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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Employee Rights Act on North Korea

by and Marcus Noland | January 7th, 2012 | 04:57 am
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“Our country is well-organized. There are no riots, no strikes, no differences in opinion.”
Kim Mun-sung, then Deputy Chair of the Committee for External Economic Cooperation.

We are very protective of our North Korea comparisons. So we were not amused when we opened the New York Times this week to find a full page ad posted by EmployeeRightsAct.com; the organization had the temerity to put the ad online as well. The ad claims that “In North Korea people don’t get change [above a picture of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un]: American union members don’t either.”

The ERA seeks to force votes on union dues every three years. A nominally democratic move, the act is basically a union-busting effort.

But setting aside that debate, we just want to make clear how outrageous it is to draw the parallel between North Korea and the ever-shrinking US union movement. We simply reproduce here the Labor Rights section of the 2010 State Department report on human rights in North Korea so all are clear on what countries look like when the destruction of unions is carried to its logical extreme.

From the State Department report:

“Section 7 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association; however, this provision was not respected in practice. There were no known labor organizations other than those created by the government. The KWP purportedly represents the interests of all labor. There was a single labor organization, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea . Operating under this umbrella, unions functioned on a classic Stalinist model, with responsibility for mobilizing workers to support production goals and for
providing health, education, cultural, and welfare facilities.

Unions do not have the right to strike. According to North Korean law, unlawful assembly can result in five years of correctional labor.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Workers do not have the right to organize or to bargain collectively. The government controls all employment aspects, ranging from assigning jobs to determining wages. Joint ventures and foreign-owned companies are required to hire their employees from government-vetted lists of workers. Factory and farm workers were organized into councils, which had an impact on management decisions. Although the law stipulates that employees working for foreign companies can form trade unions and that foreign enterprises must guarantee conditions for union activities, the law does not protect workers who might attempt to engage in union activities from employer retaliation, nor does it impose penalties for employers who interfere in union activities.

There was one special economic zone (SEZ) in the Rajin-Sonbong area. The same labor laws that apply in the rest of the country apply in the Rajin-Sonbong SEZ, and workers in the SEZ were selected by the government.

Under a special law that created the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), located close to the demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea, special regulations covering labor issues negotiated with South Korea were in effect for the management of labor in the area. Those regulations did not contain provisions that guarantee freedom of association or the right to bargain collectively.

According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, a total of 122 South Korean firms were operational at the KIC as of December, and approximately 46,000 North Korean workers were employed at KIC as of December. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification reported that the DPRK’s Central Special Zone Development Guidance Bureau provided candidates for selection by South Korean companies. Under an inter-Korean agreement, North Korean workers at the KIC reportedly earned a monthly basic minimum wage of $60.77 after social welfare deductions (according to the KIC Labor Law, wages are set in U.S. dollars). Employing firms reported, however, that with overtime the average worker earned approximately $88 per month before deductions. Due to a lack of transparency, it was difficult to determine what proportion of their earned wages workers ultimately took home. Although the special laws governing the KIC require direct payment in cash to the workers, the wages were in fact deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which withheld a portion for social insurance and other benefits and then remitted the balance (reportedly about 70 percent) to the workers in an unknown combination of “commodity supply cards,” which could be exchanged for staple goods, and North Korean won, converted at the official exchange rate. Workers at the KIC do not have the right to choose employers.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor. However, the government mobilized the population for construction and other labor projects, including on Sundays, the one day off per week. The penal code criminalizes forced child labor; however, there were reports that such practices occurred (see section 7.d.). The government also frequently gathered large groups together for mass demonstrations and performances. “Reformatory labor” and “reeducation through labor,” including of children, have traditionally been common punishments for political offenses. Forced and compulsory labor, such as logging, mining, tending crops, and manufacturing, continued to be the common fate of political prisoners. The NGO Human Rights Watch reported that one defector was forced to work 16 hours a day in a mine.

