Under international pressure, Malta starts denying visas to exploited North Korean workers

Leisure Clothing director says no North Koreans working at his factory since Apri 2016 • Korean news agencies report denial of visas to 20 of over 70 North Korean workers in Malta, believed to be part of Kim Jong-un's slave labour army

The Leisure Clothing factory
The Leisure Clothing factory

Malta has taken steps to deny visa extensions for North Korean workers, on the back of international reports that the foreign nationals were effectively handing over some two-thirds of their salary to the autocratic regime of Pyongyang.

Malta was one of two EU states, the other being Poland, who appeared to be closing an eye to the exploitation of North Korean workers sent out by the hermetic Kim Jong-un regime to work around the world and send their salaries back to the communist regime.

In a comment to MaltaToday, Leisure Clothing managing director Bin Han said that his company was no longer employing North Korean workers since April 2016.

Asked for reasons why the factory was no longer employing North Korean workers, he cited “pressure from international clients” but refused to confirm whether visas were being denied to the company’s North Korean workers.

Inside Leisure Clothing. Photo: Matthew Agius
Inside Leisure Clothing. Photo: Matthew Agius

He said questions on how Leisure Clothing came to employ the workers in the first place, should be sent by email.

The news was reported by various South Korean human rights organisations. A meeting between Malta’s president Marie Louise Coleiro Preca and South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-Se was cancelled on Friday.

MORE: Exploitation case at Leisure Clothing factory

Malta denied visa extensions for some 20 North Korean workers who had been employed at a construction firm and a clothing maker, Yonhap news agency reported. All of the workers had since left Malta and returned to North Korea.

In July last year, the Chinese-owned Leisure Clothing firm was employing 36 North Korean workers. In November, the number went up to 41, out of the total 76 workers from North Korea employed in Malta.

Its managing director Bin Han is denying charges of human trafficking brought against him by the police.

Malta was accused by British human rights group of employing “forced labour” from North Korea through work schemes sponsored by Pyongyang. The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) said Malta has accepted workers from the DPRK Ministry of Fisheries.

Labourers were believed to work for a Chinese-owned firm based in Valletta, and quoted EAHRNK director Michael Glendinning as saying that Malta has issued 93 visas to North Korean citizens since March 2013.

Malta and Poland are the only two EU countries on the list of countries that employ forced North Korean labour, and the report’s authors said that neither country had responded to questions about their findings. The human rights group has urged both countries’ governments to investigate the cases.

The other countries that make up the list are Algeria, Angola, China, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. 

The report warns that North Korean labourers abroad work under poor conditions, with most of their wages automatically deducted so as to subsidise Kim Jong-un’s regime.

“The European Union has taken an active lead in pushing for greater international accountability and justice for North Korean human rights, but now it must look to its own shores,” said James Burt, the EAHRNK’s research and policy officer. “Forced labour generates hundreds of millions of euro for the North Korean leadership each year and this revenue is, most likely, invested in luxury goods, weapons production, and the maintenance of the most repressive regime on earth.

“North Korean labourers are often the cheapest source of labour and are often exposed to risks without any recourse to local health and safety or justice mechanisms. Workers are rarely provided with individual contracts, passports are confiscated, and the bulk of wages are paid in foreign currencies and transferred directly to the DPRK.”