February 6, 2018 / 6:21 PM / 6 months ago

EU firms face legal risk over 'forced labour' from North Korea

PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - North Korea sends workers overseas and confiscates their salaries, which could expose European companies to legal action over forced labour, researchers said on Tuesday.

In interviews with North Korean workers in Europe, the LeidenAsiaCentre found that they must hand over their passports to North Korean government officials, are denied freedom of movement and are forced to work long hours with no overtime pay.

Most of their earnings are taken by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), said the Dutch research institution, adding that companies which have signed international treaties could be hit with legal action for involvement in forced labour.

“Companies could be vulnerable to a civil claim, in so far as they knew or should have known about forced DPRK labour in their supply chain and purposely or negligently failed to take adequate measures,” said the report, referring to Dutch firms.

North Korea has denied previous allegations of forced labour and exploitation and it issued a paper in 2014 which attempted to discredit a United Nations (U.N.) investigation that found evidence of forced labour and torture.

The paper said North Korea has legal protection for “rights including the 8-hour workday, equal wage system, paid vacation”.

Rights groups say North Korea sends tens of thousands of workers around the world to earn much needed foreign currency to offset the impact of U.N. sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, although this could change with increasing scrutiny.

The LeidenAsiaCentre’s latest findings echo those of its 2016 report, which focused on abuses of North Korean workers in Poland, sparking media coverage and political debate.

Tuesday’s report found that little has changed, despite the issue being raised in the European Union (EU) parliament.

“The EU never did enforce EU law in Poland, and Poland never put a stop to the exploitation of North Koreans in its shipyards, building sites, tomato farms, and the like,” it said.

In 2016, Russia had the largest number of North Korean workers - about 20,000 - according to the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), followed by China with about 19,000 workers and 4,500 in Kuwait.

“The earning from these workers has been a major source of funds for various parts of the North Korean state,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Forced labour also takes place on a massive scale inside the cash-strapped DPRK, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Without forced labour, many things simply would not get done in the country,” he said.

Reporting by Jared Ferrie. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, resilliance and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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