LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A North Korean laborer has filed a landmark criminal complaint against a Dutch shipbuilding company that allegedly profited from the abuse of workers in its supply chain in Poland and was aware of the “slave-like conditions”, lawyers said on Thursday.
A law firm representing the worker - who has not been named for his safety - has asked the Netherlands’ public prosecutor to file a case against a shipbuilder it says knowingly benefited by buying items that were cheaper due to the use of forced labor.
The legal action - revealed exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation - could pile pressure on other companies in the Netherlands and beyond that profit from modern slavery in their global operations, according to lawyers and activists.
“Dutch law offers a unique provision which criminalizes the act of profiting from exploitation,” said Barbara van Straaten, a lawyer with Prakken d’Oliveira, a law firm in the Netherlands that specializes in human rights cases and filed the complaint.
“This opens the possibility to hold companies accountable which are not direct perpetrators in the labor exploitation, but which nonetheless knowingly profit,” van Straaten said.
The Dutch shipbuilder, which is not being named to avoid undermining a possible prosecution, employed Polish shipyard Crist SA despite knowing it subjected workers to “inhumane, slave-like conditions” to lower costs, the complaint alleged.
The worker behind the complaint said he endured 12-hour working days in unsafe conditions and had much of his earnings seized by the North Korean government, according to his lawyers.
Crist SA said it has never employed North Korean workers directly, but referred to a Polish staffing agency, Armex, which it said had “done some work” for the shipyard prior to 2016.
“We learned there was a possibility of irregularities in regards with employment of Armex workers (some of them were from North Korea) but we do not know the details,” a spokesman said.
“Without the time frame, the name of the ship building firm (the subject of the complaint), or the project name, we cannot give you specific information on the issue,” he said by email.
The North Korean embassy in Warsaw could not be reached for comment but has previously denied workers are deprived of pay.
The complaint marks the first time a case has been sought in the Netherlands over worker exploitation involving a Dutch firm committed outside the country, van Straaten said.
Under the country’s anti-trafficking law, offenders can be jailed for up to 18 years and fined 83,000 euros ($95,400).
The Netherlands’ prosecutor’s office said it had received the criminal complaint but did not disclose any further details.
Poland’s national labor inspectorate told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it found 29 North Koreans working at a Crist shipyard illegally in 2013 who were supplied by Armex yet had initially been employed by a company registered in North Korea.
The inspectorate did not say whether it took any action.
A search by the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Poland’s online National Court Register found that Armex went into liquidation last year, although the exact date is unclear.
“We allege this is a sham construction (the relationship between Crist and Armex) and that in fact the North Koreans were directly employed and instructed by Crist,” van Straaten said, adding that the complaint has evidence to support the claim.
Crist rejected the accusation as “false”, and said the shipyard has at least 1,000 workers from various subcontractors.
“To say that years ago we had the knowledge and possibility of controlling the way that Armex was handling its employees is absurd,” the spokesman said. “However ... we as a company are obliged to comply with Polish and European employee law.”
Activists say North Korea sends tens of thousands of workers worldwide and takes their pay to earn foreign currency to offset the impact of U.N. sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.
Many work in Polish shipyards, construction sites and farms, but face widespread exploitation and send up to 90 percent of their salaries back to the hermit state, according to the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK).
Poland issued nearly 3,000 work permits for North Korean workers between 2008 and 2016, according to the LeidenAsiaCentre, a research institution in the Netherlands which has linked dozens of Polish companies to their employment.
As the world strives to meet a U.N. global goal of ending modern slavery by 2030, businesses face growing regulatory and consumer pressure to ensure their supply chains are slave-free yet campaigners say companies are rarely penalized for abuses.
About 25 million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labor, from farms to factories, the United Nations says.
The severity of this case highlights significant gaps in labor protections within the European Union, and the lack of remedies available to exploited workers, the lawyers said.
“This legal action, targeting labor exploitation in supply chains, will send a strong message to multinational corporations,” said Gearoid O Cuinn, head of the Global Legal Action Network, a Britain-based charity backing the complaint.
“Profiting from forced labor entails serious legal risk.”