Poland is well known for its posted workers, i.e. cheap labour forces sent to work in other Member States of the EU. Meanwhile, Polish firms are employing even cheaper workers from North Korea – workers sponsored by Mr. Kim Jong-un.
A Modern Slavery Apparatus?
Officially the EU does not entertain any or very limited relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Sanctions and other restrictive measures against the East Asian State are in place and supposedly reflect the Western World’s discordance with the regime, its ongoing nuclear tests, Human Rights violation and so forth. Yet, if one goes to Polish harbors, one finds North Korean workers, among others, producing ships for clients such as the NATO and other big names.
Proudly, Polish firms decorate their websites sites with slogans like guaranteed high quality products to very low production costs. But, those cheap production costs are made possible thanks to a rather unbelievable system: the presence of the North-Koreans workers, who work, usually under some form of duress, 12-20 hours shifts for a very low salary (Zeit 2016). This economic and physical exploitation of human beings seems in violation of many international principles and rights, entailed in the Universal Charter of Human Rights, its implementing Covenants as well as the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter, that in principle apply in Poland. At first sight, it is rather hard to believe that such situation can lawfully occur in the European Union. Yet, it is the reality.
“The North Koreans have a valid residence and work permit and the companies are able to exploit clever legal constructions in order to circumvent all kinds of laws.” (Prof. Dr. Breuken)
The complex legal status of North Korean Workers in the EU.
Non-European citizens can enter the EU to work either as an employed worker or as self-employed worker on the basis of a trade agreement between either the EU or a Member State and the third country concerned. In any case, obtainment of a residence permit and a visa from one EU member state is required. The requirements for the respective work permit differ greatly from a member state to another and so do the rights that the person will enjoy on the territory. In the case of the DPRK workers in Poland, a logistical contracting and recruiting organization with many intermediaries is involved, which further complicates the situation. The employment relationships and their legal framework are often also very complex (sub-contract, temporary agency, joint ventures, etc.) and render the DPRK and his employer subject to several different legislations. According to the researcher team of the Slaves to the System Project of the Leiden Asia Centre, it would at least be a starting point to clearly define the DPRK workers as employees and would allow to determine which « labour rights apply in terms of payment and dismissal, working conditions, health and safety regulations. » (Boonen, Boonstra, Breuker, Chung, Gardingen, Kwang-cheoul, Kyuwook, Veere 2016).
In any case, the current legal situation is so complex that it’s highly difficult to sue the firms on a clear ground if no criminal investigations are pursued. But what is even more shocking is the fact that these companies are often subsidized by the EU through the regional development programs in order to develop local working opportunities.
The Polish – North-Korean friendship
The EU never concluded a Free Trade Agreement with North Korea. Nethertheless, at least seven European countries have diplomatic relations or trade agreements with it. Poland is one of them. The relation between Pyongyang and Warsaw dates back to the 1950’s, when Poland was still the People’s Republic of Poland. Next year they will celebrate the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations.
“The construction benefits both countries: Poland gets cheap, hard-working laborers’ and North Korea needs foreign currency” (Prof. Dr. Breuken)
The officially sealed friendship is, economically speaking, rather marginal due to North Koreas high indebtedness, which acts as a deterrent to many countries. In relation to that, the closeness between the two countries remain limited in terms of economic outputs (Andrzej Bober 2011). Yet, the agreement has extensive consequences as it opened EU borders to an estimate of 400-800 North Koreans, dispatched originally at the shipyards of Danzig and Gdansk by the ruling Workers Party of Korea as extraterritorial labour forces (Breuker 2016). They enter the EU with the status of posted workers and are provided with all necessary documents, meaning work and residence permit. Polish firms have then the possibility to legally employ those workers.
Living and working in poor conditions.
Polish firms pay them the legally stipulated wages of which the workers only usually keep 10-15 per cent, if at all (Andrzej Bober 2011; see also Köckritz and Petrulewicz, Zeit, 2016; Kolden, Das Erste, 2016). The rest goes to Kim Yong Un and his party friends. One would think that this is against Polish or EU law, but as Polish firms officially pay the North-Korean workers the demanded wages. It’s the North Korean state which then does not transfer the full amount of it to the workers.
The North Koreans live in guarded housing complex – officially for their own security. Ostensibly they are allowed to leave this complexes whenever they want to, but a VICE documentary from May 2016 points towards a different direction. Their working hours, in accordance with Polish law, officially don’t exceed 12 hours. However, the abundant overtime work is skilfully swept under the carpet. Moreover, they usually stay, in accordance with Polish law, no more than 24 months in Poland. However, when the deadline approaches, they are sent home for a couple of weeks. They can visit their families, who are kept in hostage during that time, so that the laborer won’t flee. After this “vacation”, they usually go back to Poland to restart building ships, for another 24 months. In other words firms, by moving into grey zone, have found their way to cleverly circumvent the legal system.
In total, according to the UN Special Envoy for Human Rights, Anwar M. Dausman, the DKPS earns around 1.8 billion Euros each year from 50.000 labourers sent overseas. In Europe, Poland is not the only country to receive North Korean workers. Similar occurrences were reported in Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Romania.
And Pyongyang desperately needs this money, especially in a foreign currency, to finance their nuclear programs. The Researcher Team and also experts from the US government have found clusters of evidence indicating exploitation, for instance the workers don’t sign individual contracts with the foreign firms. Instead the companies sign a contract with a North-Korean state owned company, to which the money from the salaries is transferred.
Infringing Polish law?
The expert from the Asian Centre at the Leiden University in the Netherlands, Prof. Dr. Breuken, found however some potential loopholes in the at-first-sight lawful slavery system. Notably, he suspects that some firms involved are, at least partially, owned by the Polish State jointly with North Korea, which would change the situation: then it would be possible to hold the Polish State to account. After Breuken and several other media highlighted the critical situation, the European Parliament, with the notable commitment of Agnes Jongerius from the Dutch Labour party, took up this issue. The Commission was repeatedly confronted with the topic but still did not deliver any official response.
‘It is alarming to discover that North Korea can simply export its oppressive regime to a European country.’ (Prof. Dr. Breuken)
In the end, it is true that a 48 hour work week is rather normal for North-Koreans standards; and their 10-15% wages are not that bad compared to their countries means; and sometimes they get to keep parts of their salary in foreign currencies, what might be very valuable when they got back home. However such a system cannot take place, be encouraged and last within the EU and its member states without contradicting the values upheld on the European continent. In addition, it might be in accordance with Polish and EU law, but welcoming workers from North Korea is hardly reconcilable with the existence of EU and UN sanctions vis-à-vis Pyongyang. Forced labour, even if Poland doesn’t acknowledge it as such, also clearly violates against the European Convention on Human Rights.
Camille Nessel is a master student at the IEE.
With the support of Hélène Decottigny, LLM student at the University of Malta.