October 28, 2009 10:18
Nachod is a small village in the Czech Republic around three hours by car from the capital Prague. It is an isolated place sparsely dotted with farm houses. On the outskirts of the village is a two-story factory called Snezka that manufactures sheets for cars and travel bags. Until 2007, the factory was filled with North Korean women who had gone there to work.
The European press described the women as "21st century slaves," being watched 24 hours a day by North Korean minders and required to wire most of their earnings back to North Korea. The Czech government eventually sent back all North Korean workers by 2007, including the 90 women who had been working for Snezka.
As orders from European automakers skyrocketed, the number of staff at Snezka rose to around 700, but it was difficult to find cheap and dependable workers in such a remote place. That was when the North Korean Embassy in the Czech Republic called to offer the services of "loyal" workers. The first handful of North Koreans who were hired proved to be excellent workers and the factory kept on hiring more. "From an employer's perspective, they were ideal workers," one executive recalls. "Unlike Czech or Ukrainian workers, the North Koreans never wasted time drinking coffee and chatting. They were very good with their hands too. They were extremely accurate in their sewing, as if machines had done it."
The executive objects to the term "21st century slaves." The North Koreans worked eight hours a day, five days a week in two shifts -- 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. Weekends earned them an extra 75 percent of their daily incomes, a standard uniformly applied to both North Korean and other workers. Factory staff say the North Koreans led a dull existence. Three or four lived in a house supplied by Snezka, and they traveled in groups of five or six even when they were going for a short walk around the factory.
They rarely talked to other workers. One worker from Poland says, "I never heard them say a single word about their family, friends or hometowns." In time, around half of the 90 North Korean workers were able to communicate in Czech, but they were still said to be "quiet."
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