A third of Vietnam's foreign workers without permits

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National Assembly does not buy it when ministers say there is no problem 
 
  Chinese workers at a construction site in the northern province of Ninh Binh. Thousands of Chinese laborers are working in Vietnam illegally.

Around 33 percent of foreign laborers in Vietnam are working without permits, the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) reported Tuesday (August 21).

According to statistics released by the ministry at a National Assembly session this week, as of July, there were 77,087 foreign laborers in Vietnam, of whom 24,455 did not have licenses.

Labor Minister Pham Thi Hai Chuyen, who was on the receiving end of questions from National Assembly representatives about the unlicensed laborers, said it was not the ministry's job to license foreign workers.

"It is the Ministry of Public Security that grants to them," she said.

Deputy Minister of Public Security To Lam said most undocumented laborers had entered Vietnam on tourist visas.

He said it was difficult to control and punish illegal workers, especially when they come from countries that do not have embassies or diplomatic representatives in Vietnam.

According to Lam, the ministry keeps up to date on what foreign laborers are doing and where they are living in each city and province.

But representative Bui Si Loi was incredulous and cited a recent case in which a Vietnamese patient died at a Chinese medical clinic in Hanoi and then Chinese doctors involved in the death fled the country without a trace.

Meanwhile assemblyman Nguyen Ba Thuyen said the local manual labor supply was more than sufficient and that illegal Chinese workers were occupying jobs that should go to Vietnamese.

"Vietnam is not facing a lack of manual laborers, so why do the bauxite plant projects in the Central Highlands have mostly Chinese workers?" he said.

Push and pull

It is no secret that anti-foreign worker sentiment and regulations can easily be construed as racism and/or xenophobia.

Greg Autry, who has written extensively on China and co-authored the book Death by China, told Vietweek that Vietnam needed to exercise caution.

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"I'm no expert at Vietnamese internal politics, but it seems obvious you need to secure your borders and be careful not to give China an excuse for military action - in defense of their workers," he said.

Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia analyst at the National War College in Washington, said there were "push and pull" factors that drive illegal labor.

"Push factors are when people cross borders to work because there are more opportunities and better pay, or at least that's what they believe, while pull factors involve action from the receiving countries.

"While the Chinese economy as a whole may be booming, the provinces in the southwest that border Vietnam especially Guangxi lag behind."

Meanwhile, he said there could also be unscrupulous businessmen in Vietnam who want to use illegal workers because they are cheaper and can be unpaid, exploited or overworked because they are in the country illegally.

"I think that Vietnam can develop a multi-tiered work permit," Abuza said.

"In the US, when there is a shortage of nurses, all of a sudden, we get an influx of nurses and health workers from the Philippines. Most countries do this. They just need to do survey work with industries to find out what particular skill set is needed at that time or in the future," he said.

Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said many Chinese unskilled workers are given work permits because their employers say they are skilled.

"Vietnam should improve its control procedures so that work permits are only given to those who have the appropriate qualifications."

In July 2009, the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security shocked the country by announcing that 35,000 Chinese workers were in Vietnam. Since then, further figures on their presence have not been released.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, some 843,000 Chinese workers had been sent abroad this year by the end of June. Chinese investors made direct investments in 2,163 overseas enterprises in 116 countries and territories in the first six months of this year.

Legal loopholes

At the Tuesday assembly meeting, representative Ho Trong Ngu said a regulation allowing foreign laborers to come to work in Vietnam for less than three months without applying for licenses made it very difficult to manage them.

He said the foreigners can work in Vietnam for two and a half months and return to their countries, and then come back to Vietnam for work again.

Labor minister Chuyen said that although the workers do not have to apply for licenses if they work here for less than three months, their employers must register with Vietnamese authorities one week before the workers come to Vietnam.

She said the ministry is considering adjusting regulations for better management of foreign laborers.

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