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Vietnam has to get very tough or the flood of illegal Chinese workers will continue


Chinese workers at a construction site in the south-central province of Phu Yen. Thousands of illegal workers will continue taking jobs from Vietnamese workers if the Vietnamese government does not take action now, analysts say.

There will be no let up in the influx of unskilled Chinese workers into the country's construction sites and subsequent problems this creates if Vietnam does not change its haphazard legislative and implementation processes, analysts warn.

Unless Vietnam strictly implements the laws it passes and does away with the helter-skelter manner in which it implements construction contracts, the Chinese will continue to consider the country an ideal place to ship out its cheap labor, they add.

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

"Chinese firms will often invest in countries, but award the construction contracts to Chinese workers.  They have done this around the world, from Africa to Cambodia," said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia analyst at the National War College in Washington.

A 2009 New York Times article noted that, "These global migrants often work in factories or on Chinese-run construction and engineering projects, though the range of jobs is astonishing: from planting flowers in the Netherlands to doing secretarial tasks in Singapore to herding cows in Mongolia even delivering newspapers in the Middle East."

Some 783,000 Chinese workers had been sent abroad by the end of this May, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said on its website. Chinese investors made direct investments in 1,613 overseas enterprises in 110 countries and territories in the first five months of this year, the ministry said.

During the same period, the turnover of China's overseas projects hit US$32.3 billion, up 11.7 percent year-on-year while the value of newly-signed contracts was $55.98 billion, up 23.2 percent year-on-year. By the end of May, the accumulated turnover of China's foreign projects had risen to $755.3 billion with the value of contracts put at $467.9 billion, it added.

The issue of Chinese workers flooding the country's construction sites and taking jobs slated to go to Vietnamese laborers had flared up almost two years ago and acquired high profile attention.

Vietnam's legendary war hero General Vo Nguyen Giap, who turned 100 last month, wrote three open letters to the Party and the government rebuking the Chinese presence at two bauxite mining developments in the Central Highlands, a strategically sensitive area.

Bauxite, one of Vietnam's most valuable natural resources and by some estimates the third largest in the world, is the key mineral in making aluminum.

Illegal Chinese workers stay in Vietnam despite controversy

Thousands of illegal Chinese workers continue to be found throughout Vietnam despite labor agencies' promises to take strict actions against foreign labor law violators.

According to the latest report by the Quang Binh provincial labor department, 359 of the total 369 foreign workers in the north-central province are Chinese workers. However, only 39 Chinese workers have work permits.

The Department has recently extended the July deadline for local companies to register these Chinese workers. After the new deadline, which falls at the end of September, illegal workers in the province will be expelled from the country, the agency said.

Vu Viet Hoan, deputy director of Thang Loi Engineering Company in Quang Binh, said contractors can easily recruit large number of Chinese workers whenever they need them.

The situation is the same at the La Hieng 2 Hydropower Plant project in Phu Yen Province's Dong Xuan District, where Chinese contractors have recruited illegal Chinese workers to work at the site. Many of them are unskilled manual laborers who are not eligible to obtain work permits.

Residents in Dong Xuan District said Chinese workers often drive dangerously on the roads and one resident said some Chinese workers even assaulted local residents after running over a cow in the district's La Hai Town.

In Thai Binh Province, about 150 of a total 500 Chinese workers are working without permits, the provincial labor department said in a report on August 23.

The labor department has requested relevant companies to register illegal workers or send them home.

Meanwhile, hundreds of illegal Chinese workers in Ca Mau Province have failed to register by the August 27 deadline.

Chung Ngoc Nhan, director of the Ca Mau provincial labor department, said the agency received registrations for 556 workers by August 29 while another 600 workers were yet to submit the required documents.

She said provincial authorities had rejected a request by contractors at the Ca Mau Gas Electricity Fertilizer Plant project to delay registration for these illegal workers by two months.

Among the 600 workers yet to register are 90 manual laborers that contractors have promised to send home soon, Nhan said.

According to a 2008 Decree on recruiting foreign workers in Vietnam, all foreigners are required to obtain an official permit to work for more than three months. Manual laborers are not eligible to apply.

Vinacomin, the Vietnamese mining consortium that aims to produce up to 6.6 million tons of aluminum at the mines by 2015, has awarded the engineering, procurement and construction contract for both the complexes in Lam Dong and Dak Nong provinces to China Aluminum International Engineering Co (Chalieco). 

Also 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 has not been released.

Despite the flaring up of the controversy, however, the problem of unskilled and unlicensed Chinese workers taking jobs from locals, staying on illegally, and building towns that replicate life back in China has shown no sign of letting up.

