North Korean laborers dispatched to China are forced to hand over a significant portion of their wages to the state, a special investigation by Daily NK and Unification Media Group has found. The authorities demand money in the pretext of “brokerage fees” and “party fees.” The amount was different according to the kind of work being performed, but on average, they were made to fork over 70% of earnings, leaving 30% for their own pocket. However, a portion of this is usually remitted to relatives back in North Korea, leaving the overseas workers with barely enough money to eke out a living on site in China.
An ethnic Korean-Chinese businessman in Yanji City told Daily NK, “The level of labor required is different for every company, and each region has differences, so it is difficult to generalize how much income the laborers are making. According to the laborers themselves, it isn’t unusual to make $300 per month, and then to give $200 of that to the authorities, leaving them with $100.”
This means that the amount that the North Korean laborers can earn in China is more than they can earn in other countries such as Russia or Europe. Laborers in those places have been reported to give as much as 90% of their earning to the state. The source continued by stating that there are cases of the wages being paid by the Chinese companies to the North Korean firms, “and then the individual laborers only receive their share of the earnings when they return back to North Korea.”
When asked what methods the North Korean companies use to take in about 70% of these wages, the source said, “There is a fee for introducing the workers to the jobs. I don’t know exactly how this is taken and how it is spent.”
In cases where the workers are paid at the end of their service term, the company gives a separate amount to them for daily needs, such as toothbrushes, toilet paper, and shoes. When they are returning back to the country, all of this money is subtracted from their total earnings.
“The North Korean laborers know exactly how much the state is taking and how much is left over for them. From their perspective, even the small percentage left over is a big haul. In the North Korean military, a company commander earns about KPW 3,500-4,000 per month (less than US $0.50). And that is their income before they have to give money to the state for construction projects and to the inminban (people’s unit, or neighborhood watch) for various reasons. Even if the North Korean companies take two-thirds of the overseas laborer’s paycheck, what remains is 100 or 200 times more than they earned before, so even if they have to pay a bribe, it is still worth it economically.”
Other types of work pay different amounts, but the percentage extorted by the authorities is similar. One North Korean with experience managing a North Korean restaurant overseas said, “Service workers earn approximately $280 per month and about $150 of this is diverted to pay party fees. Money used for the worker’s food is also subtracted from their paychecks, so this leaves about RMB 600 (~$90) behind. That’s big money to a North Korean. It is enough to feed a family of four for a month.”
An insider at a sewing factory that uses North Korean workers said, “North Korean workers earn between RMB 1,900 and 2,300 (~$290-350) per month. A portion is then given as a party fee and a portion is given as a brokerage fee to the person that introduced the worker to the job. The amount left over is about $100.” In a different textile factory, the workers earned RMB 2,000, but their take-home pay was about RMB 600 (~$90), and this was given in cash.
Kwon Eun Kyoung, Secretary General for the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), believes that North Korea’s overseas laborers should be considered slave laborers. “The North Korean authorities seize most of the laborers’ wages, and this might not be a strange practice from the point of view of the workers, but when applied to international standards, it most certainly could rightly be looked at as slave labor,” she said.
“We also talked about the system in which some laborers get paid all at once after they complete their work and return to North Korea. But the North Korean banking industry is not very effective, so we should look very carefully to ensure that all of these workers are actually receiving the full amount they are due for their two or three year’s worth of work.”
North Korean laborers in China, like those in other countries, are forced to live communally in accommodations provided by the authorities. They are forbidden from leaving the work site and the dorm where they are staying.
“North Korean laborers are not allowed to walk around alone. They must always be in groups of two or three. They are made to do this in order to prevent escape attempts. The North Korean managers are responsible for the workers, so if a problem comes up, they have to pay the price,” the ethnic Korean-Chinese businessman said.
“That is why they are constantly monitoring near the workplace. Even while they are working, they call them on the phone constantly, and when work is over, they walk them back to the dorms.”
The source from the textiles factory added, “North Korea laborers are young, and so, perhaps because of this, they have a lot of interest in China as a country. But they are not allowed to walk around the downtown areas freely, so they end up feeling disappointed. They came with a fantasy of living an international lifestyle, so their hopes are dashed when this turns out to be a delusion. Even when the ladies go to buy necessities like soap, underwear, and makeup, they are forced to go in groups of five or ten.”
To prevent and discourage escapes, he said, there is also a North Korean manager that goes along with them and a Chinese interpreter. They are permitted to go to the market, “but they cannot walk around freely there. And, of course, vacations and tourist activities are totally out of the question.”
Although wage garnishing, social welfare exclusion, and discrimination continue to be part and parcel of the overseas laborers’ experience, physical human rights violations, such as beatings, have been decreasing in frequency. The international community, observing and calling attention to the continuous human rights violations that the workers suffer from, has begun to pressure countries to improve conditions. Provisions about limiting and freezing the use of North Korean laborers have even made it into the latest United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Business people managing Chinese-North Korean ventures have taken note of the international community’s calls to action, and have responded by slightly improving the treatment of the workers. When asked if the laborers are beaten or exposed to violent forms of human rights abuse, the ethnic Korean- Chinese businessman who uses North Korean labor, said, “Chinese people think strictly about human rights problems when it comes to dealing with their own countrymen, and apply that same logic when dealing with North Korean workers. North Korean managers can perceive this kind of atmosphere and have been prevented from treating the workers like they are less than human.”
ICNK Secretary General Kwon added, “China has improved its own perceptions about the rights of workers, and this has been reflected in their treatment of the North Koreans. They are also unable to ignore the international community’s cries about the human rights abuses going on.”