They lived directly at the site, right in the very same houses. They worked as finishers and sometimes did hard labor, like mixing cement. They worked there for a little less than two months and were paid 15,000 roubles (about $230 -ed.) for five people.
On February 20, a judge in the Perm Krai – on the eastern edge of European Russia – ordered the deportation of five North Koreans on the grounds that they had been living there illegally. Before they were deported, the undocumented migrants met with human rights activists and revealed their work as forced laborers during the construction of 31 apartment buildings not far from the city of Perm.
Funds partially allocated from federal and regional budgets apparently financed the building project.
According to Human Rights Watch, observers estimated that over 100,000 North Koreans were working abroad in 2015. And on top of the fact that Kim Jong Un’s government would seize most of their earnings, they often worked in conditions that violate international labor standards.
Rights groups maintain that North Koreans sent abroad have suffered abuses that constitute forced labor. In 2017, the United Nations imposed new sanctions against North Korea in response to its ongoing nuclear and missile tests, including a ban on North Korean labor exports. After that, according to Reuters, Russia sent home two-thirds of the estimated 30,000 North Korean working there in 2018.
While all North Korean workers were supposed to be repatriated by the end of that year, reports emerged that the Russian government was still handing out hundreds of work permits to North Koreans. And that doesn’t account for the untold number of North Korean laborers that are working in Russia undocumented.
“They created slave-like working conditions there”
“On April 5, 2019, we visited a migration center in Perm, where they keep foreigners who are set for deportation,” recalls human rights lawyer Boris Ponosov. “There were five people awaiting expulsion to North Korea. One of them was named Chan.”
An undocumented North Korean worker named Chan, who agreed to discuss his circumstances with human rights lawyers prior to being deported from Russia. Photo: Novaya Gazeta
Chan was the only one who spoke a little Russian and since he was being deported the next day he agreed to record an interview. “He gave me permission to talk to the press, presented documents, court decisions and told me the circumstances of their case,” Ponosov says.
A Russian-Korean man known only by his last name, Tsoi, was allegedly responsible for bringing the undocumented North Korean workers to the construction site. He knew they were living in Russia illegally and at the end of December 2018, offered them jobs building a housing complex in a smaller city north of Perm.
“They effectively created slave-like working conditions there,” Ponosov explains.“They lived directly at the site, right in the very same houses. They worked as finishers and sometimes did hard labor, like mixing cement. They worked there for a little less than two months and were paid 15,000 roubles [about $230] for five people.”
According to Chan, he and the other workers spent most of their meager salaries on food, which they prepared in the apartments they were building.
“They even cooked for themselves there. The workday was 15 to 16 hours. They slept on the floor, there was no bedding, only old mattresses,” Ponosov says, recounting what Chan told him. “Tsoi took their passports. They were only returned after the trials, ahead of the deportation.”
After the five workers were detained, Tsoi promised to resolve the issue of their salary. He didn’t keep his promise.
Government Funded Forced Labor
The building project the North Korean laborers worked on – a giant apartment complex called Lyubimov – is located in the city of Usolye. The Ministry of the Economy regularly checked up on the project, which is financed with money from federal and regional budgets, as well as funding from the potash mining company Uralkali. Total funding for the project has reportedly exceeded 10 billion roubles (over $153 million).
What’s more, according to Chan, he and his colleagues were not the only ones living and working at the Lyubimov complex illegally. Other North Korean and Tajik migrants were allegedly staying there without documents too.
But on top of the fact that these workers are caught up in a government-funded forced labor project, Ponosov suspects that this is likely part of a long-running scheme. Chan and his colleagues were detained and convicted all in one day, and law enforcement did not disclose that they were detained at their workplace.
“In fact, another offense was kept hidden – illegal labor,” Ponosov underscores. “This is a violation not only on the part of the North Koreans themselves but also on the part of their employer.”
In essence, the way Ponosov sees it, dishonest employers are essentially being allowed to profit off the work of undocumented migrants – whose labor is so cheap it’s basically forced. Then these workers are deported from Russia at the government’s expense. Meanwhile, illegal labor practices are covered up with the help of the police, the Federal Migration Service and the courts.
That being said, Ponosov believes the chance of a proper investigation to determine who exactly illegally employed the North Korean workers is slim. The one-year statute of limitations for the case expired on February 20.
“It’s important that we arouse the interest of law enforcement and the public. That’s the goal of my appeals to the media,” Ponosov says. “The [state] budget is losing money and the employer is evading its responsibility. The employer is easy to identify [...] if they want to, they’ll find out.”
/ Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart, with materials from Novaya Gazeta correspondent Aleksandra Semenova. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.