Interview with Willy Fautré by Human Rights Lawyers Network Without Frontiers (USA)


Why does HRWF campaign against the hiring of North Korean workers in Poland ? Many other foreign laborers are working in that country and there is no protest.

North Koreans that are sent to Polish shipyards and construction worksites are subject, by their own political regime, to various forms of exploitation with the passive approval of the Polish authorities and the private companies hiring them. They are under constant surveillance of a North Korean ‘supervisor’ who confiscates their passport and makes sure they do not have any contact with the local population or journalists. They do not have a work contract with their employers and are not allowed to have a personal bank account. Their salaries are filtered through Pyongyang, which confiscates 80-90% of their salaries and leaves them only €120-140 per month. Their work hours range between 12 and 16 hours per day, with only one or two days of rest a month.

For decades, the Polish authorities have issued visas and work permits to North Korean workers and companies have continued to hire the cheap and docile workers, turning a blind eye to the grave situation.

Are those North Korean workers forced by Kim Jong-un to go and work abroad?

No, they are not directly forced by their Great Leader but they are forced by the poor living conditions and disastrous political and economic environment that has been imposed on the population for decades from the Kim dynasty. They apply for such jobs although they know they will be away from their families for at least three years and they will work in very difficult circumstances. Only the candidates who are politically reliable and whose families have been faithful to the regime for several generations have a chance to be selected, and some even pay bribes to go to the country of their choice. Bringing home meagre salaries in dollars is always better than the few wons they could earn in North Korea.

In a sense, it could be said that those North Korean workers are lucky.

I do not think you would say that prostitutes trafficked from Eastern Europe to Western Europe are lucky. In both cases, there are the exploiters and exploited. In both cases, their passports are confiscated when they reach their destination. In both cases, they do not have any freedom of movement and expression. In both cases, they are underpaid, work in inhumane conditions and face repercussions if they voice their complaints. In both cases, they have to obey their supervisor or their pimp and keep their mouth shut; otherwise their families left behind can be victims of retaliation. You have to remember that North Korea is a mafia state.

Sexual exploitation and labor exploitation have always existed. Realistically, can anything be done to stop them?

States, and in particular EU member states, have a moral duty to fight against any form of exploitation. In the case of the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Malta and The Netherlands, the exploitation of North Korean workers in the last ten years stopped when it was put in the public eye. Only Poland stubbornly resists despite the reports of Polish journalists, foreign human rights NGOs, and UN resolutions. Last year, HRWF raised the issue at the OSCE/ODIHR Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw and urged Poland to make sure that the North Korean workers can enjoy the ILO standards. Poland then recognized that approximately 550 North Koreans were working for private companies with valid visas and permits.

Does Pyongyang get a significant amount of hard currencies from the work of its laborers in Poland? Is it really worth it to harass Warsaw on this issue?

Globally speaking, it is estimated that between €1.2 – 2.3 billion is collected by the North Korean regime from the exploitation of their overseas workers in the world. North Korea’s military nuclear program would not exist as such without Pyongyang’s access to hard currencies.

The amount of hard currencies transferred from Warsaw to Pyongyang is unknown. However, what needs to be stressed is that through this practice, human rights and international standards, which are at the core of the European Union, continue being disrespected, damaging the Union’s moral standing and international prestige. The respect for human dignity must prevail.

If North Korean workers are banned from all UN member states, hundreds of thousands of them will remain in dire need in their country. Is that what you want?

Up until these last few months, we have always advocated in favor of the strict implementation of the ILO standards, as for any other foreign worker, but both Poland and private companies have continued to turn a deaf ear to our calls.

Recently, the international context has dramatically changed, causing a shift in our own policy recommendations. In September, North Korea successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, the country’s sixth-ever test of a nuclear weapon, a move that was unanimously condemned by all the countries in the region and beyond. This year, Pyongyang also launched long-range ballistic missiles towards the Sea of Japan on several occasions, despite the increasing sanctions of the United Nations.  Moreover, the EU has just transposed the latest UN drastic sanctions and has specifically stressed in a press release “In addition, with a view to eliminating remittances to the DPRK, member states agreed not to renew work authorisations for DPRK nationals present on their territory, except for refugees and other persons benefiting from international protection.”

Contributing to Pyongyang’s collection of hard currencies is now more than a human rights issue or a social issue for North Korean workers; it is also an international security issue in Eastern Asia and beyond.

Do you think the UN and the EU sanctions can have some positive impact on the exploitation of North Korean workers?

It is a strong and unambiguous signal sent to Poland and if it is not heard in Warsaw, there is more room for pressure. The European Commission could be asked to start a full investigation of the situation in Poland and then, if necessary, move on to the next level; an infringement procedure in line with the legal avenues at its disposal. Last but not least, the private companies hiring North Korean workers could be targeted by the next sanctions, as is the case with Russia on other issues.


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