Vietnamese workers finding misfortune abroad

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Seeking better pay overseas, many migrants are being ruthlessly exploited, while relevant agencies lack the means to monitor or protect them

Four Vietnamese sailors (C), who have allegedly jumped off a Taiwanese ship on August 14 due to harsh working conditions, pose for a picture with an official of the Vietnamese embassy in Panama (1st, L) and a Panamanian immigration officer (6th, L). PHOTO: VIETNAMESE EMBASSY IN PANAMA

Tran Van Dung and three other sailors jumped off a Taiwanese fishing vessel on August 8, after being treated like slaves for more than seven months.

"The Taiwanese captain, the engineer and two other men repeatedly beat us for no reason with any object in their hands like a hammer or a wrench," said the 22-year-old man from the north-central province of Nghe An who was working on the 472-ton vessel Hsieh Ta.

The four sailors jumped off the boat as it was towing a broken-down vessel to Tahiti. They were rescued by a tugboat about 800 meters from the island's Papeete port and arrived back in Vietnam a week later thanks to help from relevant agencies.

The sailors are among tens of thousands of workers Vietnam sends abroad annually under a policy aimed at "international integration and the promotion of Vietnam's relationships with other countries."

However, many of them have been forced into conditions akin to slavery by unscrupulous operators amid insufficient protection from relevant agencies.

Dung said the boat departed from Taiwan's Kaohsiung Port in December 2012 with 23 hired sailors, including ten Vietnamese.

He said they were only permitted to sleep five hours a day, working the rest of the time with short breaks for eating.

"The most painful time was when the captain and engineer beat and jumped on me until my nose bled and I lost consciousness. We had to suffer, fearing they would throw us into the sea," he said.

He said the vessel was expected dock once every two years and they took the chance to escape when it was towing another vessel to the shore to be repaired.

Le Dinh Anh, 29, who was among the four sailors, said all ten Vietnamese men had planned to escape, but the other six were caught before they could flee.

The four men had been sent abroad by human resource firms TTLC, Nosco and Servico Hanoi.

Representatives from TTLC and Servico Hanoi denied that the four men had been beaten. The Overseas Labor Management Department said it is investigating the case.

Meanwhile, on August 20, four sailors arrived home after jumping off another Taiwanese ship as it sailed through the Panama Canal, due to harsh working conditions.

They claimed they were forced to work 18-hour days and were not supplied enough food, which included bait fish.

"˜Labor export' policy

According to a report by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, there are about 500,000 Vietnamese nationals currently working in more than 40 countries and territories. They work in about 30 different occupations and range vastly in terms of skill level.

On average, more than 80,000 Vietnamese leave the country each year to work abroad. More than 47,000 workers have been sent abroad over the first eight months of this year.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that the number of countries and territories where Vietnamese workers are finding jobs is on the rise.

"It creates better income and employment opportunities for Vietnamese workers, improves the livelihoods of the population, reduces poverty, stabilizes society and builds a highly skilled and professional workforce," it said in last year's report, "Review of Vietnamese migration abroad."

Vietnam began to supply laborers to Eastern Europe in the 1980s and since 2000, the number of Vietnamese workers sent to work overseas has risen sharply. They primarily end up in China, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, and countries in the Middle East and North Africa, it said.

According to the report, the income of Vietnamese workers overseas is relatively stable and is approximately two to three times higher than domestic salaries for the same jobs.

Vietnam's GDP per capita in 2012 was $1,596.

Few protections

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Consular Department said it is difficult to track and monitor the emigrant flow of labor due to a lack of statistics and reports.

"Thousands of Vietnamese workers have arbitrarily terminated their employment contracts for the purpose of illegally staying in host countries and territories. This makes it difficult to organize, manage and provide these workers with legal protection overseas, and the situation undermines Vietnam's labor export policy and its relationships with involved countries," it said.

It pointed out several challenges migrant workers abroad face, including insufficient attention by relevant agencies in supplying them with pre-departure vocational and language training. They also tend to lack information about the cultures of host countries, as well as an understanding of labor migration laws.

Other barriers include a dearth of qualified labor attachés abroad and the fact that Vietnamese officials in other countries are not always prepared to handle migrants' problems.

Regarding Vietnamese seafarers abroad, Nguyen Xuan An, deputy chairman of the Vietnam Labor Export Association, said there are around eight million Vietnamese workers in Taiwan, half of which work on fishing vessels.

"We have recorded nearly 20 similar cases when Vietnamese workers jumped off boats to flee," he told the Dan Viet newspaper in a recent interview.

He said relevant Vietnamese agencies have been "inactive" in protecting Vietnamese workers on foreign fishing vessels because they lack the means to monitor them.

Lawmakers have called for strict management of the procedures in issuing labor export licenses as well mandating that the agencies involved are held accountable.

At a National Assembly session on June 19 discussing the draft employment law, lawmakers said there should be binding requirements for human resource firms that send workers abroad.

Bui Thi An, a deputy from Hanoi, said many companies just take the fees without monitoring migrant laborers, who used to be mostly poor farmers, to ensure the terms of their contracts are met.

"Land revocation has forced many farmers landless. Although there is compensation, the issues of vocational training and job creation remain a problem," she said.

Deputy Ton Ngoc Hanh of Dak Nong Province also urged for stricter management of the agencies issuing labor export licenses.

"It has been said that the agencies issuing these licenses demand "˜something more' of applicants than merely meeting the formal requirements.

"There should be regulations that clearly define the responsibilities of those who issue [labor export] licenses," she said.

Moreover, working conditions for irregular migrant laborers tend to be even worse.

The Vietnamese Embassy in Russia is coordinating with relevant agencies to repatriate the remaining 600 Vietnamese who were recently arrested on suspicion of illegal immigration.

By August 18, 101 of them had been repatriated.

The Vietnamese were among 1,400 foreigners that Russian police apprehended at textile factories in a market east of Moscow on July 31, according to the department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Many of the workers lodged complaints with the Criminal Police at the Ministry of Public Security after arriving at Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport.

They claimed to have been the victims of regular beatings and that they had received salaries many times lower than promised, as well having to deal with poor working and living conditions, and insufficient nutrition.

Most of the workers returned to Vietnam penniless. Local government agencies had to pay their bus fares from the airport.

They all paid private intermediaries, many of whom were not licensed for labor export services, in order to acquire the jobs. Some said they withstood ill treatment for over a year, while others had only worked for several weeks.

Nguyen Duy Than Nhan, a 32-year-old worker from Ho Chi Minh City, told news website Dan Tri she paid an intermediary US$600 and was promised a monthly salary of $700 for a two-year garment contract.

"But the reality was a life that was miserable beyond imagination. I worked day and night, eating poor-quality meals and was not allowed to step foot outside the factory.

"It was like being in jail."

Nhan was deported by Russian immigration authorities after three weeks, which she called "lucky."

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