The Number of Day Laborers Hired by Private Parties Increasing in North Korea

Daily NK
Lee Sung Jin

The number of day labor jobs offered by private parties is gradually increasing in the North. Unlike those with full time jobs at State-run factories, individuals with day labor jobs work by the day.

According to inside sources and many defectors who came to the South earlier this year, individuals looking for day labor jobs normally work as gold miners, construction workers in cities, as luggage carriers for train passengers and maids.

In North Korea, these day laborers are called “Bulbulee (which means a person sweats for labor),” “Sakbari (which means a person waiting for wages)” or “Ilkkun (workers).” It is reported that there are day labor hiring centers in big cities and around the closed mining areas.

Daily laborers’ wages vary based on the type of work. Laborers working at gold mines are provided with housing and food and get paid 1,500 North Korean won per day. In the city construction sites, skilled laborers such as plasterers earn 2,000 won daily whereas unskilled laborers make less than 1,000 won. Daily laborers are making good money compared to factory workers whose average monthly wages fall between 3,000 and 5,000 won.

Kim Yong Chul (pseudonym), a defector who used to work as a day laborer at a mine in Hoichang of South Pyongan Province said, “Since 2004, day labor hiring centers started to appear in the jangmadang (market) of Hoichang. Employers hired young men and women in good health on the spot and took them to workplaces.” He used to work at a mine well-known across the country since the Japanese colonial period. Mr. Kim said, “Day laborers not only dug for gold but were also mobilized to build or fix houses for their employers.”

In Hoichang, there are some gold mines closed by the authorities that were thought to be tapped out. In the mid 1990s, some locals dug the mines again and made a great fortune. Years later, around 2003, these locals began looking out for workers and started hiring individuals from other provinces. Now the county has a great number of day laborers from various provinces working at mines.

Good Friends, the Seoul-based relief organization dedicated to North Korea, said in a recent report, “On October 23rd at around 10 A.M., a gold mine in Hoichang of South Pyongan Province collapsed, leaving three miners dead and two wounded.” In the North, private parties are banned from trading gold and pine mushrooms by law, and only the State can make these types of transactions. However, it is well known that many officials in charge of enforcing the ban frequently take bribes and allow those who pay them to dig for gold in closed mines.

Gold miners usually stay underground between 15 to 30 days each time they begin a mining operation. The miners dig up the ore, crush it using a machine called a Maguanggi (ore-polishing machine) and apply mercury to extract gold. The whole process is done in underground tunnels, and the processed gold is sold to gold dealers in Pyongsung and Sinuiju.

Individuals who run the crushing machine are laborers from other provinces, and most of them are females. With food and housing provided by their employer, they make 1,000 won daily. If they work year-round this way, they can earn decent money.

45-year-old Park Jong Moo (pseudonym) who came to the South this year said, “I earned 2,000 won per day when I worked as a plasterer, building a house for a man who made his money from trade in Chongjin City.”

Mr. Park’s son worked as a cargo porter at the Chongjin railway station. Since there were so many “Sakbari (referring to cargo porters working for daily wages)” at the station, competition among “Sakbari” was fierce. Normally, these porters made less than 1,000 won per day.

It is becoming popular among party cadres and the new wealth to have a maid who does housework and takes care of children. These people introduce the maid to their neighbors as a ‘distant relative’ because having a maid is unthinkable in the Socialist North. While performing maid services and getting paid for the work that she does, the maid pretends to be a family member and acts as if she is merely helping out with the housework.

A source inside the North said, “There was once a party official in Chongjin who employed a girl as a maid after having paid her parents. When the official was accused of having a maid, the official said she was a ‘relative.’”

Regarding the rise in day laborers, an expert on North Korea says, “Those North Koreans who made a fortune from mining or trade privately employ laborers to further expand their businesses…However, since the regime will never allow the rich to become too powerful, it will begin to regulate the employment activities of private parties at the proper time.”


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