Migrants on the margins

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A third of 60,000 workers sent abroad every year return worse-off than before


Vietnamese workers in Libya have a 5 a.m.-breakfast. Many poor locals seeking work abroad to better their lot have returned home empty-handed or worse.

Nhung decided to migrate to Taiwan in 2004 and become a domestic worker in the hope that she would make enough money to support her family back in rural Hanoi.

The 42-year-old mother of two needed to support her unemployed husband's medical treatment for diabetes and liver diseases. He physically abused her and their children often and spent the family's money on gambling and alcohol. But she had to take care of her children, and this job offered a way out.

Two months later, Nhung was back, with her own health problems. Her savings, US$400, were not sufficient to repay loans of more than $700 she'd taken out to meet her pre-migration costs. Nhung and her family were in worse straits now.

"I shared a room with the elderly lady I was looking after her. She slept in the bed, while I slept on the floor next to her... They feared that I would run away; so they seldom let me go out," she said about her experience abroad.

Nhung's case is not rare. In fact, many Vietnamese citizens have landed themselves in worse situations after working abroad.

Poor working conditions, being underpaid and cheated by brokers in Vietnam are common experiences that guest workers have gone through.

Not only have they had to work for lower payment than promised, some have even lost the money they paid without being sent abroad.

At a meeting of the National Assembly's Standing Committee on Tuesday (September 14), Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, Minister of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, admitted that many Vietnamese workers had been cheated by illegal labor brokers.

There are also many cases where legal firms have sent workers abroad and washed their hands of any further responsibility, she added.

According to the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, only 30 percent of the total 167 labor export firms are operating effectively.

Government statistics show that more than 60,000 workers have been sent to work abroad every year since 2001 on average. Around 500,000 Vietnamese workers are working abroad in 40 countries and territories. Malaysia tops the list with 90,000 Vietnamese guest workers, followed by South Korea with 45,000.

According to a report titled "International labor migration from Vietnam to Asian countries: Process, Experiences and Impact" published in March by the Institute of Social Development Studies, a majority of workers have said that their overall situation improved after working abroad, but a very significant proportion saw no improvement and many reported their lives had taken a turn for the worse.

The report, which examined the experiences of migrant workers from Vietnam who have worked in the four major destination countries and territories: Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, found that this polarization emerges from the variability in pre-migration costs, working conditions, degree and frequency of deception, net earnings, work injuries and the migrants' overall self-assessment of the impact of migration on themselves and their families.

"In light of the frequent negative migration outcomes uncovered in this survey, we believe that the potential benefits of international labor migration for migrants, their families, communities and Vietnam as a country are seriously compromised," authors of the report said.

The most negative outcomes included 33 percent of workers abroad being sent home earlier than contracted and an equal proportion failing to pay their pre-departure debt entirely after return. Overall, 41 percent of respondents reported a negative assessment of migration, and 33 percent of migrants felt they had been deceived during the migration process, the report found.

The report said it takes an average of 18 months of working abroad to repay pre-departure debts and most early returnees are saddled with the obligation for a long time after their return.

Tuan, another worker from rural Hanoi, said he had been cheated by a private broker who had promised him a job abroad with a monthly salary of $570 with food expenses covered by the employer.

The broker took $4,700, without providing any invoice or receipt, to cover pre-departure costs and extra-money for incidental costs associated with intermediaries involved in Tuan's recruitment. Tuan also paid more than $100 for language training which he never received.

Tuan said he realized that he had been a victim of fraud only a few hours before boarding the plane, when the broker presented Tuan with his final contract citing a lower salary and less favorable working conditions than promised. But he had to sign the contract if he wished to migrate.

Growing concerns

At the meeting of the National Assembly (NA)'s Standing Committee on September 14, the Labor Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan said her agency had censured violating employment agencies.

"We have inspected and asked these firms to strictly follow laws relating to sending workers abroad and honor their commitments to the workers," she said.

However, legislators called for the revocation of business licenses of agencies that had committed violations and were not functioning properly.

"Why should we keep those firms who send less than 100 workers abroad every year?" asked Ksor Phuoc, Chairman of the NA's Ethnic Minorities Committee.

Deputy Le Quang Binh agreed with Phuoc. He said: "It is necessary to revoke the license of those failing to meet criteria [stipulated in the Law for Contracted Vietnamese Workers Working Abroad]. We have to prevent violations like illegal brokering close firms that cheat [workers]."

Legislators at the meeting called for stricter enforcement of labor export laws, making timely amendments and updates to regulations, and increasing awareness of the risks involved among workers wishing to go abroad.

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