Brutal labor camps in China prey on Vietnamese tribes

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Vietnamese caught working illegally in China wait to cross through a border gate in Ha Giang Province. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

Thao Mi Sa has never been able to make ends meet from his corn and paddy fields in the freezing cold of the highlands province of Ha Giang.

Believing that nothing could be worse than the hunger and destitution he has been putting his wife and children through, the hill tribe man went to China early this year after an acquaintance told stories of "easy jobs" that paid around US$10 a day plus meals.

But just like many poverty-stricken breadwinners in the border province, he was wrong.

The 27-year-old fled for home more than two weeks ago, as the true story was that he got paid in nothing but beatings, according to a Tuoi Tre report published Friday.

Sa said nearly 40 other men from across the province also went with his old acquaintance to China.

As illegal immigrants, they crossed the jungle to the Sam Pun border gate in Meo Vac District, where a car was waiting for them on the other side and drove them hundreds of kilometers into China.

Sa said when they were dropped at a deserted mountainous area in Guangxi, they already knew that their dream of making money and escaping poverty had no chance.

"We were put to work on a farm, reclaiming jungles and planting trees during the day amid jungle mosquito bites during the day and coming back to sleep in dirty, makeshift tents."

They asked to leave several times but the owners did not give them their wages, and threatened to beat them.

"As they were sure that none of us knew the way back to Vietnam, they kept abusing our labor, increasing working hours and beating anyone who protested," he said.

But Sa and others still left after more than eight months as they could not stand the conditions anymore. They kept walking south for several days until they reached the border.

Vu Mi Phu, another hill tribe local who went to China with a different group, said nothing mentioned in the job introduction he received was true.

"Apart from being fed and housed no better than a buffalo or a horse, we were not paid as promised ($20 a day)."

Phu said he had to follow the boss from time to time to be given around $100 for half a year working.

That was all until he and 15 Vietnamese co-workers were caught by the police on the way back from work one day.

They were jailed for seven days and then sent to work at a rehab center for a month to pay for the papers and car to bring them back to Vietnam.

A survey by the labor department of the province, which shares 300 kilometers of border with China in seven districts, said many people from the locality had been working similar jobs in China.

It found the number of illegal immigrant work visits had recently increased at alarming rate, almost twice between 2011 and 2012 to 11,898, and then to 17,568 this year. Some of them were secondary school students.

To many immigrants, the visits not just ended unhappily, they were fatal. 

Two men from the province died in a car accident on the way to Yunnan last October. Seven others walked back home themselves after recovering from their injuries.

Vang Dung Na, another local and a father of five, lost his father in a similar situation.

He received a job invitation from a former neighbor, and he went with his father to China early this year, to transform jungles into pine fields.

The job was not "leisurely" or "well-paid" like his neighbor said, but they at least received some money.

They managed to save some of his meager salary and tried to bring it home recently to invest in breeding goats, but the car bringing them home crashed.

Na spent all the savings on his medical expenses for injuries in the accident while his father was so weak from the hard labor he succumbed to his.

Nung Van Sen was severely injured in an explosion at a mine at a similar Chinese work camp.

Sen said he crossed the border to work regularly, for several days each, and only traveled deep into the jungle last October to work the mine with other Vietnamese.

His friend Giang Seo Linh died on the spot as the mine exploded on their second day at work.

Sen said their boss had their bodies dumped near a Vietnamese border guard station, and he was saved as some people in the area noticed them and informed the guards.

He said Linh's wife has remarried, leaving their two children to a grandmother of nearly 80 years old.

Nguyen Thanh Long, deputy director of Ha Giang labor department, said local authorities recently discussed the issue with China border authorities to find solutions to the problem.

Long said the department will work closer with local border guards to end illegal immigration from this side of the border.

Border guards recently arrested one broker, Hoang Van Chuong, a 23-year-old local, for bringing Vietnamese workers over the border. He was paid 200 Yuan ($33) for each worker he brought over.

But Long said the ultimate solution was to lead locals to better ways of making a living at home to keep them in Vietnam.

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