It may look like an ordinary package of salmon, but according to a new investigative report, that fish you bought for dinner may actually be funneling money into the pockets of the North Korean government, and possibly supporting less than ideal working conditions for factory workers in the process.
The Associated Press says a recent investigation it conducted found that the North Korean government has been sending tens of thousands of workers into factories worldwide, including seafood processing plants in China that then export those products to the U.S. and other countries.
North Korean Workers In China’s Seafood Industry
Although it’s illegal for U.S. companies to sell anything from North Korea anywhere in the world, the fish at your local supermarket may still have been handled by a North Korean factory worker: As the AP explains, China and North Korea have an agreement that allows factories to contract for groups of North Korean workers. Dozens of fish processing companies in Hunchun, China — as well as other manufacturers — now employ workers from that country.
Although the workers are reportedly paid salaries similar to what Chinese workers make, anywhere from 50-70% of the money they earn is reportedly sent to the North Korean government, with workers receiving as little as $90 per month.
While the AP did not get access to factories in the area to assess conditions, its reporters found that workers often have contracts for two or three years, and they can’t leave early. And while Chinese workers have workplace protections that let them take time off, North Korean workers rarely take sick days or quit, the sales manager at one seafood processor told the AP.
It’s not easy work, either, the AP reports, with shifts up to 12 hours and usually only one day off each week.
Who’s Importing This Seafood?
After conducting dozens of interviews and researching trade records and other confidential documents, the AP says it has identified three seafood processors that employ North Koreans and export products to the U.S.
And according to shipping records the AP viewed, those companies sent more than 100 cargo containers of seafood, with more than 2,000 tons of fish, to the U.S. and Canada this year.
American distributors like Sea-Trek Enterprises and The Fishin’ Company both reportedly imported seafood from factories employing North Koreans. The Fishin’ Company told the AP it has cut ties with Hunchun processors, although food may remain in the supply chain for more than a year. Both companies expressed concerns about North Korean laborers to the AP, and pledged to investigate.
Some seafood arriving from China was branded with names like Walmart or Aldi’s Sea Queen line.
A Walmart spokesperson told the AP that the company learned in an audit a year ago that there could be labor problems at a Hunchun factor, and that Walmart has banned their suppliers — including The Fishin’ Company — from getting their seafood processed there.
We’ve reached out to Aldi for comment on the AP’s story, and will update this post if we hear back.
In the meantime, the president of the largest seafood trade association in the U.S. said his group is now urging all its companies to take another look at their supply chains “to ensure that wages go to the workers, and are not siphoned off to support a dangerous dictator.”
“While we understand that hiring North Korean workers may be legal in China,” John Connelly of the National Fisheries Institute told the AP, “we are deeply concerned that any seafood companies could be inadvertently propping up the despotic regime.”