Slaves to the System: Dutch companies involved in North Korean forced labour

On Tuesday February 6th, the LeidenAsiaCentre project team ‘Slaves to the System’ presented their new report “People for Profit: North Korean Forced Labour on a Global Scale”. Over 60 people attended the conference in the Academy Building in Leiden.

The conference was opened by Lily Sprangers, the manager of the LeidenAsiaCentre, who introduced Professor Remco Breuker and the team that has worked on this report. Following the introduction, Professor Breuker emphasized that the report is in no means finished, but that it has been released because there is enough information to address the current situation of North Korean overseas labourers. Surprisingly, several Dutch companies have built their ships on one of the Polish shipyards investigated in the report where North Korean forced labourers are still working. Until the end of 2017, there were  approximately 80 North Korean labourers living on this shipyard. 50 of them did work on the shipyard and the other 30 were sent to other worksites. North Korean forced labourers do not only work in the EU, but also in Africa and Asia. Their working conditions are often harsh and dangerous. They make long working days and live under constant surveillance, while a large part of their wages is withheld by the North Korean regime.

Catelene Passchier, chairman of the Worker’s Group of the International Labor Organization (ILO), gave an opening speech and criticized the EU member states, such as Poland and the Netherlands, for having yet to take fundamental actions against these practices, even though these countries are members of the ILO and have signed agreements on good working conditions, stating that “cheap labor is a virus that has infected all our systems.”

Cedric Ryngaert, Professor of Public International Law at Utrecht University referred to article 273f (6) of the Dutch Penal Code, which states that no legal person in The Netherlands is allowed to benefit from the exploitation of humans, opening a path towards legal action. According to Professor Ryngaert, it does not matter whether this exploitation happens abroad; companies profiting from forced labour are liable regardless of the location of these practices.

Following up, Larissa van den Herik,  Professor of International Public Law at Leiden University, explained that on 11 September 2017 the UN Security Council passed the resolution that these North Korean labour brigades should be stopped. However, in the UN documents, it is stipulated that the host countries have two years to return these labour migrants, impeding immediate enforcement. Professor Breuker noted that from a humanitarian point of view this might not be the most effective solution and that a path should be available to North Korean workers to receive asylum in their host countries, although there is a need to consider that there is always the possibility that this could endanger the workers’ families back home.

At the end of the conference was a private PR screening of the documentary “Dollar Heroes”. The documentary vividly laid bare how the forced labour practices initiated by North Korea are hard in nature and incompatible with the enforcement of human rights. Nevertheless, it is clear that these practices benefit many parties, and that the likelihood of this practice stopping soon is low. The workers’ are treated like commodities, and their lives are in the hands of the North Korean authorities. The documentary is an excellent example of creating awareness among the public with regard to this horrendous practice, a practice still being pursued to this day.

The report was widely featured in the Dutch media. See below for some highlighted articles (Dutch only)

Noord-Koreaanse dwangarbeiders bouwden mee aan Nederlandse schepen (en hun loon ging naar Kim Jong-un)

‘Noord-Koreanen werkten gedwongen aan bouw Nederlandse schepen’

‘Noord-Koreaanse slaven bouwen schepen voor Nederlandse bedrijven in Polen’

‘OM moet rol Nederlandse bedrijven onderzoeken bij dwangarbeid op werf’