Hundreds of temporary shelters sit next to a sprawling construction site on Reem Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), where multiple development projects are under way. The camps house laborers from around the world.
Three workers look Korean and turn out to be from North Korea. A skinny man who appears to be in his early 50s says, "I came here two years ago. There are around 100 of us here. I've been working in the Middle East for eight years now and made a lot of money. During that time I've gone home once every three years." He says he worked in Qatar and in Kuwait for six years and is a carpenter in Abu Dhabi.
◆ 1,300 N.Korean Laborers in UAE
Around 30,000 foreign laborers live in the camps on Reem Island. They come from all over the world, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. The North Korean laborers live in a part of the camp 400 m from the entrance. "Money was pretty good about three to four years ago, but now it's tough to find work," said one North Korean worker.
Around 1,300 North Koreans work in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, according to sources. Altogether around 6,000 North Koreans work in the Middle East, 3,100 of them in Kuwait. Some 800 work in the UAE and Qatar, with another 300 in Oman and 250 in Yemen. North Korea has been sending workers to construction sites in the Middle East so they can earn hard currency to send back to their impoverished country.
The movement resembles the exodus of South Koreans who came to the Middle East in the 1970s and '80s to work at construction sites, but the main difference is that the North Korean government takes away the money its workers earn there. When asked about their wages, one North Korean worker said, "A lot of us have many years of experience working overseas as carpenters or welders and make between $150 and $200 a month, which is about the same as the Pakistanis make." But those wages are what the workers keep after they have made their "loyalty" payments to the North Korean government.
One source in Abu Dhabi said, "North Korean workers make between $300 and $500 a month, but the North Korean government confiscates $150 and even $250 as loyalty payments, leading to a lot of conflict." North Korean labor export companies skim off an excessive amount of money from salaries. The level of discontent recently prompted the North Korean government to dispatch security agents who trawl construction sites on weekends to provide ideological "cleansing" sessions to workers.
◆ Bootlegging and Illegal Employment
Since the construction industry in the Middle East fell into a slump due to the global financial crisis, North Korean workers have been resorting to other means to make money. The most common method is bootlegging in Abu Dhabi, where alcohol is banned. But that is a criminal offense that carries to two to three months in prison and deportation. "The North Korean companies that sent the workers abroad are aware of the bootlegging but are turning a blind eye as long as the laborers pay portions of the profits," one local source said.
Some North Koreans leave the construction sites and work as handymen or build fountains for private homes. In August, a North Korean worker was deported after wandering into the home of a high-ranking police officer. "There was an incident early this year where a North Korean agent brought home a worker who was caught making critical comments about the North," a local source said.