Collateral damage feared as Vietnam gov't cracks down on illegal foreign workers

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A new decree might be targeted at the construction sector, which many feel is overwhelmed by foreign workers, but everyone is set to feel the pinch

Chinese workers at a construction site in Ho Chi Minh City. Experts say an amended government decree tightening the screws further on foreign workers could help authorities temporarily deal with the long-festering problem of unskilled foreign workers usurping locals' jobs. But they warn the new rules will also bring with them more formalities for parties to complete to obtain a work permit and in the long run could inflict collateral damage on those who are not targeted by the decree. Photo by Diep Duc Minh

The government has tightened the screws further on foreign workers and people employing them by making it mandatory to get annual approval from local authorities.

A decree to take effect on November 1 supplanting an earlier one will continue to make it incumbent on employers to prove that they require foreign workers and that Vietnamese cannot replace them.

The decree also scraps a provision allowing foreign manual laborers to work in Vietnam for less than three months without a work permit. This privilege will henceforth be extended only to those who come to handle complicated technical or technological issues that are beyond foreign experts based in Vietnam.

Another major change reduces the validity of work permits from three to two years.

Notably, for the first time foreign workers found without work permits will be deported within 15 days.

Analysts say the amended decree could help authorities temporarily deal with the long-festering problem of unskilled foreign workers usurping locals' jobs.

"It is undeniable that unlicensed and unskilled foreign workers, particularly Chinese, have stolen jobs, stayed on illegally, and harassed locals," Nguyen Van Hau, a Ho Chi Minh City-based lawyer who runs a law firm, told Vietweek.

There are thousands of illegal foreign workers at construction sites across Vietnam, according to a government report this week to the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature.

In July 2009, the Ministry of Public Security shocked the country by announcing that 35,000 Chinese workers were in Vietnam. But it did not say how many of them were illegals.

This week's report did not dwell on the nationalities of the "foreign workers" but stressed that many of the construction projects belonged to Chinese contractors.

Chinese state-owned construction companies are winning bids all over the world to build power plants, factories, railroads, highways, subway lines, and stadiums. Vietnam, an immediate neighbor, has been no exception.

"Chinese workers are now ubiquitous around the world," Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based Southeast Asia analyst, said.

"Chinese FDI and government overseas development assistance is often channeled through Chinese corporations that bring in their own workers."

Media stories of medical clinics in HCMC and Hanoi being fined for various violations, including the employment of unlicensed Chinese doctors or selling expired drugs have also continued to surface.

An increasing number of African nationals have also been caught overstaying their 15-day visa to find jobs in Vietnam or even committing crimes like robberies and drug trading, the government report said.

"The decree has thus been amended in the right direction to tackle these problems and appease the public," Hau said. 

More, not less

But the new rules will also bring with them more formalities for parties to complete to obtain a work permit and in the long run could inflict collateral damage on those who are not targeted by the decree, experts warn.

Now employers will have to get approval from the chairman of provincial people's committees to hire foreign workers in the respective localities.

They then have to complete all the formalities required by the labor ministry and other agencies just as before.

"Clearly, investors and businesses that are looking to hire skilled workers are facing a major administrative hurdle with this requirement," Le Thanh Kinh, who runs Le Nguyen law office in HCMC, told Vietweek.

One of the most bizarre provisions in the decree is that on the one hand it enlarges the category of foreign workers exempt from obtaining a work permit, but on the other requires them to apply for a certificate saying they do not have to obtain one.

"This policy is completely against our judicial reforms and very backward," Kinh said.

Those added to the category are teachers at foreign institutions sent to work in international schools in Vietnam managed by foreign agencies, volunteers, those with master's degrees and advising, teaching, or researching at Vietnamese tertiary or vocational institutions for a maximum of one month, and foreign workers who come here under international agreements to which state agencies are a signatory.

Earlier the exemption had only applied to members or owners of limited liability companies, service promoters  and lawyers registered with the Ministry of Justice, those dispatched by foreign companies to work in their offices in Vietnam (in 11 designated sectors), heads of foreign representative offices, and project managers and individuals authorized by non-governmental organizations to work in Vietnam.

Most recent figures released by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs show a third of all foreign workers in Vietnam lack permits.

As of July 2012 there were 77,087 foreign workers, 24,455 of them without work permits. They were from more than 60 countries, 58 percent of them being Asians, 28.5 percent Europeans, and the rest from other places.

Experts warn if in the long run the authorities only focus on tightening the screws on foreign labor without follow-up inspections, it will be a double whammy.

"Not only will our foreign labor management be ineffective," Kinh said, "but it would become much more of a nuisance to skilled foreign workers and their employers, particularly investors and multinationals."

As Vietnam has continued to tighten regulations on foreign labor, fears of collateral damage appear to be well-founded.

"I don't see why the government does not limit the new procedures and paperwork to targeted sectors like construction rather than make educational organizations go through even more paperwork,"  Khalid Muhmood, co-founder and director of the British University Vietnam, said.

"Why make the education sector have to go through more bureaucracy if the target is actually the construction sector?"


- Application form issued by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs (MoLISA)

- Resumé (Curriculum Vitae) form issued by the MoLISA

- Verification of no criminal record by native country, or if the applicant has resided in Vietnam for six months or more by Vietnamese agencies (Department of Justice) in the city or province where the applicant is a registered resident.

- Health certificate issued by qualified hospital (Cho Ray Hospital, Saigon Hospital, several international hospitals and others qualify).

- Copies of degrees and/or professional certificates.

- Two passport photos.

*All documents written in English must be translated and notarized by authorized Vietnamese agencies.

**A criminal record check from a foreign country must be notarized by that country's consulate or embassy in Vietnam. 

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