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Dutch involvement in labour exploitation in North Korea, China and Pakistan

Clothes by big Western brands that are on sale in Dutch shops are sometimes made by North Korean workers. The Dutch state is co-financer of a motorway that is being built in Pakistan by exploited workers. These are the conclusions of a report published by the LeidenAsiaCentre on 2 April.

Remco Breuker at the presentation of the report in Nieuwspoort press centre

The report shows that Western companies and financial institutions are directly or indirectly responsible for labour exploitation, and contravene non-binding corporate social responsibility standards. Leiden Professor of Korean Studies Remco Breuker is project leader of a research team that studied two cases in which there was a Dutch presence.

Made in China

Clothing that is for the most part made in North Korea says ‘Made in China’ on the label. The team analysed import and export data from Chinese companies that supply large European and American clothing brands and concluded that some companies use North Korean workers, despite it being known that these workers are exploited and their human rights violated. The LeidenAsiaCentre therefore calls for more transparency and fairer working conditions in the clothing industry.

Previous reports on forced labour in North Korea

The LeidenAsiaCentre previously issued reports in 2018 and 2016 warning that European and Dutch companies were using North Korean forced labour at Polish shipyards. This provides the North Korean regime with foreign currency that it uses to purchase weapons. An investigation is now underway into this malpractice at Polish shipyards.

Labour exploitation in Pakistan

The second case study in the report is about the construction of the M4 motorway in Pakistan. This project is co-financed by the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The Dutch state is a stakeholder in both banks, which means that the motorway is co-financed by money from the Netherlands. The Asian Development Bank is the first multilateral development bank to commit to full compliance with the core labour standards of the International Labour Organisation. However, it is clear from interviews with construction workers involved in the M4 project that the working conditions are very bad. They are underpaid and do dangerous work without proper safety gear. Many of them do not have an official contract but are hired by illegal subcontractors. The researchers conclude that much more extensive monitoring is needed of the working conditions on the projects of these Asian development banks in which the Netherlands is a major stakeholder.

Paul van der Heijden: businesses should investigate their supply chain.

Government and business

At the presentation of the report in the Nieuwspoort press centre in The Hague, Breuker said it was shocking that the Netherlands allows such abuses. The government and business now needed to step up to the plate and tackle these modern forms of slavery. Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, MP and foreign affairs spokesman for the D66 party, agreed: ‘I’m shocked that there are products in Dutch shops that were produced using North Korean slavery.’ He said that legislation may have to be tightened and the government would have to work with business to fight such practices.

Sjoerd Sjoersma (centre): business and government must tackle this together.

Duty of care

‘The businesses in question have a duty of care, which is upheld by the guidelines for corporate social responsibility,’ said Paul van der Heijden, Leiden Professor of International Labour Law. ‘Businesses must be prepared to investigate the supply chain of their products.’

Jef Wintermans, Coordinator of the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile at the Social and Economic Council (SER), said that the report definitely provides some pointers for further research. The SER needs to verify whether the garment industry has kept to the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile. Preventing forced labour in the production chain is one of the themes that the signatories of the Agreement have promised to address. In response to the new report, the secretariat of the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile issued a statement calling on all signatory businesses to investigate their supply chains for any labour abuses.  

Read the full report ‘Tightening Belts: Two regional case studies on corporate social responsibility’

Banner photo: a textile factory in China: Lindsay Mailzland
Other photos: Monique Shaw

Mail the editorial team

The LeidenAsiaCentre is an independent research centre that is linked to Leiden University. The research team comprises experts on Asia, human rights and labour law. The Centre generates academic knowledge about modern East Asia.

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