China has been selling personal protective equipment or PPE made by hundreds of North Korean women who are being kept as modern slaves in the city of Dandong, which is located in the northeastern region of the country.
A new report found evidence that these protective coveralls have been exported to the US, UK, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, South Africa, Myanmar, and the Philippines. The report was based on a three-month long investigation conducted by The Guardian.
Working under "conditions of modern slavery," the North Korean laborers work up to 18 hours every day with either a short break or no break at all.
The workers are kept in secret factories that they are not allowed to leave. Subjected to constant surveillance, their movements are closely monitored.
A manager in one of these secret factories revealed North Korea is aware of such arrangements and even exerts control over the workers for profit. The North Korean state reportedly gets 70% of the workers' wages.
"They make money for the country," the manager said.
The UK government, upon learning of The Guardian's report, is alarmed that the manufacture of such products was done in violation to human rights, as it has bought PPE from China that were made in these factories. MPs urged the government to conduct an investigation.
"We urge the government to investigate them immediately and outline exactly how procurement processes could have got them in a place where this kind of supply chain check didn't happen. The UK's ethical obligations should not be jeopardised at a time like this," Labor MP Rachel Reeves said.
Liberal Democrat politician Paul Scriven, who has expressed his criticism on how the British government procured PPE, emphasized the need to ensure that human rights were "not sidelined" even as the government answers the demand for protective coveralls for the NHS.
"This is another example of the way in which PPE procurement clearly isn't being done with both probity and ethics at the centre of its operation," he said.
In 2015, UN investigator Marzuki Darusman revealed tens of thousands of North Koreans were being used as modern slaves in different countries like Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Mongolia, Kuwait, Nigeria, Malaysia, Poland, and Cambodia.
North Korea was said to be in a "tight financial and economic situation," and the use of modern slaves is one way for the state to augment the country's income. Darusman pointed out that North Korea violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Darusman said over 50,000 workers were being used as laborers in various industries, such as logging, textile, mining, and construction. He added that according to International Network for the Human Rights of North Korean Overseas Labor, these workers earned up to $2.3 billion for the North Korean state in 2012.