Work permit labyrinth frustrates expats

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With zero guidance, foreigners lost in bureaucratic maze may have to leave the country

An expat on a construction site in Vietnam. Many expats have said they want to abide by work permit regulations but the lack of information and superfluous formalities have prevented them from doing so.

Colin O'Keefe says he will try to take a deep breath before dealing with it again.

"It cost me a lot of money, time, and effort and now I've got nothing," O'Keefe told Thanh Nien Weekly.

A teacher in Ho Chi Minh City under a UNESCO program, the American said he had tried to do everything to get things done before July, by when foreign workers in Vietnam have to obtain a work permit or face deportation.

Six months after the draft takes effect this July, all foreign workers that have not applied for a work permit will be sent home, according to a new regulation drafted by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA).

But obtaining a permit is not as easy as it should be.

"I think the hardest thing is that the information about exactly what I need has been very hard to come across. I asked one person and they told me one thing. I asked someone else and they told me something different," he said.

"I tried to look online to find what I wanted but it was hard for me to find a good website that said "˜this is what you need.'"

His employer has tried to get him the work permit through a Vietnamese agency which O'keefe said did not know what it was supposed to do.

"They [the agency] told me I didn't need to get my degrees notarized and they could get them notarized in Vietnam," Okeefe said.

"After a month they said "˜oh why didn't you get your degrees notarized?'. After waiting for four months, they told me that my degrees needed to be notarized in the US."

Many expats fretting over the new rule are frustrated that there is simply no clear guideline about what they are supposed to do.

"The information is very confusing and it seems to be different in Hanoi compared to what is happening in Saigon," said an Australian tour guide who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"I don't know what to do to get a work permit. I'm so confused," said Adam Bray, an American travel writer who is living in the resort town of Phan Thiet.

Red tape trap

The lack of information is not the only hurdle expats should expect, according to lawyer Nguyen Van Hau of the Ho Chi Minh City Jurist Association.

"Our superfluous formalities have done nothing but demoralize expats," said lawyer Nguyen Van Hau.

In order to complete all the procedures, an expat has to carry out the paperwork through six government agencies, according to Hau.

He lambasted the rigid practice of notarizing degrees for work permit applicants.

"Under the rule, every expat has to bring original copies of their degrees or certificates to the district government for double-checking even if those documents were already notarized by their native countries," Hau said.

"I doubt if the Vietnamese notary officials understand any English but they still insist on having to double-check all the papers."

Many expats have to fly back to their own countries to search for the documents required.

"It [going home] would really be a waste of time and additional expenses," said lawyer Albert Franceskinj of the DS Avocats law firm in HCMC.

But the mess gets even more complicated.

The rule also stipulates that foreign workers without degrees or other official qualifying documents must have a government agency from their native country acknowledge that they are experienced enough to work in a certain sector.

"But the law stops short of saying which foreign agency would be equipped to do so," lawyer Hau said.

The Australian tour guide admitted this would be one of the biggest headaches.

"I have no qualifications. But I have a lot of life experience."

"˜Maybe I should look for another job'

Official statistics showed that Vietnam now employs nearly 60,000 legal foreign workers and 20,000 illegal ones, many of them manual workers, even though Vietnam's policy is to export manual workers and receive none.

O'keefe said expats understand why the Vietnamese government is tightening work permit procedures.

"But it would be nice if there were better information," O'keefe said.

The most important thing is, according to O'keefe, that Vietnamese authorities be more helpful.

"They are saying if you don't do this, you will be kicked out of the country, but they are not saying how you can do this."

Hau agreed, saying concerned agencies should be more active in keeping expats abreast of this important rule.

"Why not post the announcement [of the work permit rule] at international airports so that foreigners can spot it upon arrival in Vietnam? Why not send the staff to foreign-invested companies to keep them posted?" Hau said.

But an official from the HCMC Department of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs said he feared it would be a tall order

"We are too understaffed to fulfill all those tasks," he said, declining to be named.

But Vietnam may now lose good people who are working in the teaching industry, philanthropy, or tourism sector, as they are likely to leave Vietnam if they are not eligible to be work permit holders.

O'keefe said many of his colleagues had started to look for teaching jobs somewhere else while the travel writer Adam Bray said it was not pleasant to work while worrying about being kicked out of the country.

"If there is a threat and it could happen, it just makes you feel uncomfortable and it makes you start thinking maybe I should look for another job," the Australian tour guide said.


Criteria for foreign labors in Vietnam:

- Age 18 and above.

- In good health, able to meet job's physical requirements.

- Working as manager, managing director or expert. - Clean personal records and no criminal convictions.

- A work permit issued by authorized Vietnamese agencies.


Documents required to obtain work permit:

- Application form issued by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs (MoLISA)

- Resumé (Curriculum Vitae) form issued by the MoLISA

- Verification of no criminal record by native country, or if the applicant has resided in Vietnam for six months or more by Vietnamese agencies (Department of Justice) in the city or province where the applicant is a registered resident.

- Health certificate issued by qualified hospital (Cho Ray Hospital, Saigon Hospital, several international hospitals and others qualify).

- Copies of degrees and/or professional certificates. - Three passport photos.

*All documents written in English must be translated and notarized by authorized Vietnamese agencies (Notarization Office No. 1 or "Phòng công chng số 1" at 92 Nguyen Du Street, District 1)

**A criminal record check from a foreign country must be notarized by that country's consulate or embassy in Vietnam


No work permit required:

- Working in Vietnam for less than three months. - Members or owners of limited companies.

- Members of joint stock companies' board of directors.

- Services promoters.

- Lawyers having work permits issued by Vietnam's Ministry of Justice.

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