Vietnamese schools need to follow the law.
Schools in Vietnam get a bad rap, and often rightly so. Many break the parts of the law they don't know about and feign ignorance at the parts they do. Some cheat, lie and steal from their staff at times. Not just the small ones, the big names too. But this isn't a rant about that. This is about something specific. Three specific issues.
Issue one. Payment.
The State Bank of Vietnam in Article 3 "Principles of restricting the use of foreign exchanges within Vietnam's territory" of Circular No. 32/2013/TT-NHNN clearly states:
Within the territory of Vietnam, except for cases that are allowed to use foreign exchanges as provided for in Article 4 of this Circular, any transaction, payment, listing, advertising, quotation, valuating, pricing in any contract, agreement and other similar forms (including the conversion or price adjustment of goods, services, value of contract, agreement) of residents, non-residents, shall not be performed in foreign exchange.
Article 4 goes on to outline the provisions of international trade and cross-border business which does not apply to schools. It is 100 percent illegal for a school to advertise, quote, contractualise or pay in a foreign currency. So why do so many do it ? Because it's profitable. If you work at a school either directly at a centre or via an agency, they likely quote your salary in USD but pay in VND. They most likely also write you a salary slip in USD and then provide a conversion rate at the bottom. Is this conversion rate in line with either the State Bank's or the international rate of the day? Almost always the answer is "No". It's usually around VND500 less. Sometimes much less.
S told me "I was promised a $1/hr pay rise. But when I got my payslip it only had a VND20,000 pay rise. That's not right. That's 11 percent less than I was promised. That's an 89 cent pay rise, not a dollar. They lied to me. Every hour I spend teaching now, that little bit they promised, they just keep it."
"What's VND500?" some ask. "A spoonful of rice ?" Yes, but that's VND500 per dollar, per hour. How much are you being paid? $20/hr? Then that's VND10,000. Your $20 salary just became a $19.50 salary. And that's just for one hour. Do you teach 100 hours a month? Then you just lost VND1 million. The school kept that through their shady exchange rates. It's illegal to even do it in the first place, but to break the law and do it anyway and then pay at a fictitious exchange rate ? That's nothing short of fraud. If the school has 20 teachers then they are pocketing close to $1,000 a month just by this tiny adjustment. It's like your market vendor tweaking the scales a tiny bit to overcharge you. Sure, it might go unnoticed by you, but how much money does this seller save by shaving 0.5 percent off every sale? A lot. Like a shady vendor at the markets, these schools who advertise, contractualise and pay in USD are both breaking the law and committing fraud. This practice must stop immediately.
Issue two. Paperwork.
Too many schools are in such a rush to hire a teacher that they will hire anyone. I saw one ad in a Hanoi FB group last month that said "Timeframe: First come first served". They will authorise anyone to work in a state school, and especially a centre. They don't check their degrees, they don't ask for a police check. I was at a school that had a minor scandal where a teacher was caught viewing hardcore pornography on his phone during his lunch break, directly outside the gates of his elementary school. The students saw it and reported him. It was hushed up because the agency knew that they had no papers from the teacher. He had no police check to say that he was safe. He was quietly paid his salary and dismissed.
Many schools in the countryside are willing to hire teachers for their pre-permit probation period without them having a B class or DN class business visa sponsored by the school. This is illegal. A school owner in a central Vietnamese province came to tell me her story recently. T said that she employed a lovely female teacher at her school for only a short time before the authorities marched in demanding papers. When they found that the teacher was working illegally on a tourist visa, they suspended her immediately. They fined the school VND35 million and the teacher VND20 million. The school paid 75 percent of the teacher's portion of the fine, although realistically it should be 100 percent because it's not an employee's job to ensure that their employer is in compliance with the law. The teacher was banned from working until she obtained a business visa. The school applied to MOFA in Da Nang to change her visa category and was promised it would be done in seven days. But after seven days they dragged their heels for another 10 and then even longer insisting they were investigating the teacher and all the previous schools she had worked at. When I asked T, "How has this affected your school ?" she replied, "It almost shut us down. I was hoping to launch a second center this year but after this, we were nearly ruined. It's not the money that's the problem, it's that preventing our teachers from working and requiring a replacement to go through lengthy and difficult procedures to get visa sponsorship takes time. The kids didn't get taught. The parents were outraged. It seriously hurt our reputation. Eventually the teacher could not be legalised in time and we had to let her go."
