A big challenge for a labor exporting country like Vietnam is protecting its workers' rights, so that they are not cheated by recruitment agencies and/or overseas employers, Max Tunon, program development officer with the International Labor Organization (ILO) Sub-regional Office for East Asia, tells Thanh Nien Weekly.
Thanh Nien Weekly: Can you give us an overview of the migration for work trends in Southeast Asia in general, and Vietnam in particular?
Max Tunon: There are an estimated 13-14 million migrants moving in ASEAN, a lot of them moving within the region, a lot of others moving outside the region. This (figure) is growing every year. Every year sees more and more migrants crossing borders for work, often through licensed legal channels. So, the trend is certainly on the rise.
There are a number of countries in Southeast Asia and East Asia that are working more closely with governments of involved countries to make sure that the migration channels are accessible and legal, and that they provide adequate protection for migrants. So, the governments widely acknowledge that you need to create channels for people to migrate legally. We have to make sure that the legal options become more attractive. What are the incentives for migrants to go through legal channels? The first thing is that they are better protected.
We are working with the country of their destinations to make sure that they will receive adequate protection, and we are looking at the cost of migration. We are trying to bring the cost down as well. At the moment, you see that a lot of recruitment agencies are able to earn a lot of money, but provide no protection. So we are working closely with recruitment agencies to make sure that, for both sides, there will be a balance. They are providing the service and a reasonable cost can be charged.
When you look at the number of recruitment agencies in Southeast Asia, and Cambodia for example, it doubled last year because new markets have opened up in Malaysia, in Kuwait, and in the UAE (United Arab Emirates). There is a demand for migrant workers.
For Vietnam, [labor export] is the government's policy, part of its employment and socioeconomic development policy. They want to have one million overseas workers in the coming years. Right now, there are about 500,000 migrant workers. The number has grown incredibly over the last few years. In the new markets that have opened up, Vietnamese workers are very attractive for employers because they are very hard working.
Certainly in Vietnam, this is an active employment strategy of the government because there are so many young people entering the labor market now. Migration is seen as one of the ways to make sure that they will have work, and send home a lot of remittances, contributing a lot of money to develop the economy.
What are the challenges Vietnam faces as a labor exporting country?
- Apart from sending remittances, when migrants are abroad, they can develop new skills and develop new contacts. But how do the migrants bring home the skills and apply them in Vietnam after finishing their work in Taiwan or Malaysia?
This is a temporary migration program. After some years, they have to come home. How can we make sure that when they come home the first thing they think is not to migrate again? How can we make sure that when migrants come home with some money, with some additional skills, they can start some business and generate more job opportunities at home?
This aside, worker protection is the number one challenge. A lot of money is made in the migration cycle. The recruitment agencies can charge a lot of money (unreasonably), and the employers can pay very low wages. This situation can be very profitable to some people. So, workers should be protected. Both sending and receiving countries should address this challenge.
PROSPECTS AT HOME
The last of the roughly 10,000 Vietnamese workers that were trapped in Libya are expected to arrive home, by sea, on Sunday.
Nguyen Luong Trao, chairman of the Vietnam Labor Export Association, said his association has drafted a proposal that will include financial support for every returning worker.
Some local businesses say they plan to hire some of the returning laborers, according to Nguyen Ngoc Quynh, director of the Department of Overseas Labor Management.
Quynh said the department will also help the workers find new overseas jobs. It is considering the markets of Japan and South Korea, both of which are offering high wages at low initial migration costs.
Malaysia is also considered a potential market for the laborers, since it has a broad demand for guest workers.
As labor export strengthens, isn't it possible that Vietnam suffers a shortage of skilled workers and low labor productivity?
- Yes. But you are looking at a different type of migration. In this type of migration, Vietnam is sending lower skilled laborers, who do domestic work, manufacturing, construction, agriculture, fishing and seafood processing. It is not that we are talking about sending doctors, nurses, engineers and computer scientists. This migration is not a brain drain phenomenon.
Is labor export a good long term strategy for Vietnam?
- The government has a very good policy and migration should be a choice, not a necessity. If conditions are better abroad, if you can get a better job and earn more money, why can't workers take jobs overseas? I think it is the right direction.
In the long run, something like (South) Korea (can happen), transitioning from a labor sending country to a labor receiving country as it became a developed economy. Vietnam is now a labor sending market because of the government's migration promotion policy. But, as the economy develops further, Vietnam may become a labor receiving country, which receives workers to do mining and construction jobs. Even Laos, one of the less developed economies, is also a country which receives workers from Vietnam and China.