Today (16 December), La Strada International, with support of Prakken d’Oliveira and the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) have filed an appeal challenging the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s failure to prosecute two Dutch
shipbuilding companies for profiting from North Korean forced labour at their supplier’s shipyard in Poland. The human rights groups argue that the Dutch firms knew or reasonably could have known about the inhumane, slavery like conditions that North Korean workers were subjected to, but still went ahead with ordering ship components. Workers sent to these compounds claimed to have endured years of slave-like conditions, including working between
10 and 13 hours each day; pay confiscated and sent to North Korean regime, and dangerous working conditions.
In December 2021, after a preliminary investigation, the Dutch Public Prosecutor found that it could not be established that the Dutch companies had profited from the forced labour. At the same time the Public Prosecution did acknowledge the systematic exploitation of North Korean workers in Poland by companies supplying to the Dutch shipbuilding industry and that “all elements of the description of the crime of human trafficking [were] met”. Contemporary reports by Polish labour inspectors revealed that health and safety regulations were routinely flouted, resulting in accidents and at least one fatality.
The Dutch companies supervised and were involved in the entire shipbuilding process: from the first drawings to the turn key of the last screw. About 80 North Koreans worked at the Polish shipyard in question, where 90% of the work
conducted was for the Dutch market. Deliberately taking advantage of the exploitation of another is criminalized in the Netherlands. Acquiring goods which are known or could have reasonably be known to be produced through a crime like forced labour amounts to the crimes of money laundering and fencing under Dutch criminal law. The inhumane working conditions came to light through a Leiden University investigation and a documentary by Why Slavery.
The appeal with the Court of Appeal in The Hague against the decision not to prosecute the Dutch shipbuilding firms is a potentially groundbreaking complaint. The case highlights significant gaps in labour protections within the EU
and the lack of remedies available to affected workers. By taking this case forward, the Netherlands has a clear opportunity to enforce corporate accountability for human rights harms in their supply chains and deliver justice.
The case comes at a time of significant changes in the Netherlands - with a new due diligence law to be discussed before the Dutch Parliament in January. The case also highlights the need for action at the European level. The
European Commission has proposed a EU law on business and human rights due diligence as well as a regulation on prohibiting products made with forced labour from the Union market. In addition, important legislation on human trafficking and victim rights is under review.
More information about the case can be found on the website: https://www.lastradainternational.org/nkforcedlabour/.
La Strada International is represented in the case by Barbara van Straaten.