DOHA, QATAR - In the heat of Qatar, nearly 3,000 North Koreans labor on construction sites, under harsh conditions.
The laborers and local construction managers tell VOA that they work very long hours and that most of their pay is confiscated by North Korean officials. One North Korean laborer said that only those with no money at all will agree to work overseas.
“Many go overseas because they have no capital," he said. "It is hard to live in the homeland without capital. To get a job, you need money. To do whatever, you need money. You come out because you have no money. But in reality, even if you come overseas, you still can’t save money."
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was walking outside a construction site in Doha. He vowed he would never work overseas ever again.
“Me? I will never come out again. Not only me, everybody else says this. We come out to earn money for ourselves, not to be exploited by managers or party secretaries. Honestly, workers here in Qatar are earning money for managers and party secretaries," he said.
He complained that most of his salary disappears because the North Korean government takes away a chunk of his salary for a "loyalty fund" and his North Korean recruitment company in Qatar takes away another chunk in "various expenses."
“Originally, I should be paid $750, or 2,500 Qatari riyals. But after taking this out and that out, the salary comes down to $150. From that miscellaneous expenses, savings are deducted again, and I end up with $100," he said.
He said people are lucky to take home $2,000 after working in Qatar for three years.
About 1.4 million foreigners work in Qatar. Most, including the North Koreans, work on construction sites.
There are four North Korean recruitment firms in Qatar: Sudo Construction, Gunmyung Construction, Namgang Construction and Genco. They are all managed by Pyongyang’s Foreign Construction Office. Of the four, Namgang Construction is staffed by North Korean soldiers, who do not get paid monthly. Instead, they receive $3,000 upon returning to North Korea.
One side effect of the low pay is many North Korean workers are tempted to engage in illegal activities. North Koreans have a reputation as the biggest manufacturers of bootleg liquor in Qatar, where only foreigners making over $1,100 a month can get a liquor permit.
Many migrant workers, who come to Qatar from all over the world, long for an alcoholic drink after a long day on the job. And North Koreans cater to them, despite the risk of getting caught.
This week, a North Korean translator for a North Korean recruitment firm in Qatar was expelled for bootlegging, after being arrested Sunday during a random Qatari police inspection. He was carrying a trunkful of illegal liquor in the Sanaiya industrial area, in a car registered to a North Korean. Because of the North Koreans' reputation for making illegal liquor, Qatari officials thoroughly scrutinize cars registered to North Koreans.
“When people get arrested by police for bootlegging, they get sent back to the homeland," one North Korean laborer said. "Recently, four people were expelled. But there are still other North Koreans who make it. They sell to Koreans and also people of other nationalities. One bottle is 15 North Korean won, which is about $5. That’s too expensive. But we still drink it to refresh our minds and feel better."
He said those involved in bootlegging make at least $10,000 in six months.
North Korean laborers first appeared in Qatar in 2003. Sudo Construction and Namgang Construction made inroads that year, followed by Genco in 2010.
In the West Bay area of Doha, filled with glitzy hotels and skyscrapers, are several construction sites that hire North Korean laborers. A luxury hotel being built at one site is set to be finished in eight months.
An Indian engineer at the site pointed upward and said about 100 North Koreans were working at the top floor on steel reinforcement.
Very long workdays
After VOA spoke with several laborers at the site, hailing from Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Egypt and Syria, a North Korean laborer was approached. He was highly suspicious and reluctant to talk.
He would not answer many questions, but did reply that the North Koreans at the site finish work at 10 p.m. Laborers from other countries had already started leaving the site at 5 p.m. and night shift laborers had arrived. All construction sites in Qatar begin work at 6 a.m.
A South Korean construction manager in Qatar, asked to be identified only by his surname, Lee, said North Koreans are known to work very long hours.
“Usually people work either day or night shift," he said, "but North Koreans work both shifts. People in the construction industry here are astonished and awed by such remarkably long working hours."
Twelve kilometers away from the heart of Doha is the Al Sailiya industrial area. On a vast lot is a North Korean workers’ camp. At 5 a.m., when it’s still very dark, buses carrying North Korean workers leave the compound in a long line. Their headlights show glimpses of the dormitory buildings, temporary structures made of plywood painted in grey, with roofs made of steel plates.
A North Korean worker said there are dormitory rooms for four, six or eight people. They are crowded and small, he said, but at least they're air-conditioned.
Sleeping on plywood
For other workers, conditions are worse. South Korean Construction CEO Lee Jong Sul said that three years ago, 40 North Koreans stayed at a construction site night and day for a month. He said that after working very late into the night, they went to sleep on plywood and blankets.
Several people told VOA that the North Koreans are the most frail-looking migrant workers in Qatar. One North Korean worker said the workers eat Korean food and never skip meals, but other than rice bowls, the food is very poor.
North Korea is considered one of the world's most repressive and impoverished nations. The communist government has struggled to feed its people since a famine struck in the mid-1990s. An estimated 50,000 North Koreans are now working in 16 countries around the world, remitting hard currency to Pyongyang.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.