North Korean 'slaves' in Europe?

North Korean 'slaves' in Europe?
Czech officials monitor freedom of nearly 400 workers
By Mindy Kay Bricker
Published: November 9, 2006

NACHOD, Czech Republic: At a time when North Korea is under fire for its nuclear weapons program, nearly 400 North Korean women are quietly helping the motherland by working at humble jobs in Czech Republic and sending their wages home.

The women, mainly seamstresses, are now themselves at the center of debate, with some critics contending that their work amounts to state-imposed forced labor. Vaclav Havel, the former president, is among those who have said that the Czech Republic should not be used as a base for filling North Korea's coffers.

Although the Czech government stopped issuing new work visas for North Koreans in June, those who entered previously are still employed at various sites, including the Snezka textile factory here in Nachod, where they sew headrests and armrests for BMWs, Mercedes, Renaults and other cars sold in Western Europe.

Miloslav Cermak, general manager at Snezka, says that 82 of his 750 employees are North Korean. Aged 20 to 28, they came to this town near the Polish border on three- to four-year contracts.

The women are paid by the piece, with top workers stitching as many as 350 headrests a day, Cermak said, and earning monthly salaries of up to 25,556 koruna, or $1,165, well above the country's minimum wage of 7,955 koruna. The lowest-paid North Korean worker earns 8,200 koruna, a common salary for new employees, he said.

"If someone calls it slavery," Cermak said, "I'm not the person responsible for that."

But some do. The situation of such women, said Petra Burcikova, director of La Strada, a leading Czech anti-trafficking organization, "could remind one of state-imposed forced labor."

Since 2004, the year this formerly Communist country joined the European Union, Czech officials have been monitoring the working conditions of North Koreans employed here.

Currently, 408 workers, of whom 392 are women, are employed in the country. Labor inspectors have found no gross violations of labor law, Deputy Labor Minister Petr Simerka said by telephone.

But unofficial information gathered by the Czech police indicates that the North Koreans deposit nearly 80 percent of their salaries into one collective bank account, according to Lenka Simackova, of the Interior Ministry's strategy and analysis unit.

Officials suspect that these salaries are delivered to the North Korean government or its embassy in Prague rather than to the workers' families in North Korea, as these women have maintained to investigators.

"To prove human trafficking or forced labor, we would need testimony from the potential victims, which we didn't get," said Jakub Svec, deputy head of the Interior Ministry's strategy and analysis unit.

"They all say that they are satisfied, and that they are much better off than they were back in North Korea," he said. "We don't know how to motivate these women to testify against their embassy, or their country, actually."

Without testimony, Svec said, officials cannot begin an investigation to gather bank information. He said Prague had temporarily stopped issuing visas to North Korean workers, at least until the end of this year.

"It's not forever," he said. "But it's our reaction to the problem."

Prague imposed its visa ban after the European Parliament heard testimony in March from Kim Tae San, a former North Korean diplomat who was stationed in Prague before defecting to South Korea in 2002. While at the embassy, Kim brought North Korean women here to work, he said.

"Almost their entire monthly salaries," Kim testified, "are deposited directly in an account controlled by the North Korean government."

He said that 55 percent was skimmed from the top of the women's salaries as a "voluntary" contribution to North Korea. After additional deductions - for accommodation and items like birthday gifts for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il - the women were left with around $20 to $30 a month, he said.

Nonetheless, human rights activists say, the opportunity to work abroad is enticing for North Koreans.

"They probably weren't brought against their will," said Kay Seok, the North Korea supervisor for Human Rights Watch, by telephone from Seoul. "They probably chose to go, and would choose to stay."

"What we want," she added, is to ensure "that they get paid appropriately and that they can do what they want outside work hours."

Investigators have been unable to ascertain the extent of the North Koreans' personal freedoms, like speech and movement, Svec said.

In Nachod, the North Korean workers socialize with their foreign co-workers at the Snezka factory. They speak Czech and talk about work, but never socialize after work hours, colleagues said, and they are watched over by a translator who most often answers for them.

Without having the freedom to speak, "that means that they don't have any freedom at all on the ground of a democratic country," said Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers. "This is just more evidence that the women are hostages of North Korean officials."

Some Czech officials defend the practice of hiring North Koreans.

Asked whether the program would be halted definitively, Simerka replied, "We don't think about it at all." The fact that the North Koreans "work in a democratic country and see different working conditions" and a different way of thinking, he added, could be of benefit when they return home and "talk about how different it is."

Pyongyang has sent workers out to a wide variety of countries, according to rights activists, among them Bulgaria, China, Kuwait, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Russia and Yemen.