A North Korean man is pursuing an unprecedented legal case against a Dutch shipbuilder who he has accused of profiting from slave labour while he was employed in a Polish shipyard.
According to a report by Deutsche Welle, the man claims he was sent to Poland by the North Korean regime and forced to work 12-hour days for low wages in harsh conditions.
Barbara van Straaten, the Dutch lawyer who has taken up the man’s case, said that Dutch law criminalises the act of profiting from exploitation. Under the country’s anti-trafficking law, offenders can be jailed for up to 18 years and face fines of £73,000.
The case against the unnamed shipbuilder could be decided within the next few weeks, and it could open the gates for similar cases to be resolved in the courts.
Ms Van Staaten said that the case “opens the possibility to hold those companies accountable which are not direct perpetrators in the labour exploitation, but which nonetheless knowingly profit…gaining high profits in the West at the expense of workers from developing countries.”
In 2016, a report by the Leiden Asia Centre, claimed that as many as 800 North Koreans were working in slave-like conditions in the shipbuilding and construction sectors in Poland, in some cases for companies that were receiving financial report from the European Union.
The report alleged that their salaries were paid to managers and repatriated to Pyongyang.
A US State Department report on trafficking in 2017 stated that many North Korean labourers sent to work abroad under bilateral contracts with foreign governments faced conditions of “forced labour,” working excessive hours in hazardous conditions with restricted pay.
“North Korean government ‘minders’ restrict and monitor their movements and communications. North Koreans sent overseas do not have a choice in the work the government ultimately assigns to them and are not free to change jobs,” said the state department.
In one well-documented case in 2014, a North Korean died at a Polish shipyard when his work clothes caught fire and he was burned alive.
It was later discovered that he had been provided with flammable overalls but a case could not be pursued in Poland as his documents identified him as self-employed.
"North Korean workers in the Polish shipyards are subject to all manner of human rights abuses. Not only do they work in unsafe conditions under no contract, but also they work long hours most days and receive minimal pay as the North Korean state takes the majority of the payment," says Michael Glendinning, CEO of Korea Future Initiative.
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Mr Glendinning says that workers are exposed to more than violations of labour rights. "North Korea exports its surveillance mechanisms. Each individual must monitor and report on each other for any transgressions. All workers are also subject to self-criticism sessions. They have their passports taken and are largely limited to movements between work and home. To date, very little has been done to end these abuses."
According to the United Nations, North Korea has earned billions from overseas labourers, and has used that money to fund its nuclear and missile programmes. In 2017 the UN slapped new sanctions on Pyongyang to restrict its earnings from workers sent abroad.
North Korea is not party to the dispute involving the Dutch shipbuilder. The Polish shipbuilding company claimed it was unaware of the case and had hired workers through an agency with the necessary permissions to operate in the EU, and under the supervision of Poland’s National Labour Inspectorate.