Pay cuts, longer hours for N. Korean workers in China

Seol Song Ah  |  2016-04-25 17:44
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North Korea appears to be pulling out all the stops to secure funds for the May Party Congress, requesting a Chinese company hiring its workers to prepay salaries and encouraging longer working hours. This comes as Pyongyang faces a reduction in cash from its restaurants overseas following international sanctions and a recent group defection of workers to the South. 

After receiving strong demands from the North, a Chinese fisheries company [name redacted to protect the source] in Dandong, which employs about 200 North Korean workers, wired six months worth of their wages to Pyongyang, a source with knowledge of North Korean affairs in China said, asserting that the move was to help the regime secure more money for the upcoming Party Congress. 

The Chinese firm usually sends most of the 500 USD allotted for each workers wages to Pyongyang, and the remaining 150 USD is handed over to the North Korean manager to distribute to the employees. However, recently, even the smaller proportion of those wages is not being reliably received. Because of that Im hearing more of the female workers say they would prefer to return to the North than stay in China, the source said. 

These female employees not only have long working hours but normally only get two days off per month and are rarely allowed to take leave, even if they are ill. 

The North Korean authorities have also expressly permitted this Chinese company to extend working hours from 12 to 13 in order to make more money off their workers. Facing reduced funds from its previously lucrative restaurant operations, the North appears to be turning to its other workers abroad to make up for the shortage. 

The company recently signed a contract with Japan, so it has extended its hours to 13 in order to get the packaging done on time, and the North has given its tacit consent, the source said. The extra wages for this were handed over to the North Korean manager, but the workers didnt see any of it. 

An additional source familiar with the situation in Dandong explained that many of the workers are unhappy with the strict schedule that requires them to work from 5am to 6pm without proper rest. The employees operate in units of ten members each, all living together in a single room. Getting leave to exit the compound, leave work early, or receive treatment if theyre sick is unthinkable, as the chances of receiving permission from their manager is remote, said the source. 

Workers are usually hand picked from Pyongyang and other major cities on contracts with Chinese companies. Initially, hope abounds as they think good money can be earned, but they eventually become resentful of the leadership, as their wages are low compared to the labor required, and they face strict regulations in every facet of their daily lives, the second source stated. 

The company doesnt even allow the workers to talk freely as they work, saying the goods need to be packaged with the utmost quality for exports, said the source. The North Korean authorities are aware of this, but rather than supporting its workers, it simply seeks to appease the demands of the Chinese firm.   

The prepaid wages have now added more strain on the workers. Having already been paid for full working hours, the North Korean manager is forcing employees to work even if they are sick. Some have fallen so ill that they have asked to be sent back home, but theyve been turned down with no room for consideration, the source lamented. 

*Translated by Jiyeon Lee

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