Workers at a South Korean-owned kitchenware factory in the North Korean border city of Kaesong.

© 2004 Reuters

Imagine a factory in South Korea where the workers are prohibited from forming a labor union, electing their own representatives or engaging in collective bargaining. You can bet there would be angry protest rallies by the workers until the management corrects its ways, and the company would be in legal trouble for violating South Korea's Labor Law, which guarantees these and other basic workers' rights. And surely the country's powerful labor groups would be expressing their fury.

But just over the border in North Korea, no such rights exist at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where over 8,000 North Koreans work for South Korean employers. Considering North Korea's abysmal human rights record, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned. Yet South Korean labor activists have been completely silent. In fact, they will tell you that they have visited Kaesong many times, that the facilities are clean and modern, and that the workers are happy to work there.  
 
Indeed, South Koreans have plenty of reasons to be happy about the complex. For the government, it is a great relief to have an industrial complex so close to Seoul rather than a military installation ready to strike South Korea in a moment's notice. For South Korean businesses, Kaesong offers a cheap, relatively well educated labor force with no language barrier and considerable savings in production and transportation costs. For the North Korean government, Kaesong is a stable source of modest but badly needed foreign currency. For the workers, the complex offers jobs that pay more than twice the average North Korean salary as well as a clean and pleasant environment equipped with infirmaries, cafeterias and showers - amenities unheard of at most North Korean workplaces. The Kaesong Industrial Complex Labor Law guarantees some important labor protections, including paid vacation days, 150 days of maternity leave, restrictions on firing workers and recognition of the employers' responsibility to protect workers from dangerous work environments. Seoul-based foreign diplomats who have visited all seem to agree that it's neither forced labor nor a sweatshop.  
 
Given these realities, and the fact that other facilities in North Korea hardly live up to the government's description of "workers' heaven," could the Kaesong Industrial Complex be as good as it gets? Yes, if you equate clean and modern facilities with protection of basic workers rights, and if you ignore some of the problems that exist at there. By failing to push for better conditions, however, the proponents are effectively saying that North Korean workers do not deserve to enjoy some of the most basic workers' rights, not even the labor rights that North Korea has already committed itself to protecting when it signed onto relevant international treaties.  
 
Recent research by Human Rights Watch has concluded that, although the Kaesong Labor Law addresses certain workers' rights, many of the most fundamental rights are missing, including the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, the right to strike, prohibition of sex discrimination and sexual harassment, and a ban on harmful child labor. What this means in reality is that trade unions are non-existent at the complex, female workers have no legal remedy in case they are sexually harassed and children may be put to perform hazardous work, among other problems. Beyond the flaw in the Labor Law, Human Rights Watch also found that South Korean companies have been violating the Labor Law itself. The law stipulates that the employers pay the workers directly in cash, but instead the South Korean companies are complying with Pyongyang's demands to pay the workers' wages directly to the North Korean government. If North Korea is successfully strong-arming South Korean companies to violate the law designed to protect workers' rights, how can anyone be sure that the rest of the law is effectively enforced? The answer, simply, is no one can.  
 
The industrial complex is considered a step in the right direction only because the situation in North Korea is so dire, not because it lives up to the examples of workers' protections set by South Korea. But the current reality should not be accepted uncritically, and both sides should take steps to improve conditions there. As a first step, South Korea should be pushing to ensure its companies respect workers' rights, just as if they were operating within South Korea itself. At the same time, Pyongyang should amend the Labor Law to meet international labor standards, and allow South Korean companies to pay the workers directly. North Korea should also join the International Labor Organization, sign its core treaties and invite its officials to discuss the protection and promotion of workers' rights. Instead of labeling such recommendations an attempt to topple the regime or a smear campaign against the state, North Korea should take advantage of this opportunity to show the world its willingness to address international concerns and improve human rights conditions.  
Labor activists in South Korea have long fought for the protection of worker's rights. Those hard-won protections shouldn't end at the border.

Sophie Richardson is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.