Illegal Chinese workers flood northern construction plants

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Residents in small northern communes say that thousands of illegal Chinese workers have changed the face of their small communities and taken a number of well-paying jobs

Chinese workers at a construction site in the northern province of Ninh Binh. Long time residents of the community say illegal Chinese workers have changed the face of their commune and taken jobs from them.

Visitors who wander into Ngu Lao Commune in the northern port city of Hai Phong are always struck by the feeling that they have stepped out of Vietnam.

"Hundreds of Chinese workers have migrated here," said the owner of a roadside eatery. "The area has become a little China Town."

Along the road connecting the city center and Rung Ferry in Thuy Nguyen District, most restaurants, foot massage parlors, barbershops and cafés display signs written only in Chinese script.

A few years ago, scores of Chinese migrant workers arrived in the small neighborhood to work at local construction sites.

Ngu Lao is one of many in northern communities where thousands of illegal Chinese workers have settled to work for the Chinese contractors charged with managing local thermo-electricity plant projects.

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.

In these neighborhoods, Vietnam's ban on foreign laborers seems entirely non-existent. Many locals complain that their arrival has changed the face of a number of small communities and taken jobs from locals.

Police in the Ngu Lao Commune say that around 300 Chinese workers currently reside in this small commune in Thuy Nguyen District which is home to roughly 300,000 people.

Most are construction workers at the Hai Phong 2 Thermo-Electricity Plant.


Under a new decree that is set to take effect on August 1, foreign businesses bidding for Vietnamese government contracts will be required to give priority to Vietnamese workers.

All foreign bidders will be required to advertise each position on at least one central and one local newspaper or television channel no less than 30 days prior to hiring, according to the decree, signed June 17 by Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung and posted on the government website.

Meanwhile, recruitment requirements and other relevant data will have to be submitted to the provincial people's committee, the local government.

The committees will be given 30 days to gather 500 qualified Vietnamese laborers (60 days for more than 500). If the bodies fail to do so, they must issue a decision permitting the contractor to begin recruiting foreign workers.

Under the new decree, foreign contractors will be required to apply for work permits before importing foreign workers and to submit reports to the provincial Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs about the recruitment and management of foreign workers every three months.

The new decree will allow more organizations/individuals to recruit foreign workers, including licensed business associations, household business owners and traders.

Meanwhile, more people will be exempt from applying for permits to work in Vietnam. They are heads of foreign representative offices, project managers and individuals authorized by non-governmental organizations to work in Vietnam.

Those dispatched by foreign companies to work in their offices in Vietnam (which provide 11 designated sectors that Vietnam registered when joining the World Trade Organization) will also be exempt from the permit requirement.

International reporters will now be required to apply for work permits from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs instead of provincial Departments of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs.

At the moment, work permit exemption has been extended to those who work in Vietnam for less than three months, members or owners of limited liability companies, service promoters and lawyers who are registered with the Ministry of Justice.

At the nearby Tam Hung Commune, the police estimate there are another 300 Chinese immigrants.

Lai The Minh, Tam Hung chief police, said their numbers grew significantly, during the construction of the Hai Phong 1 Thermo-Electricity Plant.

Wang Bin, 52, said he divorced his Chinese wife back home several years ago and is living with a Vietnamese woman in Hai Phong.

"I am working as a machine assembler for 120 yuan (US$18.5) a day," he said. "I send most of that money back home to my family."

In neighboring Quang Ninh Province, more than 700 Chinese workers have migrated to Dong Trieu District to work for Chinese contractors at the Mao Khe Vinacomin Thermo-Electricity Plant project.

A local resident said that hundreds of Chinese workers have migrated to Dong Trieu's Binh Khe Commune, leading to a rapid change in the community's demographics.

"Many signs are written only in Chinese, confusing the locals," he said.

Locals say that Chinese contractors always opt to recruit workers from home in order to avoid the language barrier even when they cost much more to employ.

Le Van Hung, who has been putting up scaffolding at the plant for the past six months, said that Chinese workers are paid three times as much as he is, despite the fact that they are all working the same job.

"They are paid higher because they can understand what the [Chinese] employers say," Hung said. "We have to rely on body language because there is no translator."

Pham Van Hao of the project management unit said that there are 760 Chinese workers at the site which only employs a mere 100 Vietnamese workers.

Eighty percent of the Chinese workers do manual labor while the rest are engineers and skilled workers.

Hao said that he could do little to change that ratio.

"We want the contractor to recruit Vietnamese workers but they said they couldn't communicate with them and that [introducing an interpreter] could slow down construction," he said. "Moreover, we couldn't intervene in their recruitment because this is an EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) contract."

In the meantime, the presence of the Chinese laborers has ratcheted tensions outside the job site as well.

One shopkeeper complained that the men routinely underpay for things at her store without bargaining.

"We don't know what to do then," she said.

Doan Trung Tam, a Ben Khe resident, said that, during Tet [Vietnamese Lunar New Year], a number of Chinese laborers hung around the front of his house to flirt with his daughters.

All of the men were about 40 years old forcing Tam and his family to chase them off.

Nguyen Van Hat, the chief police in Binh Khe Commune, said that he has dispatched more officers to ensure public security since the Chinese workers began flooding into the area.

"Most of those creating a public nuisance are manual workers," he said. "If the enforcement of regulations [that ban manual foreign workers] were stricter, it would be easier for us to maintain security."


A strong flow of illegal foreign labor has entered Vietnam in recent years, according to Vu Duc Duong, deputy chief of the Employment Division at the Ninh Binh Provincial Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs.

26 companies and plants employ a total of 2,400 foreign workers of which, only 717 hold a requisite work permit. Among the unregistered workers, 1,448 are helping to build the Ninh Binh Nitrogenous Fertilizer Plant.

"We have asked the plant management to provide information about its workers but they have yet to submit any reports," Duong said, adding that project investors have argued that expelling those foreign employees would drastically slow progress at the plant.

Duong said that most of these workers entered Vietnam on a tourism visa and have taken a number of jobs from local residents.

Illegal Chinese workers were also found in bauxite mining projects in the Central Highlands.

By June 16, 644 Chinese workers (255 managers and engineers and 389 laborers) were working at the Tan Rai Alumina Plant in Lam Dong Province's Bao Lam District.

In late 2009, the Lam Dong Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs issued fines totaling VND45 million (US$2,190) against six contractors at the plant for violating safety regulations and illegally employing unregistered foreign workers.

In neighboring Dak Nong Province, the foundation of the Nhan Co Alumina Plant is currently being laid by 291 Chinese workers.

Vu Hai Viet of the plant management said that nearly 700 Chinese employees will be transferred to Nhan Co once the Tan Rai Plant is complete.

Nguyen Duc Nguyen, deputy director of the Dak Nong Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs said it is difficult to monitor illegal manual workers because some contractors have managed to obtain work permits for them by registering them as skilled workers.

Apart from the Nhan Co Plant, Nguyen said another 100 Chinese nationals work for seven other companies in the province mostly at hydro-power plants, wood processing firms and ethanol plants.

Many companies and contractors have foiled detection by signing short-term contracts, which don't require work permits, with Chinese workers.

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