Exploitation of 110 North Korean workers by Kim Jong-un and Russia on the construction site of the Zenit Arena Stadium, one of the venues for the 2018 Football World Cup
By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers (Brussels)
- The context of the corruption
- Exploitation of North Korean workers by Dalpiterstroj, Seven Suns and other construction companies
- Kim’s escape story: a Russian lawyer testifies
HRWF (29.05.2017) – A few weeks ago, the Norwegian football magazine Josimar published a very long report about the exploitation of 110 North Korean workers on the construction site of the Zenit Arena Stadium in St Petersburg.
Almost every day from 2006 until March 2017, thousands of people have been carrying out work on the stadium and the surrounding area. A minimum of 1,500 workers have been on-site nearly every day since 2009. The majority of these workers are from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. However, there are also workers North Korea.
The context of the corruption
While the estimated cost for the construction of Zenit Arena stadium was 220 million dollars in 2006, it has by now accumulated a 1.5 billion dollar price tag. This figure does not include the cost of infrastructure being built in relation to the stadium: a new road and a metro station are also under construction. The total price could be over 3 billion dollars, according to Dimitry Sukharev of the St Petersburg office of Transparency International.
“Based on guidelines and standards for quality assurance, we estimate the total cost should have been around a third, or less than a third, of the actual cost,” Sukharev told Josimar.
“The only explanation for the dramatic increase in spending is corruption. Another reason is that project descriptions were written after the building work had been done. Budgets were also made after the money had been spent – to include the amounts that had ‘disappeared’.”
It has already taken 11 years to build the stadium and it is still not finished. It has been a site of systematic abuse of migrant workers, slave-like conditions, corruption and death.
Last summer, Igor Albin, a former minister in Vladimir Putin’s government and nowadays vice-governor of St Petersburg, decided to remove Transstroj as main contractor for the building of Zenit Arena. Until last year, Transstroj was owned by the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, one of the richest men in Russia with an estimated net worth of US$5.2 billion as of May 2017. He is also known for his close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Vice-governor Albin then ‘encouraged’ a number of construction companies in St Petersburg to work for free on the stadium site until the end of the year in exchange of future assignments and fewer inspections.
One of those companies which followed Anbin’s ‘encouragement’ was Dalpiterstroj. They are specialized in building big apartment complexes in and around St Petersburg. Towards the end of August, the company showed up at Zenit Arena with sixty North Korean workers. They were assigned to do cosmetic work on the stadium site.
“For free, Dalpiterstroj did work on the arena worth many millions of roubles. It was a ‘gift to our beautiful and city’,” Josimar was told by Pavel, a project manager working for one of the many subcontractors doing work in and around the stadium.
“Had these companies said no to Igor Albin, they could have said goodbye to future assignments. Also, they would have been subjected to on-site inspections and book audits,” Pavel claimed.
Exploitation of North Korean workers
One of the other firms which followed Albin’s ‘invitation’ was Seven Suns, a company known for building luxury apartments for the city’s well-to-do. They brought fifty North Koreans to do the painting work on the stadium.
Around the same time, as several new construction companies began working for free on the arena, a North Korean middleman knocked on the door of Pavel’s office and said he could provide one-hundred North Korean workers who could work around the clock until the end of the year. The price was 6 million roubles (about 95,000 EUR). Two-third of which would be sent to the North Korean government; the workers would be paid 600 roubles (9.5 EUR) per day.
“On the building site of Dhushary, a few kilometers south of St Petersburg, Dalpiterstroj is building huge apartment complexes. A significant amount of the workforce is North Korean. They work from 7am until midnight behind walls topped with barbed wire and under the surveillance of guards with dogs. From August until December 2016, many were working at Zenit Arena. They are under 24-hour surveillance. They have no rights. A ‘day off’ is unknown to them. The North Korean regime abuses them, as do their employers abroad. Many have left their home country on ten-year contracts,” Pavel told Josimar.
In November 2016, a North Korean was found dead in a strange container outside the stadium, according to a few Russian websites. The Russian police said the man had died of a heart attack. According to some sources, several international organizations contacted FIFA and expressed deep concerns about the working conditions after the death of the North Korean worker.
Kim’s escape story: a Russian lawyer testifies
“The North Korean workers are completely exhausted, mentally and physically. They work and live under terrible conditions. Their passports are confiscated, which practically makes them into slaves. They know that, if they complain, there will be consequences for themselves and their families back home. That is the biggest difference between them and other migrant workers. An Uzbek worker knows, if he complains, that there will be no consequences for his family at home,” Olga Tseitlina, a human rights lawyer told Josimar.
Last year, she had a North Korean client, Kim. For safety reasons, she does not want to reveal his full name.
He was ordered by the North Korean regime to work in the timber industry in a small village in the eastern part of Russia. He was told it was his duty to help his beloved homeland and that it would benefit his family.
This happened shortly after he had served ten years in the armed forces, the minimum time for national service in North Korea. In the military, he and many others were regularly beaten by their superior officers. No-one dared complain.
As a timberer in the Siberian forestry industry, the workdays were long and hard. Kim was only paid five dollars a month. The rest of his salary was passed on to the regime. Kim and the others lived in a camp without running water or the possibility of having a shower after work. His body was full of insect bites. Lice were common. They were given an apple, an egg and some rice every day. For three years, he lived and worked as a slave before he did what most North Korean workers abroad would never dare: He ran away…
With hardly any money and without identity papers, Kim headed west. After a few months on the run, he met a Russian woman. The relationship became romantic and they got two children: two sons now aged five and three.
Last autumn, Kim was arrested. According to an agreement between Russia and North Korea, potential defectors must be reported immediately. A court decided to send him back to North Korea.
Kim contacted the police to apply for a residence permit. He did not want to live on the run any more. He had begun a new life and he wanted to stay.
The North Korean embassy in Moscow got involved as soon as they knew about the case. They wrote to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and included a letter from Kim’s wife and son in North Korea. They missed him, the letter said, they thought of him every day and they urged him to return to their beloved homeland.
Kim says his wife and son have been forced to write this letter because they would have been killed if they had refused.
He did not want to be interviewed by Josimar because it would be considered high treason, with fatal consequences for his wife and son in North Korea.
On 10 February 2017, the lawyer was informed that her client had won on appeal due to a technicality and Kim was not deported.
Since escaping from the work camp in Siberia, he has supported himself by taking odd jobs in the St Petersburg area. Right now he is working in a car wash. He dreams of a Russian residence permit, which will be difficult to obtain. He hopes to reach an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and to get legal residency in a safe country for him and his Russian family.