That this is happening against the backdrop of rising unemployment in the country where unskilled workers make up a significant proportion of the national workforce has increased the urgency with which the problem must be dealt, analysts say.

"Academics who study illegal flows of people have found that illegal migrants tend to rely on networks of illegal migrants already in place. So if a government does not do something at first, the problem grows rapidly," said Abuza, who has written a book on Vietnam.

"There could also be unscrupulous businessmen in Vietnam who want to use illegal workers. They are cheaper. They can be exploited or overworked because they are in the country illegally. Labor and safety laws can be ignored."

Early this month, Vietnam issued a new decree requiring foreign companies bidding for Vietnamese government contracts to give priority to qualified Vietnamese workers.

But analysts say this is unlikely to be effective because it still fails to address local collusion that makes the huge influx of illegal workers possible.

"Rule by decree is not enough"¦ Fines are too low and Chinese employers can easily pay them at present," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

"Vietnam needs to change the incentive structure so that foreign companies will follow the law"¦ The law should aim at both foreign firms and local officials who help the foreigners evade the law," Thayer said.

Chinese contractors have also capitalized on the need of Vietnamese companies to finish their projects on schedule and have pushed for the import of more unskilled workers, Vietnamese authorities were quoted by local media as saying.

"Chinese companies regularly outbid other foreign companies in obtaining construction contracts. They are able to beat their competitors and meet deadlines because they use unskilled Chinese labor," Thayer said.

"As long as Vietnam seeks to get the cheapest and quickest construction contracts, this practice will not end."

"˜Floating around in the world'

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang said earlier this month that foreign laborers working in the country is similar to "our laborers working in other countries under labor cooperation agreements.

"Any guest worker must abide by local laws; any wrongdoing must be punished. The most important thing is that Vietnamese authorities and employers must always keep management of foreign laborers tight."

The 2009 New York Times article featured a village in northern Vietnam where a coal-fired power plant was under construction. Most of the workers there were Chinese, about 1,500 at the peak, it said. The workers were sequestered in ramshackle dorm rooms and segregated by profession: welders and electricians and crane operators, the article said.

It cited a poem written on a wooden door that testified to the rootless nature of their lives: "We're all people floating around the world. We meet each other, but we never really get to know each other."

Greg Autry, who has written extensively on China and co-authored the book "Death by China," said: "It would be very risky for Vietnam to allow itself to be filled with thousands or millions of Chinese.

"Doing business with China is always dangerous and their government and firms always find a way to go "˜one more step' beyond what was agreed or understood."

Local officials profess ignorance over illegal aliens

Even as many cities and provinces begin to take tough action against illegal foreign workers, authorities in several other places are not even aware of the number of unregistered Chinese workers in their localities.

Since Quang Nam Province authorities launched several hydropower plant projects in 2009, many Chinese contractors who won the bids have employed hundreds of manual laborers who are ineligible to work in Vietnam.

According to the Management Unit of the Song Bung 4 Hydropower Plant project in Nam Giang District, there are nearly 300 workers from China, including 186 manual laborers. Of the total, only 50 have registered for getting a work permit.

Meanwhile, there are around 197 Chinese workers at the Nong Son Thermo-power Plant project in Nong Son District. The project management unit had registered only ten of them.

Leaders of both Nam Giang and Nong Son districts, however, admitted that they are unaware of the actual number of Chinese workers in their district.

"The exact number will be available by the end of September for foreign workers in Quang Nam and those without work permits. We have requested local companies report the figures," said Vu Duy Thong, deputy director of Quang Nam provincial labor department.

At the Hai Phong Thermo-power Plant project in the eponymous province's Thuy Nguyen District, Chinese workers have reportedly been a public nuisance, a district official said on condition of anonymity.

"We don't know the number of Chinese workers at the construction site. We are waiting for a report from the investor and contractor, because the police have failed to deliver an exact number," he said.

The official also said one Chinese worker had died in Thuy Nguyen District, but the contractors had denied that he was their employee.

"So we had to hold a funeral and bury him," he said.

In Dak Nong Province, there are 313 Chinese workers at the Nhan Co Alumina Plant project. An inspection on August 5 found 171 of them without work permits. So far, only 21 of these employees have applied for permits.

Ninh Cong Dung of the Dak Nong provincial labor department said they have requested the project management unit to register the rest by September 5 or send them back to China if they are not eligible to register.

Under Vietnamese law, foreign manual labor is not allowed. Skilled workers require a work permit.

Bui Quang Tien, director of the project management unit, has pledged to complete the paperwork by the deadline, adding they would not allow unregistered Chinese workers to enter the construction site after September 5. (By Thanh Phong Ngoc Quyen)

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