"Twenty-first century slaves" to return to North Korea this year

There are hundreds of North Korean women working in the Czech Republic under a system in which half of the money they earn is said to go straight to Pyongyang. They have even been described as modern day slaves. After several years of controversy the women will be soon be going home - thanks to international politics, not the Czech authorities.

At the Snezka factory in Nachod, north-east Bohemia North Korean seamstresses work in shifts producing textiles. While under communism Czechoslovakia hosted thousands of workers from "brother countries", these women and others like them have not actually been here so long. The first two dozen arrived in 1998; now there are close to 400.

Speaking less than perfect Czech, Chol Yong Ri describes himself as an interpreter for the Nachod seamstresses. But he seems in actual fact to be more like a minder.

"Their parents asked me to look after the girls as well as they would themselves, that's my responsibility. Without me they would find it hard to survive here. They are living abroad for the first time and they are inexperienced. Some of them are really afraid something could happen to them."

The Snezka textiles factory is managed by Miloslav Cermak.

"The girls from Korea are the best workers. Among the 50 highest paid girls here, three-quarters are Koreans. They are good with their hands and very hardworking. We're really satisfied - they do good and precise work."

Mr Cermak also believes the women benefit from being exposed to a culture more open than their own.

"Under communism when we went somewhere in the west we told family and friends that there was far more freedom and opportunities there. I think these girls will do the same when they go home. In theory the more of them who travel and then return home, the more pressure there will be to change things in their country."

Mr Cermak's North Korean employees previously worked at a shoe factory in Skutec, central Bohemia. They were let go after an incident in which a Czech Television journalist was assaulted as he tried to investigate their working conditions.

One perspective on the conditions at their current place of work is provided by a Polish colleague.

"They work longer hours than the Czechs, Slovaks or Poles. They have to give their money to North Korea, instead of keeping it for themselves. That's not fair."

Miloslav Cermak says he pays the women individually, into their own hands. But is this true? Kim Tae San, a former official at the North Korean embassy in Prague, says all their money is paid into one account, which he himself used to administer. Over half is handed over as a "voluntary contribution" to the North Korean state. Mr Kim, who now lives in South Korea, has described the practice as "21st century slave labour".

"Interpreter" Chol Yong Ri denies this.

"He's a Korean guy who became a refugee and has been spreading lies about us. I don't want to say what kind of a man he is, but I think he knows that everything he tells journalists and others is untrue. I'm not even interested in talking about him."

Michal Pejskal is an official from the labour office in Nachod. He says an inspection of the Snezka factory in 2004 found no evidence of wrong-doing. Few locals are interested in the low wages offered by the factory, so his office cannot oppose work permits for foreigners.

"We can't find Czech people to offer to work in Snezka. It's up to the employer to choose if they want Vietnamese or North Koreans. We don't have any legal tool...to cancel this permission. If we don't have suitable clients to offer them we can't do anything. All formal things are correct."

Despite the fact all their papers are in order, the North Korean seamstresses at Snezka - and elsewhere in the Czech Republic - will soon be going home. The main reason is international politics, says Tomas Haisman of the foreign police section of the Interior Ministry.

"In line with sanctions against North Korea which the United Nations introduced last year, it has been decided that no further work permits will be given to North Koreans in the Czech Republic. Those who have permits now will not have them renewed. That means by the end of 2007 the stay of all 400 North Koreans in this country will have come to an end."

Mr Haisman says his department has been aware of problems linked to the North Korean seamstresses for some years, but was unable to intervene.

"The problems with their working conditions were investigated several times by the relevant authorities, and everything was in order. I'm talking here about the Ministry of Labour. If you want the opinion of the Interior Ministry, then the ending of visas for such workers is in line with what has been our attitude to this issue for some time."

What's more, Tomas Haisman says the Interior Ministry has actively sought to help the North Korean women - so far in vain.

"From the moment we first learned of the presence of North Korean seamstresses in our country we have been prepared to offer them asylum, should they ask for it. That hasn't happened. To a certain extent that has surprised us, but of course you can understand it too. They could stay here. It's a pity that hasn't happened over all these years."