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Overseas workers remain vulnerable to exploitation

Update: August, 19/2014 - 08:31
Representatives from Viet Nam Manpower Supply and Commercial JSC meets oversea labourers returning from Libya at the Noi Bai International Airport. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Tung

by Minh Thi

HA NOI (VNS) — Ha Van Ung got excited when he heard a radio advertisement about an opportunity to work in Dubai.

A well-paid job overseas could be life changing for the 32-year-old resident of Ky Tan Commune, located in the mountainous district of Ba Thuoc District in Thanh Hoa Province. Ung went to a job placement company in Thanh Hoa City for further information, where he was informed that he needed VND30 million (more than US$1,400) to go to Dubai. At the company's request, he paid VND6 million (over $280) in advance; Ung also had to pay for the passport and visa application and health testing procedures with his own money.

Later, however, he found out from the Ha Noi-based Department of Overseas Labour that the company was not licensed to send people overseas.

Ung asked the company to return his advance payment of VND6 million, but they refused.

It took him two months to get the money back, and the company only did it after he sent a petition to the police in Thanh Hoa City.

"It cost me VND15 million to get VND6 million back," Ung said, referring to the multiple journeys he made to the city of Thanh Hoa from his mountain home to meet with the company and the police.

But Ung was much luckier than some workers who actually went overseas.

To Van Phuc, a resident of Thanh Hoa Province's Hau Loc District, paid a broker more than VND100 million ($4,760) to bring him to Angola in 2013. He used all his family's property as collateral to borrow the sum from a local bank.

However, when Phuc arrived in Angola with 16 fellow villagers, the man who picked up the group at the airport said the prospective employer only needed five workers – leaving 12 others jobless.

They resorted to doing manual work for very low pay, barely enough to survive. After four months, they returned home with no money in their pockets.

Since mid-2013, the group tried everything to get their money back, tracking down the broker and submitting petitions to the local authorities.

However, they managed to get back only VND28 million ($1,330) from the broker, who is still living in the area without facing any legal charges, and are still struggling to pay the huge debt plus interest to the bank.

So far, there has been no intervention from the local authorities.

This was a common situation, said Nguyen Thi Mai Thuy, the International Labour Organisation (ILO)'s GMS TRIANGLE National Project Coordinator. In some cases, companies still recruited workers even if their licenses were suspended or their labour supply contracts had not yet been approved. Others recruited more people than the permissible number.

Hoping to help her family escape poverty, "Mai" from the northern province of Thai Binh signed a contract to work in Taiwan with a job placement company in Ha Noi.

She borrowed $6,600 from a local bank to pay the recruitment company, which forced her to sign a contract saying she had paid $4,050 in order to avoid the scrutiny of relevant authorities, as $6,600 exceeds the Government-regulated amount.

Under her contract with the recruitment company, Mai was supposed to work in Taipei for three years. However, when she got there, Mai realised that her work was not metal processing as mentioned in the contract, but trivial errands such as collecting garbage, painting walls and loading wood.

"The errands were too heavy for a girl to handle," Mai said, adding that she was moved from one employer to another without knowing why.

Tired of all the hard work, which had not been specified in her labour contract, Mai decided to return to Viet Nam nearly two years before her contract was due to expire.

She went to the job placement company to ask for compensation for her three-year contract in Taiwan, but was denied and then deceived into giving them her labour contract, almost the only proof she had to make a claim.

After months of traveling between her hometown and Ha Noi to meet with the company and relevant authorities, Mai finally managed to claim back $1,000, only a smart part of her investment.

Young and still eager to improve her life, Mai said she was returning to Taiwan under a new contract with another company.

Oversight needed

Even though Viet Nam has joined several international conventions that protect migrant workers, many labour contracts offered by job placement companies (brokerage agencies) contradict these conventions, said Dr Ta Thi Minh Ly from the Viet Nam Association of Judicial Support for the Poor. Some contracts state that workers cannot join local trade unions or change employers; many offer a very low salary and fail to specify the exact type of work that the workers must do.

Thuy from the ILO said the fact that labour contracts are not specific about employee rights and benefits and employer responsibilities made it difficult for workers to complain if they were not satisfied with work conditions.

To make the matter worse, she said, immigrant workers were often not aware of the importance of labour contracts and often signed a contract without going through it first.

Thuy added that even though the ILO's convention 97 stressed that immigrant workers have the same rights as domestic ones, in reality they suffered from social discrimination and many limitations. They were often denied equal treatment, particularly in terms of social security and the right to freedom of association.

However, domestic authorities rarely inspected overseas companies receiving Vietnamese workers. Only Thai Nguyen Province visited companies overseas to make sure they were operating well, Ly said.

In Malaysia, she met workers who were suffering from their toxic work environment, yet they were not provided with health insurance coverage.

"The law allows workers to complain and sue companies, but it does not include specific regulations for how and when they can do so," she said. "These could include paying too high a fee, not receiving the salary they were promised, or not getting the foreign language and skills training they were supposed to have."

Even if the workers bring their case to court, sometimes their cases are dismissed due to the lack of evidence.

For workers forced to return home due to external factors such as companies going bankrupt, the Government should have policies to reduce or forgive the debt that workers borrowed from State banks and help them find new jobs at home, Ly said.

Under the Prime Minister's Decision 50, issued in 2010, the Bank for Social Policies – where poor and rural workers often borrow money from to find jobs or start small businesses –must forgive all or part of the debt workers owe if they lose the money due to certain factors. These include disasters that damage their property or becoming sick with no family members to depend on. So far, however, no one had ever benefited from this regulation in Quang Ngai because the banks turned people down citing a lack of "sufficient evidence," said Tran Thi Thu Huong, a labour expert at the Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs of Quang Ngai Province.

Huong added that while the Management Agency for Vietnamese Workers Overseas was supposed to intervene for workers overseas when problems occurred between them and employers, sometimes workers were sent home without the agency's awareness.

When the local labour department wrote to companies requesting they deal with workers' complaints, they often failed to co-operate or took a long time to respond.

Ly said there was no clear guidance for workers on how to sue companies, despite the urgent need.

The Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs is drafting a decree on complaints and denunciation for workers and plans to submit it to the Prime Minister, although some legal experts have said the decree still lacks specificity. — VNS

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