UK sourced PPE from factories secretly using North Korean slave labour


The Guardian has reported that their investigation found evidence that Chinese PPE factories supplying UK government are breaking UN sanctions.

The British government has sourced PPE from factories in China where hundreds of North Korean women have been secretly working in conditions of modern slavery, according to evidence uncovered by the Guardian.

The findings indicate that hundreds of thousands of protective coveralls ordered for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have come from factories using North Korean labour in the Chinese city of Dandong.

The three-month investigation has also found evidence of North Korean labour being used in factories exporting PPE to the US, Italy, Germany, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Myanmar.

It is claimed that the North Korean workers in Dandong, who are mostly women, work for up to 18 hours a day, with little or no time off. They are under constant surveillance and are unable to freely leave the factories.

Sources indicate that the North Korean workers in PPE factories in Dandong have about 70% of their wages seized by the North Korean state.

“The workers have no days off. They are not allowed to go out. The North Korean state controls them. They make money for the country,” said a manager at one factory.

The UN has branded the export of workers to foreign countries by the North Korean regime as state-sponsored forced labour, defined as a form of modern slavery by the International Labour Organization.

The findings suggest that the UK government may have indirectly funnelled taxpayers’ money into the pockets of Kim Jong-un and his brutal regime which the UN has said is guilty of “widespread and gross human rights violations” amounting to crimes against humanity.

The use of North Korean workers in China breaches UN sanctions which were put in place to cut off the income North Korea earned from its overseas workers and other foreign business interests. One of the explicit aims of the sanctions is to halt foreign export earnings being used to support the regime’s prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs. US sanctions also prohibit the import of any goods into the US manufactured in whole or in part by North Koreans.

The government has faced mounting criticism over its lack of transparency and accountability in awarding billions of pounds of PPE deals using regulations that allow contracts to be awarded directly and without competitive bidding in cases of “extreme urgency”.

“The government should not be using regulations that allow for emergency procurement to rush through contracts without even trying to find out if there are risks to workers in supply chains producing PPE. This lack of due diligence lays bare the truth that, far from effectively tackling modern slavery, the government’s policies are allowing the egregious exploitation of workers,” said Phil Bloomer, director of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Evidence indicates that the shipment of protective PPE overalls linked to North Korean labour was part of a contract awarded by the DHSC to Unispace Global Ltd, a commercial design company registered in the UK, which set up a PPE procurement operation called Unispace Health Ltd shortly after the pandemic began. It is now one of the UK’s largest contractors for PPE procurement.

According to documentation seen by the Guardian, the order then went through a Chinese trading company before part of it was subcontracted to Dandong Huayang Textiles and Garments Co Ltd, a large garment factory in Dandong, which shares some of its orders with a branch factory. Both factories appear to be using workers from North Korea.

There is no indication that the DHSC or Unispace Global Ltd knew that North Korean labour could be present in its PPE supply chains.

The shipment to the UK represents just a fraction of the PPE made by factories in Dandong which appears to use North Korean workers. In April 200,000 sterile coveralls landed in Bari, Italy, in boxes marked with Dandong Huayang’s distinctive branding. A distributor in South Africa advertised two million protective suits from the same company and smaller orders were found in the US, Germany, South Korea and Japan.

The Guardian found that two other factories in Dandong believed to be using North Korean workers have manufactured PPE for clients in the US and the Philippines.

Situated on the banks of the Yalu River in north-east China, which forms the border with North Korea, Dandong’s garment manufacturers have been sourcing workers from the totalitarian state for years.

It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, with Chinese factories getting a cheap and compliant workforce and the North Korean regime receiving millions of dollars in return.

As the pandemic swept across the globe at the beginning of the year, garment manufacturers in Dandong quickly began to convert their production lines from clothing to isolation gowns and protective coveralls. Fourteen companies in Dandong have registered medical protective equipment products with the US Food and Drug Administration in 2020.

The pivot to PPE was coordinated and supported by the local and provincial government, according to documents and reports on government and company websites.

“Dandong has become a global centre of production for gowns and coveralls because they already have cheap North Korean labour. Gown production is labour intensive, so in Dandong it can be produced at the lowest cost and the highest profit,” said Seung-jae Kim, a South Korean author of two books on North Korean overseas workers.

More than 21m pieces of PPE were produced by factories in and around the city between January and July this year, according to a post on the Dandong government website, making it a lucrative year for the city’s factory owners. “We’re all going to make millions,” said one.

On paper the workers earn between 2,200 and 2,800 yuan a month (£240-£310) but they only ever see a fraction of it. Instead, it is collected by the workers’ North Korean manager, who passes the majority on to the North Korean state. “The workers get a few hundred [yuan],” said the factory boss.

Despite this, the wages the workers are allowed to keep are still more than they could hope to earn in North Korea, leading to heavy demand for overseas work from the impoverished population.

Remco Breuker, Professor of Korean Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, says despite this, the arrangement is still a form of forced labour.

“Workers are not free to decline the work, to quit, to use their free time, if they have any, how they want to, to freely socialise, and they do not get paid sufficiently, or in extreme cases, at all,” he said.

In a statement the DHSC said, “We expect all suppliers to the NHS to follow the highest legal and ethical standards and proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts.”

Source: The Guardian

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