean labor harder to identify.
“If we measure the slightly higher wages earned abroad against the abuses on their human rights and the physical and psychophysical implications of forced labor, I would say that workers come away with net losses to their health, dignity and human rights,” Burt said.
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