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Zainab Calcuttawala

Zainab Calcuttawala

Zainab Calcuttawala is an American journalist based in Morocco. She completed her undergraduate coursework at the University of Texas at Austin (Hook’em) and reports on…

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Slave Shipyards: The Oil Industry's Shocking Secret

Kim Jong Un

A series of news reports coming out of Norway claim to connect a Norwegian shipping company that operates seismic vessels for the oil industry to slave labor benefitting high-level officials in North Korea’s dictatorial Worker’s Party.

Parts of GC Reiber Shipping’s flagship seismic vessel, the Polar Empress, have allegedly been constructed by North Korean workers brought to Gdynia, Poland, by Armex, a local staffing company.

Oil and gas companies use seismic vessels to locate the best possible area to drill in oceans and other high seas, explains Marine Insight, a non-profit maritime training website. The Polar Empress, with its ability to tow up to 122 seismic cables at once, is recognized as one of the most advanced vessels of its kind in the world.

When Gdynia’s Labor Inspectorate began investigating the staffing company’s operations, it found that as many as 90 percent of active workers at the shipyard had come from North Korea. In their new European home, they regularly worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, according to the Norwegian trade newspaper Teknisk Ukeblad.

The workers also reportedly had their passports confiscated and did not enjoy full freedom of movement, even in their limited free time.

The new round of local reports, and an investigation conducted earlier this year by VICE give credence to suspicions raised by major human rights organizations for decades: the North Korean government has been sending workers abroad and confiscating their wages to pay for luxury goods for Kim Jong-Un and his government’s elite. Related: Ambitious Nuclear Expansion Is Causing Problems For China

"We don't receive the money personally in our hands," one worker told VICE. "We let the company look after it. When I return to [North] Korea I'll get the money. If we carried cash, there's a chance that we could lose it. Anyway we don't need any money on the way to and from work. We leave it to the company, that's safest."

The worker could not tell the investigator his hourly or monthly wage, and when asked about the name of the company that employed him, he responded: "That's a secret."

A May article by The Telegraph cited a study by the Leiden Asia Centre that identifies three North Korean companies - Korea Cholsan General Corp, Korea Rungrado General Trading Corp and Korea South-South Cooperation Corp - that have supplied Armex and a similar company called Alson laborers from the DPRK.

Teknisk linked Armex and its slave laborers to the construction of at least nine Norwegian ships built for high-tech oil exploration purposes.

The findings cast a shadow over Norway’s shipbuilding industry, which has prided itself on fairness and respect for human rights, Sputnik News commented, adding that Armex’s CEO Cecylia Kowalska has firmly rejected signs that her company maintained close ties with the North Korean government. Related: 4 Energy Storage Options That Elon Musk Is Ignoring

GC Reiber Shipping itself is a voluntary signatory to the United Nations Global Compact, self-identified as the “world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.”

The compact’s labor rights section flatly rejects forced or slave labor and unsafe working conditions, including those suffered by the roughly 100,000 North Korean workers earning money for the DPRK’s regime in several countries around the world.

Reiber has faced two consecutive quarters of financial losses as oil companies shy away from new ventures and exploration activity due to chronically low global oil prices.


In the second quarter of this year, the firm saw a utilization rate of just 45 percent for its 11-vessel fleet. This time last year, the ships were in use 90 percent of the time.

“The market continues to see introduction and enhancement of oil companies extensive cost reduction programmes,” the firm’s board lamented. "The cost reductions are followed by continued limited exploration, severely affecting the seismic industry.”

By Zainab Calcuttawala for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Barrack Obama on August 31 2016 said:
    How else will socialist countries prosper? In order for the masses to live off of welfare, people who work must be imported as well.
  • Kr55 on August 31 2016 said:
    Love the picture choice for the article.
  • PaisleyPeach on September 13 2016 said:
    Polish abuse of North Korean workers turns my stomach over, but differs little from the use of Chinese "prison" labor by American companies determined not to pay American workers a fair price - or even the American minimum wage.

    If tariffs just lead to tariff wars, maybe there is another way to protect laborers. Instead of tariffs perhaps there should be some sort of international verification system to investigate and affirm that workers are not being exploited. Products produced by exploited workers would simply be banned from the markets of participating nations. Business owners would remain free to locate factories or source products anywhere in the world provided that their workers were not mistreated. In some cases, the increased cost in labor would result in business owners choosing to leave factories in their home countries rather than searching the earth for the world's most vulnerable people. Thus, both workers abroad as well as the workers at home in signatory countries would have some measure of protection.

    Some severe reform in both domestic and international staffing agencies would be helpful as well. Certainly, in the United States staffing agencies are often used by employers to evade labor laws and to threaten workers with HB-1 Visa replacements - a situation that I think is partially responsible for the current anti-immigrant hysteria.

Leave a comment

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