Minister D. Demberel
Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor
Government Building 2, Negdsen Undesnii Street
Ulan Bator - 210646, Mongolia

Re: North Korean Workers in Mongolia 

Dear Minister Demberel:

On July 22, 2008, Daily Business News Mongolia reported that Ulan Bator and Pyongyang have approved a deal allowing North Koreans to work in Mongolia. According to the US Department of State, the agreement, reached in February 2008, permits up to 5,300 North Korean workers to come to Mongolia over the next five years.

North Korea's economy has been in shambles for years, and it continues to suffer from serious and widespread food shortages. An opportunity to work overseas is hugely attractive to many North Korean workers. We are not advocating for Mongolia to reject North Korean workers, but to ensure that human and labor rights of North Koreans are protected while working in Mongolia.

Human Rights Watch has investigated situations where North Korean policies have restricted the rights of North Korean workers working for non-North Korean firms. In our October 2006 report, North Korea: Workers' Rights at Kaesong Industrial Complex, we documented shortcomings in the Kaesong Industrial Complex labor law in the areas of freedom of association, collective bargaining, prohibitions on sex discrimination and sexual harassment, child labor, among others. Tens of thousands of North Koreans work for South Korean firms at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Human Rights Watch has not attempted to contact North Korean workers overseas, largely because of concerns that it could have negative consequences for their security. Reports by local media and activists in at least two European countries hosting North Korean workers suggest that they have faced severe restrictions upon their freedom of expression, movement and association, and remained under virtually constant surveillance by North Korean "minders," and were routinely forced to deposit a large portion of their salaries in a bank account controlled by North Korean embassy officials.

We ask the government of Mongolia to consider these troubling reports as it negotiates with North Korea the terms and conditions for the employment of North Korean workers in Mongolia. To ensure that the basic rights of North Korean workers in Mongolia are protected, Human Rights Watch urges the Mongolian government to:

  • Make clear to the North Korean authorities that North Korean workers living in Mongolia are entitled to the same enjoyment of human and workers' rights as others in its jurisdiction.
  • Conduct thorough on-site investigations in facilities where North Koreans work, whether through its own inspectors or with the cooperation, for example, of experts from the International Labour Organization. Workers should be randomly selected for interview, and be guaranteed anonymity. Interviews should take place outside the work places, without the presence of other North Korean workers or officials, using an interpreter not provided by the North Korean authorities. Any findings of violations under the Mongolian labor laws should be responded to promptly and appropriately by the authorities.
  • Ensure that all North Korean workers are fully informed of their rights and how to exercise them, and information about their rights is easily accessible, for example, by requiring such information to be publicly posted at the workplace in Korean.
  • Put in place extra safeguards to seek to ensure that workers receive net wages compliant with minimum wage laws, for example, by requiring as a condition of work visas for North Korean workers that Mongolian employers regularly submit to the visa issuing agency forms signed by the workers acknowledging receipt of wages directly from their employers, rather than by agencies or the North Korean government.
  • Monitor freedom of movement of North Korean workers so that they can leave and return freely to their residences without permission or supervision of any North Korean officials, and that they can actually exercise freedom of association and expression.

We would welcome further engagement with the Mongolian government on this important issue, including the opportunity to provide more detailed recommendations and suggestions for specific language to be included in any labor agreement negotiated with North Korea. We look forward to your response and would appreciate any information on further development regarding labor agreement negotiations.

Thank you for your kind consideration.

Yours truly,

Elaine Pearson
Deputy Asia Director
Human Rights Watch

Cc: Minister S. Oyun
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Peace Avenue 7A
Ulan Bator - 210648, Mongolia