UN sanctions and North Korea’s forgotten workers

by Jeff Vogt | Solidarity Center
Thursday, 31 August 2017 14:57 GMT

FILE PHOTO: People walk between buildings after the opening ceremony of a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

North Korean workers should not be prohibited from migrating for employment but they must be able to exercise their fundamental workers’ rights under international law

As an anxious world watched North Korea’s ballistic missile tests, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2371—the latest set of UN sanctions. Peculiarly, the Security Council acquiesced to the continuation of the country’s state-sponsored, forced-labor-for-export scheme. In so doing, the UN abandoned an important opportunity to protect the rights and dignity of workers as defined by its own conventions.

North Korean migrant workers often suffer extreme exploitation, and some have even died from overwork or dangerous working conditions. In the build-up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, North Koreans reportedly worked “like prisoners of war.” In Malaysia, they were hired for dangerous jobs in coal mines. This year, the International Labor Organization highlighted that North Korean workers in Poland faced conditions of forced labor, including plantation workers earning $20 a month, instead of the $850 promised them, and laboring 72-hour weeks. Another investigation uncovered the death of a North Korean welder in Poland.

When working abroad, North Korean workers are not paid. They are remunerated when they return home—but at only a fraction of what they are due, as the government takes most of it.

Paragraph 12 of Resolution 2371 references the labor-mobilization scheme because North Korea accumulates foreign currency, believed to support prohibited nuclear activity under prior UN resolutions. However, Paragraph 12 fails to countenance that North Korean migrant workers under this scheme are trafficked for forced labor—as the UN’s own reports indicate. Worse, Resolution 2371 permits the continued employment of North Korean workers abroad, just not in excess of the current number of North Koreans already employed in each UN member state. This decision is incomprehensible on human rights grounds and does not even make sense on the resolution’s own terms to cut off sources of income for the North Korean government.

In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea indicated that approximately 50,000 North Koreans worked outside the country, mainly in the mining, logging, textile and construction industries. North Korean workers are found mostly in China and Russia, though also in Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. They are forced to work sometimes up to 20 hours per day with only one or two rest days per month. Workers are not informed of the terms of their employment contracts, their passports are confiscated, they are often under surveillance, and they are threatened with repatriation if they commit infractions or complain.

While members of the European Parliament have posed written questions to the European Commission concerning the use of North Korean migrant workers in the European Union, the EU does not appear to have taken action. Recently, Eastern European countries that had granted work visas to North Korean workers, including Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Romania, said they no longer intend to continue with the practice.

North Korean workers should not be prohibited from migrating for employment, as it does provide them an opportunity to earn better wages than available at home. They must be able to exercise their fundamental workers’ rights under international law, just as any other migrant worker should—including to be free from forced labor. This would require leadership from the UN to ensure that North Korea disbands its forced labor scheme and that member countries where North Koreans work protect and respect the rights of these workers.

Unfortunately, this opportunity was missed under the recent resolution. The UN system, including the International Labor Organization, should be working with workers, employers and governments to ensure this situation changes.

Jeff Vogt is the legal director for the Solidarity Center's Rule of Law Department.