UK imported PPE from Chinese factories secretly using North Korean slave labour

The UK Government is investigating claims that it sourced PPE from Chinese factories where North Korean women have been working as modern slaves.

The Department of Health is thought to have ordered hundreds of thousands of coveralls from factories in the north-east city of Dandong, on the banks of the Yalu River which forms the border between China and North Korea. 

In these workplaces it is alleged North Korean women have 70% of their wages seized by the North Korean state, work 18 hours a day, have little or no time off, are under constant surveillance and cannot freely leave the factories. 

‘The workers have no days off,’ a manager at one factory told The Guardian, which revealed the story following a three-month investigation.

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‘They are not allowed to go out. The North Korean [state] controls them. They make money for the country.’

The newspaper’s investigation found that the workers make between 2,200 (£240) and 2,800 (£310) yuan a month but they have to hand over most of it to their North Korean manager who passes it over to the state. 

This tiny amount is still more than the workers could hope to earn in North Korea, leaving impoverished people vulnerable to being exploited. 

The UN has classified North Korea’s export of workers to foreign countries as state-sponsored forced labour which is a form of modern slavery, according to the International Labour Organzation. 

Factories using North Korean workers breach UN sanctions which are intended to cut off the state’s income and reduce the money it has to spend on the regime’s prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. 

The US has also individually sanctioned North Korea and banned importing any goods that have been manufactured, completely or in part, by North Koreans. 

But the Guardian investigation found evidence that North Korean labour has been used in factories exporting PPE to the US, as well as Italy, Germany, South Africa, South Korea, the Philippines and Myanmar. 

However, there is no evidence that every party knew about the modern slavery in its PPE supply chains. 

Evidence, seen by the Guardian, suggests that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) awarded a contract to Unispace Global Ltd, a UK commercial design company that set up a PPE procurement wing called Unispace Health Ltd after the pandemic began.

The company has since become one of the country’s largest contractors for PPE. 

Documents seen by The Guardian suggest the order then went through a Chinese trading company which subcontracted to Dandong Huayang Textiles and Garments Co Ltd, which is a large garment factory in Dandong that uses a second branch.

Both factories appear to be using North Korean workers, the investigation found.

There is no indication that the DHSC or Unispace Global Ltd knew that North Korean labour could be present in its PPE supply chains.

Metro.co.uk has contacted Unispace Global Ltd for comment.

In a statement the Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘We expect all suppliers to the NHS to follow the highest legal and ethical standards and proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts.

‘While this contract has now concluded, we take all allegations of modern slavery and forced labour seriously. We will investigate and make enquires of the supplier concerned.  

‘We have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect our health and social care staff on the frontline, with over 4.9 billion PPE items delivered so far.’

Garment manufacturers in Dandong have been using workforce from North Korea for years. Under the arrangement Chinese factories get a cheap and compliant workforce and the North Korean regime receives millions of dollars in return.

As the pandemic swept across the globe, garment manufacturers in the border city quickly began to convert their production lines from clothing to isolation gowns and protective coveralls.

According to a post on the Dandong government website, more than 21 million pieces of PPE were produced by factories in and around the city between January and July this year.

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