Kieu Van Trung quit his job in South Korea after three years for reasons he would not divulge but stayed on illegally for another four years.
The Hanoian said he earned VND20-30 million (US$940-1,410) a month in South Korea, eight times the pay at home, and so chose to live as an illegal alien.
He came back last January after being persuaded to do so by his family and local authorities.
The vast income gap is stymieing Vietnam’s efforts to prevent its nationals from overstaying their visas in Korea, which could put paid to a bilateral labor agreement.
A limited agreement allowing Vietnamese workers into South Korea will end in two months and only be extended if that country agrees that Vietnam has addressed a marked tendency to overstay.
Figures from the labor ministry show that Vietnamese workers in South Korea send home around $700 million a year, or more than a third of all money remitted by guest workers to Vietnam.
Like Trung, Nguyen Van Huong of Hai Duong Province moved to Korea for high wages and now works illegally.
A company sent Huong to South Korea nearly a decade ago, and he has spent the last seven years as a freelance worker.
“My current income is VND35-50 million ($1,650-2,356) a month. There’s no way I’d earn that much in Vietnam,” Huong told a Saigon Tiep Thi reporter.
He said he had to pay $12,000 to the labor agency when he first went.
Since there were many foreigners in Korea, he could go out on the street without apprehension and blend in, he said.
“We only have to hide when the police carry out raids.”
A Vietnamese worker in South Korea. Photo credit: Saigon Tiep Thi
Vietnam and South Korea signed their first memorandum of understanding under the latter’s Employment Permit System in 2004.
The agreement was extended every two years until it ended in August 2012 after Korean authorities complained about Vietnamese workers illegally overstaying their visas.
They said the problem began in late 2010.
At a certain point 50 percent of Vietnamese workers in South Korea were there illegally, the highest of any of the other 14 countries exporting labor to South Korea, they said.
South Korea then said Vietnam had to reduce the rate to 27 percent before sending any more workers.
But when the rate was brought down to 38.2 percent, the countries signed a one-year deal on December 31 last year allowing Vietnam to send 14,000 workers.
The workers were required to deposit VND100 million ($4,700), which would be forfeited if they failed to return to Vietnam on an agreed date.
But Luong Duc Long, deputy director of the labor ministry’s Overseas Workers Center, said the overstay rate remains at 35.34 percent.
“To cut it down to the 27 percent that South Korea wants will prove very difficult. Employment opportunities for Vietnamese workers in Korea are shrinking.”
Choi Byung Gie, director of the EPS in Vietnam, told Saigon Tiep Thi that Vietnamese labor officials would find themselves in a tough position when the labor memorandum expires if number of illegal workers remains high.
He said the rate of illegal workers from other countries in Korea is below 15 percent.
Nguyen Thanh Hoa, deputy minister of labor, raised the South Korea labor market problem at a recent conference.
“The worst scenario is the market will be closed completely,” he said.
Labor minister Pham Thi Hai Chuyen met with her counterpart Lee Ki-Kwon on October 2, but the latter did not make a definite statement on whether Korea would renew its agreement.
Vietnamese and Korean labor officials will meet again in November to evaluate the situation and make their decision.