Dispatched laborers endure 12 hours of hard work without rest or respite

Unification Media Group  |  2017-06-28 14:48

"North Korean female laborers work more than 12 hours a day. They don't take a break except for lunch time. I have seen some of them faint while working continuously in the dusty factory," said Kim Sul Hyang (early 20s, alias), an ethnic Korean-Chinese women, who worked as a manager of North Korean female workers for three years in a sewing factory in Dandong, Liaoning Province (China). 

Women in their 20s are dispatched to the factory, and most of them cannot speak Chinese. Kim got to know about 150 North Korean female workers quite well while working together. 

Kim said that she could not help but feel sorry for the workers who are a similar age to her. Although she has now left the factory, some of the workers are said to be still calling her using phones borrowed from their Chinese managers. Kim added that she sometimes cries together with the worker over the phone when they plead to be able to leave the job and return to North Korea.

"The North Korean workers have a day off once every 15 days, and I had to worked with the same schedule because I needed to manage them. Normally the workday started at 7am and ended at 10pm, but on busy days we frequently worked past midnight. The managers were allowed to sleep for about 30 minutes after lunch but the North Korean workers were not given such a luxury," she said. 

"150 workers are seated shoulder to shoulder in the working space, so the room is naturally very humid. The average room temperature was above 30 degrees Celsius, but they have to work as they sweat, because only a few electric fans are provided and there is no air conditioner. The only thing they can do is to put a handkerchief with ice on their neck, even on the hottest days of summer."

A special report team from Unification Media Group visited the border areas between China and North Korea in April to investigate human rights violations against North Korean workers dispatched to China. During the visit, the team met with various individuals, including workers officially dispatched by the state, those who elected to go to China to visit their relatives and were illegally employed, and local managers who worked alongside the North Korean workers. Despite the diverse personal stories, the common theme confirmed was that North Korean workers are continuously the subject of labor exploitation.

Working 12 hours a day was also common for North Korean employees at restaurants in China. A female employee who worked at a restaurant in Jilin Province Yanji said, "I go to work at 9 o'clock in the morning and leave at 10 or 11 o'clock at night. When you have a lot of guests, you go home late." 

However, they had no personal time or rest after work. "When I leave work, I participate in activities like circles (clubs) in my accommodation or study Chinese. It is necessary to study Chinese because we must communicate with Chinese people in order to work here," she said, explaining that their actual day ends at two o'clock in the morning.

"In the case of factories, Chinese workers usually work eight hours a day, while North Korean workers work 12 hours a day," said a 50-year-old Chinese businessman who managed North Korean workers dispatched to China. "There is no formal break, however, and North Korean workers do not tell us about their difficulties because they will think they betrayed their country."

The fact that the North Korean workers are exposed to long hours of labor more than 12 hours a day violates the Chinese Labor Standards Act. China is implementing a five-day working week (40 hours a week), and overtime work is strictly prohibited. Overtime work is permissible for one hour a day, or three hours in special circumstances, for a maximum of 36 hours in a month. However, enforcement of the act is not being thoroughly observed in China, and such regulations are rarely considered by Chinese employers and North Korean officials who agree on the working contracts in the first place.

In addition, the dispatched workers in China are not being properly looked after, even if they get sick or badly injured at work. The possibility of industrial accidents is reportedly high, as both factory managers and workers do not receive training on basic safety regulations. 

"There was an incident where a North Korean worker hurt her finger in the sewing machine, but the factory manager and the injured worker herself regarded the incident as trivial and neglected the injury. In the end, we had to amputate her finger because her flesh began to decay." Kim said.

In addition, North Korean workers in China are often excluded from social insurance schemes, which China requests that all foreign workers participate in. According to the "Temporary measures on the enrollment of foreign workers in China for social insurance,"  implemented since November 2011, foreign workers in China are eligible for five social insurance types. This is intended to afford them equal benefit with the Chinese workers in terms of old-age care, employment, industrial accidents, and childbirth.

However, North Koreans dispatched to China usually cannot receive such benefits because the Chinese enterprises and the North Korean enterprises who make the contracts deliberately exclude the clause on social insurance. A Korean-Chinese businessman who supports dispatched North Korean workers in China said, "China requires foreign workers to compulsorily enroll in social insurance, with the exception of North Korean workers. They cannot easily go to hospital even when they get sick or injured while working because the cost must be completely covered by themselves."

There was even a case when a North Korean worker who was suffering from appendicitis returned to North Korea before the contract ended due to the heavy burden of treatment. "The North Korean worker was admitted to a hospital for an appendectomy, and the hospital required 7,500 RMB. In the end, she had to go back to North Korea after spending all the money she earned for a year on treatment," the businessman said. 

"The Chinese enterprises employ North Korean workers, regarded as 'cheap labor,' because they don't have to enroll them in social insurance. The company can support the workers' treatment as a humanitarian gesture, but it is not mandated by law. In some cases, the North Korean workers are even forced to make it clear on the contract that they will handle the cost of industrial accidents by themselves. Of course, such practices occur under the implicit permission of the North Korean authorities."

North Korean workers in China are being treated as the lowest-ranking social group in terms of working conditions. The quality of their food is also what the poorest people in China would be expected to eat. Some enterprises pay about 300 RMB monthly to the workers for food, but others do not pay money for food at all.

A restaurant manager in Yanji said, "Our restaurant does not give extra money for food to the workers. But the employees are allowed to eat rice, seaweed, and soybean soup for breakfast. I even secretly gave them two sacks of rice as it appears that they are short of food."

However, even those who receive the extra 300 RMB for food cannot properly eat. "In China," the businessman explained, "300 RMB a month is the lowest level of spending for food. So the North Korean workers will buy ingredients under a tight budget and prepare the meal themselves, managing to scrape enough together for rice, kimchi, and some paste (soybean, red pepper, etc.)."

*Translated by Yejie kim
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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