Vietnamese workers return from Russia with stories of slavery

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Tran Thi Moi (left) and her sister Tran Thi Xuyen at home in Thua Thien-Hue Province after a year of working at a Russian sweatshop. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

Tran Thi Moi and her younger sister Tran Thi Xuyen quit their garment factory job in Russia after a year of working in slave-like conditions, only to return home as broke as they left.

They had agreed to a 3-year verbal contract, but the agreement had not stipulated working for pennies from sunup to sunup, which is what their bosses forced them to do.

Their mother had to send over VND60 million (US$2,845) to "bail" them out as their boss said they still owed money the factory owner spent bringing them to Russia, according to a Tuoi Tre report.

The sisters from the central province of Thua Thien-Hue are hardly alone. Many of their poor fellow countrymen have left home for Russia with the promises of high pay and free travel, only to find themselves working in illegal slave-like garment factories.

The labor brokers who tricked them into the deals are mostly the Vietnamese relatives of the brutal factory owners.

Moi, 27, said her group of 20 laborers were "cheated" by their neighbor Vo Van Tuyen from their hometown in Phu Xuan Commune, Phu Vang District.

"He sweet-talked us in Vietnam, but when we got there [Russia], we were forced to work tirelessly day and night, sometimes from 10 a.m. through 8 the next morning, and meals were the only breaks we had.

"And every month they said we did not meet requirements, so our wages were just enough to pay debt installments and minimum spending.

"They said each of us owed them $2,000 in travel costs and procedures to come there."

Moi said they had confronted Tuyen after returning but he denied receiving any payment from their employer in Russia. He said he only made the job recommendations out of goodwill.

A woman named Dung, who prepared their papers for travel to Russia, turned out to be the sister of the factory owner.

The province labor department said the victims have to deal with the problem on their own as they traveled via illegal channels.

Russian police have recently raided many illegal garment factories outside Moscow, each employing hundreds of Vietnamese workers. Russian authorities in August charged six Vietnamese with using slave labor, setting up a criminal gang and abetting illegal immigration, after police found them running illegal garment factories employing 1,200 Vietnamese nationals.

The BBC, which helped expose a Vietnamese-run Russian garment workshop using slave labor in August last year, reported that there were dozens of sweatshops run by Vietnamese in Russia employing thousands of Vietnamese workers.

Another group of workers from Dong Nai Province left Russia for home in ragged condition after working in similar conditions earlier this year.

One of them, Nguyen Van Xuan, 35, said a man named Dan from the north gave them travel passports and took them to Hanoi to fly to Russia. He had talked them into garment jobs that pay between $500-1,000 a month, around the middle income bracket in Vietnamese cities.

"But when we arrived, our papers were collected and we were forced to sign debt papers worth $2,200 each that they said spent to bring us there. They also demanded $1,700 from each person, calling it a "registration fee" that they would pay to Russian authorities.

"So we're $3,900 indebted upon arrival, and they said they showed us mercy by not taking it all at once and instead cutting our wages," Xuan told Tuoi Tre.

He and tens of other Vietnamese workers were forced to work around 15 hours a day, and sometimes stayed up through the night to make 20 shirts each to meet order deadlines.

"Some people were too tired and fell asleep on their sewing machine, and they were screamed at or beaten," he said.

Xuan said they only learned that Dan was a relative of the factory owner after arriving in Russia.

They have not been able to contact Dan since coming back.

Xuan's neighbor Dang Le Phuong Thao said she felt like they lived in a prison in Russia as they were not allowed to go out.

"The rule was no one in, no one out," Thao said. She said they were threatened that the police would put them to jail as illegal immigrants, or local gangsters could attack or even rape them.

Thao's mother had to borrow VND86 million to pay her employer to help release her and a relative.

Xuan's family only managed to find VND28 million, and he had to sign a debt paper of VND32 million before leaving. His employer said some people would come to his home for the money.

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Another group of workers from Cu Chi District in Ho Chi Minh City and neighboring Long An Province were forced to pay $2,700 each when they wanted to withdraw, from shady factory work in Russia, even though each had already paid VND10 million at the beginning.

They went to Russia via the Huy Vu job introduction company in Long An.

One victim named Nguyen Thi Thi said the company bragged that it was authorized to export labor to Russia, and they believed the lies.

Local authorities said the company was a fake.

Tuoi Tre investigations found that its director Hoang Phan Huy Vu had also cheated workers out of money when promising to send them to Japan and Australia. He has recently disappeared with their money, according to Tuoi Tre.

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