The penal code requires that all citizens of working age must work and “strictly observe labor discipline and working hours.” There were numerous reports that farms and factories did not pay wages or provide food to their workers. According to reports from one NGO, during the implementation of short-term economic plans, factories and farms increased workers’ hours and asked workers for contributions of grain and money to purchase supplies for renovations and repairs. According to the penal code, failure to meet economic plan goals can result in two years of “labor correction.”

From April to September 2009, numerous reports indicated that the government initiated a “150-day battle” labor-mobilization campaign to boost the economy by increasing work hours and production goals. The 150-day battle campaign exhorted workers to work harder to resolve food shortages and to rebuild infrastructure. The labor drive was part of the country’s larger goal of building a “great, prosperous, and powerful” nation by 2012, the birth centennial of Kim Il Sung. Immediately after the 150-day battle the country engaged in a second labor-mobilization campaign, the “100-Day battle,” to further increase output.

A June NewYork Times report stated that each family connected to Chongjin state construction company was required to deliver 17 bags of pebbles each month to the local party committee to contribute to resurfacing Chongjin’s only paved road in preparation for the 2012 centennial of Kim Il-Sung’s birth.

Forced labor continued to take place in brick making, cement manufacturing, coal mining, gold mining, iron production, and textile industries.

Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/g/tip.

d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

According to the law, the state prohibits work by children under the age of 16 years.

School children sometimes were sent to work in factories or in the fields for short periods to assist in completing special projects, such as snow removal on major roads, or in meeting production goals. Children were forced also to participate in cultural activities and, according to academic reports, were subjected to harsh conditions during mandatory training sessions. Thousands of children were reportedly held and forced to work in labor camps alongside their parents.

Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/g/tip.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

No reliable data were available on the minimum wage in state-owned industries. However, anecdotal reports indicated that the average daily wage was not sufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Since the 2002 economic reforms, compensation underwent significant change, as citizens sought to earn hard currency to support themselves and their families. Workers often had to pay for services, such as housing rental and transportation, that previously had been provided either free or at highly subsidized rates by the state. Foreign observers who visited the country reported that many factory workers regularly failed to go to work, paying a bribe to managers to list them as present, so they could engage in various trading and entrepreneurial activities instead. The same source stated that many government factories were not operating, primarily due to electricity shortages.

Class background and family connections could be as important as professional competence in deciding who received particular jobs, and foreign companies that have established joint ventures continued to report that all their employees must be hired from registers screened by the government.

The constitution stipulates an eight-hour workday; however, some sources reported that laborers worked longer hours, perhaps including additional time for mandatory study of the writings of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The constitution provides all citizens with a “right to rest,” including paid leave, holidays, and access to sanitariums and rest homes funded at public expense; however, the state’s willingness and ability to provide these services was unknown. Foreign diplomats reported that workers had 15 days of paid leave plus paid national holidays. Some persons were required to take part in mass events on holidays, which sometimes required advance practice during work time. Workers were often required to “celebrate” at least some part of public holidays with their work units and were able to spend a whole day with their families only if the holiday lasted two days.

Many worksites were hazardous, and the industrial accident rate was high. The law recognizes the state’s responsibility for providing modern and hygienic working conditions. The penal code criminalizes the failure to heed “labor safety orders” pertaining to worker safety and workplace conditions only if it results in the loss of lives or other “grave loss.” In addition workers do not have an enumerated right to remove themselves from hazardous working conditions.

Citizens labored under harsh conditions while working abroad for North Korean firms and under arrangements between the government and foreign firms. Contract laborers worked in Africa; Central and Eastern Europe (most notably in Russia); Central, East, and Southeast Asia; and the Middle East. In most cases employing firms paid salaries to the North Korean
government, and it was not known how much of that salary the workers received. Workers were typically watched closely by government officials while overseas and reportedly did not have freedom of movement outside their living and working quarters.

Wages of some of the several thousand North Koreans employed in Russia reportedly were withheld until the laborers returned home, making them vulnerable to deception by North Korean authorities, who promised relatively high payments.”