Workers in Ho Chi Minh City and nearby provinces have to "˜share' their meager income with criminals
Scimitar and tear gas are among weapons police seized from a gang accused of extorting money from factory workers in Binh Duong Province. Workers in many industrial parks in Binh Duong and Ho Chi Minh City are being targeted for extortion by organized criminal gangs, but they are too afraid to report it to the police.
Tuan was nonplussed when two men on a motorbike stopped him while he was driving home (also on a motorbike) from work and told him that they had been hired to "slash" him.
"They told me that someone hired them to slash me for VND15 million (US$720)," said the employee of a leather company in Binh Duong Province's Dong An Industrial Park.
The men told a petrified Tuan that they would let him go for VND10 million. Tuan knew then that they were gangsters extorting money from workers.
He asked them for time to find the money and pay them later. They agreed. He ended up paying VND3 million after an acquaintance helped him negotiate the price.
Recent reports indicate that such extortion has become a frequent occurrence in industrial zones in the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City and adjacent Binh Duong Province. For factory workers already struggling to make ends meet, the extortion is a crippling blow.
Last week, a source in the Ministry of Public Security's Criminal Police Department told Vietweek that the agency was investigating 31-year-old Dang Tat Thang after he was accused of extorting money from factory workers in Binh Duong's Di An Town.
Thang colluded with some workers who helped him identify workers with good salaries to force the latter to pay monthly "protection money," the source said.
He typically demanded a monthly amount of VND2 million and offered a "promotion" of VND15 million per year for advance payment.
A worker in Di An Town, who only wanted to be identified as C., said Thang forced the workers to give double the money if they were late with their monthly payment.
"It's intolerable for factory workers. But many have no choice but to give them money unless they move and find a new job. But it's very difficult to find one nowadays," he said.
The government has recently increased the minimum monthly salary to between VND1.65 million and VND2.35 million ($79-113). The previous threshold was VND1.4 million to VND2 million.
Because their incomes are low, many workers try to run some small business whenever they are not working at the factory, but they become victims of extortion gangs once again.
They often sell a variety of necessities from food to clothes and kitchen ware. They just put things on a piece of plastic or canvas on the sidewalks around the factories and their customers are also their peers.
T., a worker at the HCMC's Tan Binh Industrial Park, said he and his wife work for a garment factory during the day. They used to sell clothes in the evening hoping to earn a few more dong but ended up losing all their savings.
Although the sidewalk is public property and occupying it is illegal, many gangsters charge people for using the space.
"We had to give them more than VND3 million to have a place to sell clothes on the sidewalk," T. said.
"But that was not all. Some others asked us to give them a monthly payment of VND350,000 and take them out for coffee frequently to protect us," he added.
After two weeks, the couple had to close their small business because they were making a loss.
"Many workers came to our place to buy clothes and the business is good. But we cannot make any money when we have to pay the gangsters," he said.
Many other workers have actually had to quit their job and move to other companies to avoid the extortionists.
M., who used to work at HCMC's Linh Trung 1 Export Processing Zone in Thu Duc District, said she and her boyfriend moved last month to Tan Binh District to work for a dairy shop, unable to bear the harassment by extortionists.
"We were struggling for our everyday meal and unable to save any money. We had no money to give them, so we had to move to another place," she said.
No handicapped exemption
On January 7, senior lieutenant colonel Vo Van Phuc, chief of police in Binh Duong Province's Di An Town, said his department had arrested eight members of two gangs accused of extorting workers.
One gang includes the kingpin Le Huynh Quoc Kha and his subordinates Nguyen Van Tu, Pham Quy Lam, Mai Thy Dung and Bui Ngoc Duc.
Phuc said the five arrestees have operated over the past two months and often came to Di An Town to extract money from the handicapped workers of the Yazaky Company in town.
Last November, they came to the house of Huynh Huu Phuoc, a handicapped worker of Yazaky, and demanded VND3 million. Phuoc was beaten and suffered serious injuries after he refused to pay.
On December 9, they came to the house of Nguyen Quoc Bao and demanded VND2 million. Bao said he gave them the money, fearing he would be beaten up like Phuoc.
Phuc said the gang members have confessed to threatening several other Yazaky handicapped workers over the past months.
He said Di An police busted seven gangs of loan sharks and extortionists in the town last year and have pressed charges against 80 suspects.
"The workers should not be afraid of the extortionists. They should report to the police once they are contacted," he said.
But many workers said they were afraid that the gangsters would exact revenge. Even the workers that Vietweek contacted were scared and only agreed to tell their stories on condition of anonymity.
A worker, D., who has been working for 11 years at a garment factory in Binh Duong's My Phuoc 1 Industrial Park, said he and many other workers have been forced to pay gangsters at least once or twice.
"I censured a worker in my group and he hired some thugs to threaten me. They said I have to give them VND5 million otherwise they will chop off my hand. Finally I paid them VND2 million," he said.
D. refused to reveal more about these gangsters.
"We know that there will be trouble for us if we speak out. I do not wish to denounce them. Will my family and I be protected for doing so?" he asked.
"If I denounce them, police will jail one or two of them but their gang is big with lots of people. Finally, I would have to move out of town if I want to be safe."