China adjusts to influx of cheap North Korean labor [The Hankyoreh / 한겨레]

North Korean workers come to China as part of broad economic cooperation between two countries

By Song Kyung-hwa, staff reporter in Dandong

Sept. 13, 2012

In Dandong, where the inflow of North Korean labor is most active, there is a factory operated by a Singaporean company. The company makes men’s suits for export to Europe and used to operate a factory in Pyongyang. Due to problems with the electricity supply, they moved the factory to China where the situation is more stable. In this factory in Dandong, 400 factory workers in their 20s and 30s are North Korean. They work in the factory and live in a nearby company dormitory.

A Taiwanese businessman who used to operate a factory in Shanghai also has plans to move his operations to Dandong. His company has completed construction of facilities and plans to hire around 100 North Korean workers.

Another factory that produces sports apparel for export which used to be in Shandong province moved to a city close to the North Korea-China border. The factory was set up in Tumen and North Korean workers were dispatched for the first time last May. There are 300 North Korean women who work in this factory. A vinyl production factory about a kilometer away also employs North Korean women.

The activities of these North Korean workers are restricted. They live in dormitories or facilities provided by the factories. For lunch, they have been seen going in groups of 20 or 30 from the dormitory to the cafeteria, a 3-minute walk. Mr. Wang, a Han Chinese, 59, who works in a factory nearby said, “About two months ago, I began to notice young North Korean women in their 20s going to get water in groups of two or more. I only know which factory they are in, but I know nothing about their private lives. And the other companies or factories don’t know about them either.”

Some workers have come on one-month or three-month short-term training visas to set up under an official contract between the city and the North Korean government and extend their stay. They are dispatched with a male supervisor who is in charge of keeping an eye on them. It is said that the North Korean government would like to send more supervisors to watch over the female workers, but the factories have refused to allow them, which has been a source of some conflict.

The supply and demand of North Korean labor follows market fluctuations. It depends on the region, but the average wage of a Chinese factory worker is around 2000 to 3000 Yuan a month (between 355,000 and 535,000 won or US$315 to US$475). Meanwhile, the average wage of a North Korean worker is around 1500 Yuan a month (around 267,000 won or US$234). Because North Korean workers do not have the freedom to change workplaces, there is no reason to worry about a sudden outflow of labor.

North Koreans take the opportunity to work in China because wages are higher there than at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the industrial complex set up by South Korea just north of the DMZ. The average minimum wage set at Kaesong last month is US$67 (about 76,000 won) and last year the monthly wage of a North Korean worker there was around US$110 (around 124,000 won)

Not all of that money goes to the factory workers. There are differences among regions and factories, but on average, the individual worker receives around 150 to 200 Yuan at the end of the month. On average, around 600 Yuan is provided for the individual worker. There are factories where this is then pooled together and redistributed to senior and ordinary workers. The rest of the money goes to the North Korean government. At times the money is used for insurance or a fund for common expenses.

It is estimated that more than 20,000 North Korean women are working in textile or food processing factories in the North Korea-China border region. There are also some North Korean workers who are in more skilled fields like IT or animation. Counting the undocumented workers, the number is much larger. An official from KOTRA’s (Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency) Shenyang office said on Sept. 12 that it has been confirmed recently that since Kim Jong-un took power, North Korea has agreed with the different Chinese border cities to dispatch 120 thousand workers, the largest number ever.

Chinese businessmen are watching closely the next move by North Korea as more and more young Chinese workers seek white-collar work instead of physical labor. Securing a work force that is secure and well managed is a great advantage. It costs between 400 and 500 Yuan to cover the expense of one worker including accommodation and meals. But the cheap labor makes up for this. And it is for this reason, more and more Chinese businesses prefer to hire North Korean workers…

[Excerpted by Zuo Shou]

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