In the lead up to the Lunar New Year’s holiday, teenage laborers in North and South Pyongan Provinces were pressured to complete designated work before an upcoming deadline. The student workers are employed by a number of factories that produce wigs and fake eyelashes for overseas markets. Due to the stressful working environment, some of the young workers have received burns and many are skipping meals.
“A North Korean trading company is under pressure to quickly complete a large order for a Chinese company,” reported an inside source from North Pyongan Province during a telephone conversation with Daily NK on January 27. “The trading company in turn is putting the pressure on team managers to speed up production. The student workers have thus been forced to continue working and haven’t even been given time off to eat a special meal for the Lunar New Year.”
When asked to elaborate on the factory and work conditions, the source said, “The production of false eyelashes requires intricate attention to detail, so the factory hires teenage students to perform the work. The students toil under a burning lamp because there is no electricity, which stresses their eyes. Other workers have gotten burned when doing ironing work over a coal fire.”
A number of North Korean trading companies began focusing on wig and fake eyelash production from 2010. These factories earn foreign currency by importing raw materials in from China and then exporting the processed products back across the border.
Female students are priority hires for this type of work due to their smaller fingers and manual dexterity. Students from financially unstable households are forced into this line of work as a way to supplement the family income, but the factories do not follow labor regulations or safety procedures.
“The trading companies use their market presence and financial power as weapons. During holidays like the Lunar New Year, the factories pay workers upfront instead of a deferred payment, but then force them to work overtime,” a source in South Pyongan Province added.
“The workers are paid USD 0.05 per fake eyelash. There have been reports that in some areas, families have put students as young as nine years old into the factories.”
Article 15 of North Korea’s Socialist Labor Law forbids workers under 16 years old from working full time, but this regulation is not enforced.
“Students in North and South Pyongan Provinces who have toiled for years in these factories may be improving in some skills, but their school performance is suffering as a result,” said the source. “There are very few opportunities for these struggling students to improve their lives. The situation is a social tragedy,” the source in North Pyongan Province concluded.