GDYNIA — The dock is almost 400 meters long and 70 meters wide and is one of the largest container crane ports on the Baltic Sea coast. Nearby in this northern Polish city, a company called Crist manufactures parts for container ships and offshore wind farms, destined mostly for Western European countries. And recently, Crist has received 37 million euros from Brussels, from a fund that aims to create jobs in European Union regions that have historically struggled economically.
But there is a detail the officials in Brussels probably missed: not all who work in these shipyards may be here voluntarily.
On the project, among subcontractors and temporary employment agencies, are workers that some authorities believe are from North Korea. They are working for very low wages and in inhumane conditions. North Koreans working abroad under slave-like conditions is something you might hear about in Russia or China — but it also takes place in the middle of the EU, as the example of Poland shows.
Forced laborers are a welcome source of income.
But there is now resistance. For the first time, a North Korean, who claims to have worked in the shipyard in Gdynia, has turned to a lawyer. He claims that the Pyongyang regime sent him to Poland, where he was forced to work twelve hours a day under harsh conditions at the Crist shipyard. And there is another similar case that dates back to 2014.
At that time, a welder by the name of Chon Kyongsu died at Crist. He wasn't wearing a fireproof protective suit, and a spark set off a blaze and he burned alive. While the Polish investigation drew attention to the shipyard, it also confirmed the assumption that North Koreans were working under inhumane and unsafe conditions. Nobody was concerned because Chon Kyongsu was not officially employed by Crist. The Polish judiciary had no access.
Port of Gdynia — Photo: Michael Gorski/Wikimedia
Now there is another case. The man currently testifying could make a difference. He is not accessible to anyone and remains anonymous to the public and press. "For security reasons, I cannot say anything about the whereabouts of the North Korean," his lawyer Barbara van Straaten recently told Die Welt.
Van Straaten is a lawyer in the Netherlands and prefers not to talk publicly. Not only is the long arm of the North Korean regime a threat, but the Polish authorities have in the past not necessarily cooperated in clarifying similar cases.
On one hand, certain Polish companies view North Koreans as cheap labor. On the other, there is the regime in Pyongyang. Forced laborers are a welcome source of income. According to UN estimates, North Korea makes between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion a year by sending its workers overseas to do heavy physical labor on farms or in factories. Professor of Korean Studies Remco Breuer has spoken of "modern slavery."
More than 50,000 North Koreans around the world are believed to work in often even crueler conditions in more than 40 countries. For non-EU citizens, Poland issues five different types of work permits that cannot exceed three years, unless extended by the employer. So it's not easy to say how many North Koreans are currently in Poland. In 2015 alone, 466 permits were issued.
Questioned by Die Welt, the Polish immigration authorities replied that they were not responsible for North Koreans. Breuer suspects that today up to 800 work in Polish plants. Although this number is small compared to the several thousand North Korean workers in China, Poland is still important from Pyongyang's point of view as salaries are higher.
Chances are that we will have to wait until a trial to learn more about the conditions under which North Korean forced laborers perform their duties in Poland. This would take place before a Dutch court because the indictment is directed primarily against a Dutch company said to have supplied workers to Crist in Poland. Van Straaten's Amsterdam law firm Prakken d'Oliveira has yet to publicly name the company.
The Polish law enforcement authorities have never clarified any cases concerning North Korean laborers. A lack of confidence in the Polish authorities may be one of the reasons why van Straaten and her client have decided to speak publicly about a company that benefits indirectly from forced labor.
Overall, there are only a few reports that provide information about the working conditions of North Koreans in the country. The most detailed one so far was presented in 2016 by scientists from the Asia Center in Leiden, under the leadership of Korea expert Breuer.
They are not allowed to move freely within the country.
Follow-up reports were published in 2017 and 2018. The team from Leiden managed to conduct in-house interviews with North Korean workers in Poland. Concerned about their safety and that of their families back in North Korea, all the participants were cited anonymously.
They give an insight into a reality of life that is completely incompatible with European labor standards and prove that Polish authorities are apparently unable or unwilling to enforce them. For example, the North Koreans are not allowed to move freely within the country, limited to commuting between their shared accommodation and workplaces, including shipyards such as Crist, another in the western Polish city of Szczecin or farms in rural areas. There they receive "ideological lessons" from regime representatives that are dedicated to dictator Kim Jong-un, and otherwise fiercely shielded from the outside world.
The labor itself is also extreme: six days a week, shifts of twelve hours or more, and the North Koreans only receive a very small salary to feed themselves — the rest goes to the regime in Pyongyang, and another small part to the families at home. All are held hostage, so to speak. If the North Koreans do not deliver in Poland, their relatives will be punished and threatened to be sent to a labor camp.
"To make it clear: We ourselves have never employed North Korean workers," says Tomasz Wrzask, PR manager at Crist, to Die Welt. "Several years ago, we worked with subcontractor Armex, which specializes in steelwork," Wrzask continued. "They have worked with many companies, including our shipyard. They've hired the North Koreans."
In 2014, the Polish company Armex actually hired North Korean welders. It was one of two companies that took over the distribution of North Korean workers through Polish shipyards. Wrzask argues that Armex was able to produce all the necessary documents and that there was no reason to be suspicious: "It is strange that our company name is mentioned by the press, but not by the Dutch company. These are double standards."
Attorney van Straaten emphasizes that she is not out to get Crist. "In the past, it has already been reported how North Koreans were exploited in Polish yards, including by Crist," she says. "This case is about the terrible working conditions of North Koreans in Poland and specifically about the case of my client."
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