Too many schools are hiring teachers on inappropriate paperwork and insisting "It's ok. We'll fix it up later." But of course they don't. It's easier to just fire the teacher and find a new one before it becomes a problem. This practice must stop immediately.
Likewise, state schools who are demanding that teachers "have" work permits is also unacceptable. Decree 11/2016/ND-CP signed into effect by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in February states that work permits are no longer required for state schools provided that the teacher can prove three years of experience and has a degree. Schools still demanding the old style "work permit" paperwork are either uninformed or deliberately greasing the wheels of local authorities. This practice must stop immediately.
Issue three. Contracts.
When a teacher gets a raw deal from a smaller school, they are often ridiculed and told, "Well, you should work for a bigger school instead of these backyard operations." But even top tier schools engage in shonky practices sometimes. A teacher friend who worked for one of these top tier schools named J told me how he was working as a part time teacher, but come the end of semester the school informed all the staff, "I'm sorry but some of our schools have decided to finish early. The full time teachers will become part time and the part time teachers will be laid off." They were given four days notice. J complained bitterly to the management, having served the full 12 months of his contract and never missed a day of school apart from one day due to serious family emergency. He was kept on only through his strenuous protests and complaints. The rest of the teachers were laid off early. J has 2 children and a family to feed.
When schools treat skilled teachers like some backpackers who can be laid off at four days' notice despite their contract saying that they need 30 days notice before leaving, this causes a disparity. Schools basically have the right to terminate you at any time without termination pay or compensation. These people have work permits and notarised contracts. Surely this must be against labor laws. But it happens anyway. These schools should pay out the teacher until the end of their contract. They should receive early termination payouts or other payments as required by law. This practice needs to stop.
Schools in Vietnam need a wake-up call. Things are getting more serious as the government begins mandating that all high schools have a foreign English teacher in them. Language centres must realise that if they break labour law, financial law or any other law and they rip a teacher off, lay them off prematurely or otherwise violate their labour rights or human rights, that teacher may well be informed enough to report them to MoET or MoLISA. Schools need to stop treating foreign teachers as "tây ngu ngốc" (stupid westerner) and drop the "I am Vietnamese. You cannot fight with me" attitude. Because they can. They're collectively getting more informed on the law through the mainstream and social media and they will fight back. They will report you. They will have you shut down if you break the law and then cheat them.
We all know it's not a perfect system. Even Bill Gates or Steve Jobs would not qualify for a work permit here. But cleaning up and legalising the education system is a mammoth task, and the government has other more pressing issues to deal with right now.
To schools, I say to you this: It's time to stop the charade. It's time to stop the lies. We know what you're doing and we know you're doing it illegally. Stop cheating us or we will report you. Many of us know the law and know where to find out about it. We often know it better than you do. So don't cheat us. Don't lie to us and fulfil all your contractual obligations or you may be on the wrong end of a tax audit, a license audit or far worse. This practice needs to stop.
To the teachers I say this: Do not be complacent. Do not lay down and accept it. Do not shrug and say, "Well this is Vietnam and that's just how things are here." Your complacency is what allows these practices to continue. Verse yourself on the law because your school is not going to do it for you. If you just blindly follow their recommendations you may end up working illegally, and while you might be lucky and get away with it, if you are caught, you and the school face serious penalties. Your past could be dug up. You will have to pay fines. But most importantly, you could be prevented from working for a period. If you have mouths to feed in your house, you can't afford that any more than the rest of us. Insist that your school be legal. You should have a labor contract, a probationary period and a sponsored business visa before you step foot in a school for any more than an unpaid demo. If you're not getting it, demand it or don't go to work. Because this practice needs to stop.
* The writer is an Australian expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.