This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Rolling blackouts in northeastern China have deprived North Korean factory workers of hot water and lighting in their cramped dormitories, making their living and working conditions even more unbearable, sources in China told RFA.
Though power outages are commonplace in North Korea they have been much less frequent until recently in China, where Pyongyang sends laborers to earn desperately needed foreign cash for the government.
“Power has been cut off to some of the large factories in Hunchun since the 24th of September,” a Chinese citizen of Korean descent, from Jilin province in China’s heavily industrialized northeast, told RFA’ s Korean Service Sept. 29th.
“The Chinese authorities explain that it’s because crowded large factories increase the risk of COVID-19 infection,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The source said that the government’s explanation was a ruse.
“We all know that there are power shortages because there’s been… fuel shortages, and the power shortages are particularly serious in the three northeastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang,” the source said.
The shortages are a result of a reduction in coal imports and decreased production, as Beijing tries to balance its growing energy demand with a desire to curb pollution by transitioning to alternative energy sources.
According to a recent estimate by Goldman Sachs, as much as 44 percent of China’s industrial activity has been hit by power shortages, leading analysts to cut their 2021 GDP growth forecast for China to 7.8 percent from an earlier estimate of 8.2 percent.
For the North Korean clothing manufacturers in Hunchun, who toil away in harsh working conditions as their government takes up to 90 percent of their salaries, the power outage was initially seen as some much-needed time off, according to the source.
“They didn’t understand the situation well, so they were saying, ‘Finally we can rest!’ but the company brought in generators and restarted the factory, so they had to work in even worse conditions than before,” the source said.
Though the generators supply electricity to the production line, the company did not power up the workers’ dormitory, leaving them without light, heat, and warm water.
“They have to bathe in cold water and stumble in the dark because they have no electricity in the dormitory… They appealed to the factory officials for basic standard living conditions, but nothing has changed so far,” said the source.
“Even their Chinese coworkers are feeling sorry for them, saying, ‘What have they done to deserve such conditions?” the source said.
Another Chinese citizen of Korean descent from Dandong, just across the border from North Korea, confirmed that power had been cut off to large factories in the city since the previous week.
“The authorities say that it is because of coronavirus quarantine measures, but factory officials already know that it is because of the power shortages happening all across China,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“More than 200 North Korean workers at a livestock processing plant here in Dandong… are working the same hours as before because the factory hooked up its own generator,” the second source said.
Like the garment workers in Hunchun, the meat packers in Dandong have to return to an unlit dormitory after work and bathe in cold water, the second source confirmed.
“How terrible it is that they work all day processing livestock into meat, and they can’t even wash properly after work, the second source said.”
“The North Koreans I met at the plant talked about how they work 16-hour days, and they are covered in blood and animal waste, but the only thing waiting for them is a tiny dormitory with only cold water for comfort.”
According to a recent RFA report, there are about 30,000 North Korean workers in the Dandong area employed in the region’s factories.
Though international nuclear sanctions prohibit North Korea from sending workers overseas and preclude countries from issuing work visas to North Koreans, Pyongyang has been known to dispatch workers to China and Russia on short-term student or visitor visas to get around sanctions.