Blowback: Vietnam labors to send workers abroad

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Vietnamese workers erect scaffolding at a construction site in the Middle East

The government has always been keen to export labor since it meant providing jobs for more people, jobs that could not be generated at home, but a failure to properly manage the system is coming home to roost.

The policy is focused almost entirely on sending workers abroad, and nothing is done to ensure they return once their contracts expire and their skills are used back home.

Many workers who go abroad for jobs overstay their visas since they fear they will not get jobs if they return to Vietnam. As a result, the country's main markets are closing their doors to its workers.

In the early 2000's Vietnam benefited much from this policy, with exports of labor growing, especially to markets like South Korea, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Remittances by the guest workers helped improve the lives of many poor families in rural areas.

But from 2009 the situation deteriorated as demand slumped amid the global economic slowdown and large number of Vietnamese workers began to overstay their visas.

The International Labor Organization said Vietnam has not focused on generating jobs for guest workers who return home, adding this was one of reasons for the high rate of overstaying workers.

Vietnam also lost by failing to use the skills and experience of the workers, it said.

It is not as if there are no policies in place. The labor departments of provinces and cities have the task of creating a database of workers going abroad and providing it to job centers. But this has not been done anywhere, the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs admitted.

Closing doors

The high rate of Vietnamese workers overstaying visas has caused many markets to shun the country.

The South Korean government last year decided not to extend its Employment Permit System to Vietnam after the latest agreement expired in August. Other major markets like Japan and Taiwan also look set to close their doors to Vietnamese, according to the ministry.

South Korea, Vietnam's second biggest market, recently stopped hiring Vietnamese after taking in 1,560 at the start of this year.

Many Vietnamese in South Korea overstayed their visa after their contract ended, prompting that country to make such a move, Minister of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs Pham Thi Hai Chuyen said.

Last year only 9,000 workers went to Korea compared to 15,000 normally.

According to the ministry's Overseas Labor Management Department, some 57,000 Vietnamese workers are in South Korea, more than half of them overstaying their visa.

The department's head, Nguyen Ngoc Quynh, admitted that the government has not done much to reduce the number of overstayers in foreign countries, including South Korea.

South Korea has decided it will only resume recruitment of Vietnamese workers when the rate of illegals comes down to 20 percent.

Le Van Thanh, deputy head of the ministry's Overseas Labor Management Department, said opportunities for overseas employment are still available to Vietnamese workers in some new markets like Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Finland.

Germany has a pilot recruitment project for Vietnamese mechanical engineers at salaries of US$2,000 per month, he said.

Vietnam will also send nurses to the country later this year following an agreement with Germany's Ministry of Economics and Labor.

Saudi Arabia and Finland have also said they are interested in recruiting Vietnamese nurses.

But Chuyen admitted it would be extremely difficult to meet the labor export target this year.

Vietnam plans to send 100,000 guest workers abroad in 2013, but if figures from the first quarter are any indication, the target is likely to prove elusive. Labor agencies managed to send only 19,800 workers abroad in the period, according the Overseas Labor Management Department.

Last year 80,320 Vietnamese workers went abroad, 10 percent less than the government had targeted.

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