A North Korean labourer who endured years of slave-like conditions working for Polish company ‘Crist S.A.’, a supplier of a Dutch ship-building firm, has filed a legal complaint against the Dutch firm. It was argued that the Dutch firm knew about the inhumane, slave-like conditions that Crist workers are subjected to, but still went ahead with ordering ship components at a lower cost. The severity of this case highlights significant gaps in labour protections within the European Union and the lack of remedies available to affected workers. The action relied on the research of Remco Breuker and Imke van Gardingen at the LeidenAsiaCentre in Leiden University and was supported by the Global Legal Action Network and the Freedom Fund, with the law firm Prakken d’Oliveira representing the plaintiff.

The labourer, who will remain anonymous to protect his safety, endured 12 hour workdays in unsafe conditions, and had much of his wages seized by the North Korean state. Reports by Polish labour inspectors revealed that health and safety regulations were routinely flouted, resulting in accidents and at least one fatality. Labourers working for Crist, a leading shipyard on the European market, also had their freedom of movement restricted, and could only return home after years of labour in poor conditions.

The North Korean regime sends tens of thousands of it citizens to foreign countries where they are exploited as a cheaper source of labour. The most recent study estimates that about 150,000 North-Koreans have been working overseas for the Pyongyang regime under slave-like conditions. North Korean labourers must forfeit their wages to the regime, relinquish their passport, work long hours at lesser pay in unsafe conditions, and live in conditions of effective imprisonment. For the regime the workers generate much needed foreign currency that offsets the impact of U.N. sanctions, a response to the country’s nuclear weapons program. According to Remco Breuker, Professor of Korean Studies at Leiden University, “North Korea is the world’s largest illegal job agency”.

“This legal action, targeting labour exploitation in supply chains, will send a strong message to multinational corporations that profiting from forced labour will entail serious legal risk,” said Dr Gearóid Ó Cuinn, Director of the Global Legal Action Network. “This case reminds us that more needs to be done within Europe, where modern day slavery is thriving”. The labourer’s legal team made a strategic decision to pursue the complaint through the Dutch legal system. Prakken d’Oliveira lawyer Barbara van Straaten explains: ‘Dutch law offers a unique provision which criminalises the act of “profiting” from exploitation. This opens the possibility to hold those companies accountable which are not direct perpetrators in the labour exploitation, but which nonetheless knowingly profit from this exploitation, gaining high profits in the West at the expense of workers from developing countries.’

The anti-slavery organisation the Freedom Fund, are also supporting the action. "This is a potentially ground-breaking complaint that puts on notice those companies who continue to knowingly profit from modern slavery. By taking this case forward, the Netherlands has a clear opportunity to lift the veil of impunity surrounding corporate accountability for human rights harms in their supply chains and deliver justice to the victims of these heinous crimes.” said Nick Grono, CEO of the Freedom Fund.

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