|Vietnamese workers wait to check in for flights bound to Libya. Overseas workers often return home to an uncertain future. — Photo hoptacquocte.com
by Hoang Anh
As his plane landed at the Noi Bai Interna-tional Airport in Ha Noi, Dong struggled with mixed feelings.
The Vinh Phuc native, 36, had been away for two years, working as a security guard in the United Arab Emirates. He was eager to see his son, only three when he'd left, and his family and friends. But he was also staring at an uncertain future, far different from the one he had dreamt of when he left Viet Nam.
His heart sank the moment he saw his name on the list of workers who were to be sent back to Viet Nam. Debts taken to get the coveted overseas job and those incurred based on what he would earn there would now have to be repaid, but he had no job to return to.
Dong was among thousands of Vietnamese workers, mainly those discharged from the army, who were sent to the United Arab Emirates to work as security guards under a co-operation programme between the governments of Viet Nam and UAE that began in 2009.
"I applied for a bank loan to purchase a piece of land while I was on the job. My wife and I thought that with our income we could eventually pay it off over several years. It will be difficult now with me being unemployed."
He left the country in 2013, nearly a year after he applied for the security guards job. The salary was attractive at US$600 a month and the job description was a good fit. He borrowed money from a bank to pay the VND60 million ($2,750) broker fee that the labour export company demanded.
He also had to quit his regular job as a taxi driver to attend a training course before his departure. Furthermore, he had to rent a small apartment in Ha Noi and pay from his own pocket his living expenses during the training.
"I figured it would be alright. Sure, it was a lot of money for me at the time, but the salary was attractive. I was not making much as a taxi driver, $200-250 a month at the most, so I thought the UAE job was a good opportunity."
The rationale was pretty much the same for most of Dong's peers. Many of them had struggled to eke out a living with their jobs in Viet Nam, and they were ready to make the sacrifices required to work overseas and save some money so that they would be able to take better care of their families.
"My wife was supportive. She was working overseas in Taiwan, too. It was already hard for us, but we thought that if we worked hard and saved some money, our future would be better."
But life in the UAE was not what he expected. On arrival, they were divided into five big groups of 700-800 men each, living in army camps, completely isolated from other parts of the country.
"It wasn't the labour part or the weather. It was hot, almost 50 degrees Celsius sometimes, but it was the isolation that was difficult for us," Dong recalled.
"And the food. You can only eat so much of lamb and chicken."
They had no vacations, no sick days and were strictly forbidden from leaving the camps. Dong said they often joked it was not much different from being prisoners.
But it was worth it, still. The men complained and suffered, but they still did their job. It was frustrating not being able to go out but they told themselves it would be all over in a few years. After all, the sole reason they were away from home was to save some money before returning.
However, the day they had to leave came too early and too suddenly.
As the co-operation programme between the two countries was about to expire, their employer, the UAE-based Emirates Gateway Security Services (EGSS), began required procedures to send the Vietnamese workers home. Of these, nearly 1,300 hadn't finished their three-year contracts.
Amidst the confusion in a strange country where normal communication was next to impossible, the angry and frustrated men beat up a translator, based on rumours that he was holding back their bonuses.
Asked if he knew anything about the incident, Dong said the majority of the workers were well organised and followed all instructions given to them.
"It's hard to blame them though. Isolated and angry because they soon had to go home before the end of their contracts and unable to speak the language, they had to guess everything.
"The rumours that our translators cheated had been circulating among the workers before the incident, but nobody, either in the UAE or the Viet Nam Embassy, bothered to address it."
The incident could have been avoided if the workers were kept informed of what was happening and able to get answers to their concerns and questions.
For most workers, what happened was a pity because, despite all the setbacks, the salary was good and some badly wanted to work for a few more years.
"I did the math. Two years away from my son and my hometown, and maybe I made $3,200-3,500. I'm also in debt and it is difficult to find a job. What am I to tell my future employers? That I have experience working with lethal weapons?"
Dong and many of his friends from the army camps in the UAE have found it difficult to find jobs after returning. After all the money that they paid to the labour export companies, the latter offered no help, even when they were sent home before their contracts expired.
"Some help they were. Now I can't trust any of them. They promised this and that, but the reality was something completely different. I know of Vietnamese workers who are unable to leave the UAE, even if they hate their jobs and the pay is bad."
So there they were, and are; thousands of workers uncertain about their future back home, saddled with financial obligations to families and banks, unable to voice their demands or concerns because of the language barrier.
"I'm home now. I don't know what to do or what to expect, but I'm hoping the labour ministry as well as the labour export companies will help us resettle and find work to support our families," Dong said.
The Department of Overseas Labour said last Thursday, it had requested EGSS to consider providing them with compensation as their contracts were terminated before expiration date. The compensation would include the cost of one-way flight tickets the workers had to purchase to go to the UAE, the training fees and a $500 bonus.
Workers unable to complete their three-year contract would also be entitled to compensation in accordance with the UAE's labour regulations.
Whether EGSS will respond positively to the department is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that thousands of Vietnamese workers will have to return home, many of them will have to readjust and find jobs again, and many of them will not be able to off the debt they incurred to be sent overseas.
In this case, there is no doubt that authorities and companies have failed our workers, including ex-soldiers. Apart from finding ways to help them, the nation should act now to avoid similar situations in the future.
The UAE and other surrounding nations will continue to depend on migrant labour in the years to come, so it would be prudent for Viet Nam to study and learn from the experience of other countries who have and are sending their citizens to work in the oil-rich nations.
At home, the labour ministry should follow up on its rhetoric about protecting workers' rights and tighten controls over labour export companies, not to mention improve co-operation with its foreign partners.
Our workers and their well-being have to be an integral part of our international integration process. We cannot fail them. — VNS