Nguyen Van Lai of Nam Dinh Province was excited after passing the Korean language exams last year.
He was all set to go abroad, earn a decent income, help his family and clear his debt, which included VND40 million (US$1,900) that he had borrowed to spend on learning the language in Hanoi.
Then the axe fell.
Lai, 28, was told that the South Korean government had decided not to extend its Employment Permit System to Vietnam after the latest agreement expired in August.
"If I can't go, I don't know how I can earn enough to repay my debt," he said.
The South Korean government's decision has put thousands in the same situation as Lai.
In fact, tens of thousands of workers are likely to lose opportunities to work abroad as other major labor markets, including Japan and Taiwan, look set to close the doors to Vietnamese employees. Many labor export firms are already struggling to survive, according to local reports.
The labor importing markets say they are being forced to take restrictive steps because of the high rate of illegal settlers among Vietnamese guest workers.
A statement from the Korean Labor Minister on not extending the nation's Employment Permit System to Vietnam said the ratio of Vietnamese laborers who stay on illegally after their contracts have expired has risen to 57 percent, the highest among 15 countries sending workers to Korea under the program.
Figures released in the statement listed 22,708 illegal Vietnamese workers currently in South Korea, while there are only 11,347 working under the Employment Permit System.
The program, which was started in June 2004, requires agreements to be signed every two years. The latest agreement between Vietnam and South Korea expired on August 28.
The cancellation means around 12,000 Vietnamese people who have passed Korean language exams and whose files have been posted online for potential employers now have no chance of finding jobs there.
According to the Overseas Labor Management Department under the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, the number of Vietnamese workers illegally settling in Taiwan has increased in recent years.
Each year, some 6,600 workers, or 8 percent of total number of Vietnamese workers in Taiwan "run away" from their employers each year as their contracts are about to end. The number of illegal Vietnamese workers in Malaysia stands at over 13,500.
The director of a firm which sends workers abroad said many employers in Japan and Taiwan no longer want to recruit Vietnamese citizens because they are worried that they will stay on illegally.
"They don't have a good impression of Vietnamese workers. This can strongly affect our labor export in the coming time, as these are two markets that traditionally offer good salaries to our workers," he said.
Dao Cong Hai, deputy head of the department, said many potential markets that offer high salaries to employees like Canada, the US and the UK have also expressed concerns about the high rate of Vietnamese workers staying on after their contracts run out. They stopped receiving Vietnamese laborers a short while after opening the market, he said.
Vice chairman of the Vietnam Labor Export Association, Do Nhat Tan, said the high fees charged for going to work abroad is the main reason that local workers try to stay on illegally in foreign countries. They want to work for a longer time in the countries after their contracts expire so that they can earn more, he said.
He said each Vietnamese worker now has to spend some $5,500-7,000 on learning foreign languages and paying several kinds of fees to firms that send them abroad. The fee is much higher than what is paid by a worker in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
An industry insider said Vietnam now could tap the Malaysian market, but it offers low salaries, so local workers are not so keen on working there. Some Middle East markets like Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have not yet shown demand for Vietnamese workers.
And very few workers can meet employment requirements in Australia, Finland and Switzerland, he said.
The difficulties in finding markets have many labor export firms struggling to survive and several are planning to close down, he said.
Vietnam sent 40,115 workers abroad in the first half of this year, according to official statistics. This year's target is 90,000.
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