Large numbers of North Korean workers are stranded in Chinaâ€”made jobless by the coronavirus, but unable to return home until they meet hard currency quotas set by the government in Pyongyang that exports their labor and takes more than 90 percent of their wages.
The workers, as well as the North Korean handlers who arrange the contracts in China and remittances to Pyongyang, are waiting out the coronavirus until jobs return, but laborers are getting by on little more than rice and kimchi, sources familiar with their plight told RFA.
The workers have been able to save very little after surrendering about 95 percent Â of their wages to the North Korean government, which desperately needs foreign cash as it has been squeezed by U.S. and U.N. sanctions aimed at depriving it of resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs.
The sanctions targeting labor exports mandated that North Koreans abroad on working visas return home by Dec. 22, 2019, but RFA reported at the time that workers in China were ignoring the deadline. North Koreans also enter China on family visit visas and find short-term jobs.
In late January RFA reported that Chinese authorities had instructed police not to enter places of business employing North Koreans, a sign that Beijing was willing to look the other way in the face of sanctions violations. The stream of workers continued from North Korea to China even as late as February, well after COVID-19 had become endemic there.
But now that social distancing measures in China have shut down the factories, North Koreans who were earning as little as U.S. $14 per month in takeaway pay are left with almost no safety net to rely on until businesses reopen.
â€œMany of the North Korean workers who have remained here in Dandong since the end of last year are scrambling,â€ a Chinese citizen of Korean descent, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFAâ€™s Korean Service.
The source said most of the workers remaining in Dandong, across the Yalu from the North Korean city of Sinuiju, have stayed in China in violation of sanctions.
â€œSome Chinese companies have unilaterally broken their labor contracts with the North Korean workers under the pretext of having no work due to the coronavirus crisis. So the workers are frantically looking for other jobs.â€
Hard currency quota
The source said that the North Korean handlers were reluctant to negotiate with the Chinese companies to work out a solution for fear of losing future business.
â€œIt is wrong that the Chinese companies unilaterally broke their labor contracts, but the North Korean company that manages the workers canâ€™t even express their resentment out of fear that they could lose the opportunity for future employment,â€ the source said.
â€œ[The workers] hope that once the coronavirus crisis is resolved, they will be able to go to work again with better wages and treatment, so they are just bearing with the situation,â€ said the source.
North Korean companies that export labor to China have their hands tied: They cannot get support from Chinese companies for their unemployed workers, but they also cannot simply bring them home, said the source.
â€œThey must somehow fill the foreign currency quota designated by the party, in order to be able to bring workers home,â€ the source said.
â€œIf they just leave the Chinese company, with which they had a hard-won labor contract, it would be a major setback for any future dispatch of North Korean workers to China, so they have no choice but to just endure the difficult reality and wait for the coronavirus situation to get better,â€ the source added.
A second source said Chinese companies normally pay about 2,500-3,000 yuan ($353-424) a month for each North Korean worker, of which the workers receive between 100 and 300 yuan ($14-42), or between four and 10 percent.
â€œThough this varies from worker to worker â€¦ what they get is terribly small,â€ said the second source, another Chinese citizen of Korean descent from Dandong, who declined to be named.
Living conditions for the unemployed workers have become dire, according to both sources.
â€œThey are divided into small groups of 10 to 20 workers and they try to earn money, at least for their rooms, by doing chores for small companies,â€ said the first source.
â€œTheir managers are letting the workers subsist on only rice and kimchi for their meals because they canâ€™t make any money,â€ the source added.
Brutal work for low pay
But life was difficult for these workers even before the coronavirus hit, according to the source.
â€œThrough November last year, thousands of North Korean workers were dispatched to Dandong to work in fisheries, food processing, and medicine and clothing manufacturing. They worked 12-hour days, pocketing only five to ten percent of the wages paid out by the Chinese companies.â€
The second source said that although they paid low wages, Chinese companies provided workers with the basics they needed to survive.
â€œWhen they were working, they were provided with daily necessities and fairly good meals compared to the Chinese workers. Once the coronavirus hit, their work was greatly reduced,â€ the second source said.
â€œI donâ€™t know why the North Korean authorities are giving such a hard time to these female workers, especially considering they have been working so hard to make lots of foreign currency,â€ added the second source, who said most affected workers are young women in their early 20s.
â€œThey may stay in the accommodation provided by the shut-down factory, but because the Chinese company does not support food expenses, they are having rice for their three meals a day without any side dishes,â€ said the second source.
RFA attempted to contact the UN Security Councilâ€™s North Korean Sanctions Committee for comment on North Korean workers still in China after the Dec. 2019 sanctions deadline. As of Monday, there was no response.
The Korean International Trade Association, a private economic organization, estimated the number of North Korean workers in China at 70,000 to 80,000 in August 2019. South Koreaâ€™s Foreign Ministry put the number of North Korean workers overseas at 70,000-100,000 as of the end of 2017.
Research institutes in Seoul, including the Korea Institute for National Unification and Sejong Institute,Â in numbers tallied before the sanctions deadline last year,Â estimated North Koreaâ€™s overseas workers to be around 100,000, 80 percent of which are in neighboring China and Russia, with 50,000 and 30,000, respectively.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFAâ€™s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.