“They have to work around 12 hours a day in average in the construction fields of the Middle East, under more than 40˚C. All they get for their meals are rice and salt-seasoned radish or cucumber. They have to carry salt in their pocket to replenish salinity drained out from continuous sweating. Without salt, they are vulnerable to sunstroke. When they faint from sunstroke, they are criticized for mismanagement of their health. They can stand verbal reprimand, but what they cannot stand is $10 fine. After they pay $10 fine and spend living expenses out of $90 monthly wage, they have less than $10 dollar left. This means that they do not have money to remit to their family. For them, being sick is luxury.”
This is a part of testimony from a North Korean defector who used to work in a construction field in Kuwait. For the sake of safety, he asked for anonymity. His story will be introduced in a parallel event co-sponsored by ICNK, HRW, FIDH, CSW and AI on March 14th during the 31st session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva to expose realities of North Korea’s forced labor.
Since the UN Human Rights Council’s session went on, this event was designed to raise awareness on North Korea’s contemporary form of slavery, ICNK’s Secretary General Eun Kyoung Kwon said.
Workers like Kim have only one day off in a month. It is referred to as a “Culture day” because washing clothes and taking bath are only allowed on that day.
He said, “We had to wake up at 4~5 am and work until 9-10pm. Even if we came back to our place, we could not take a shower, and when we were sleeping, mouse and bedbugs tormented us. 7~8 people were stuck together in a 10㎡ room.”
If compensated properly, wage has to be around $900. However, North Korean workers only receive 10% of due compensation, Kim said. Out of the 10%, living expenses like food, rent and transportation cost have to be spent. Only rice and water are provided for meals, so workers need to purchase other kinds of food.
Therefore, North Korean workers are involved in moonshining, which is illegal in the Middle East, or sale of construction materials to earn cash. When those involved are caught by police, North Korean companies do not protect them. Kim said, “Although North Korean companies in the Middle East encourage their workers to moonshine, they do not protect their workers when their activities are caught to the police.”
It is not surprising that complaints do exist. However, no workers can officially make any complaints. Kim said, “When workers express even their smallest opinions, they are criticized in party meetings, and they are branded as having problematic lives abroad, so they are summoned back to North Korea and cannot work abroad again. Therefore, they should put up with their discontents. What they are only allowed to do is the fulfillment of the obligation to obey to the government.”
It is estimated that North Korea earns at least $250 million every year from overseas North Korean workers. After the fourth nuclear test (Jan 6) and missile launch (Feb 7), North Korea currently faces UN Security Council’s resolution. Thus, it is worried that North Korea would much more actively seek to earn dollars through overseas workers.
In addition to overseas workers, ordinary citizens in North Korea also face severe labor exploitation through so-called dolgyeokdae (military-style forced labor brigade), which is an organization for national constructions, according to ICNK. Ahn Soo Rim, who served in the dolgyeokdae for eight years and later defected, said, “Even though it was -30˚C in winter, we still had to work in construction fields. Because there was no construction tools provided, every work had to be done manually. And thus, many people died and injured.”
Ahn himself witnessed a big accident in 1997, in which three people died and four people were severely injured while cutting trees for railroad construction. He said, “Although this kind of accidents take place once or twice a year, reading a statement of condolence was all the action that the state took.”
Dolgyeokdae is composed of around 400,000 young men, whose social classification is not high enough to join the Workers’ Party and military.
Those who joined dolgyeokdae have to serve ten years. Unless they suffer from epidemic diseases like hepatitis or tuberculosis, they should continuously work even when they are sick. They virtually receive no compensation for their work. Ahn said, “No one thought it was wrong not to receive any compensation.”
Ahn received a certificate demonstrating his party membership at last. However, when he came back to home, his parents had already passed away for starvation. He said, “When I worked in the dolgyeokdae, I could not easily have contacts with outer world, so I did not have chance to receive any notice about my parents’ death. I worked such hard to join the party, but I regretted my choice.”
Another witness was Kim Hyang Ok, who testified about People’s Unit. The people’s unit of her neighborhood was mobilized to street cleaning every day, when there was “The No. 1 Event’, where Kim Jong Un visits. In every-day lives, People’s Unit is mobilized to “farm mobilization warfare.” In addition, people have to provide waste paper, scrap metals and composts. When construction fields are lack of construction materials, people’s unit has to provide them. While she was working in the people’s tnit, Kim’s unit had an accident that 20 people died. The accident took place when they were collecting gravels in a building under demolition to provide materials for the nearby construction field.