by Bich Huong
HA NOI — When he decided to leave home to work abroad early this year, Nguyen Van Thi never thought he would be back so soon. But only four months after moving to Russia, the 26-year-old returned to northern Ha Nam Province.
"We guest workers usually tell ourselves that we will not come back until we can bring home at least VND5 billion (US$240,000) for starting a business," he says.
Now, as a returnee, he is unemployed, haunted by the harsh working and living conditions he experienced abroad. He also owes more than VND20 million (US$1,000) to the intermediary who promised to help him get a job at a Russian footwear factory, a simple manual job requiring no foreign language skills that seemed attractive because he would be living and working with only Vietnamese, Thi says.
However, when he got to Russia, he was given a position as a porter in a Chinese company, he says, adding that sometimes he had to work for as many as 17 hours in one day.
"Meals are usually interrupted by the boss asking employees to get back to work," he says, remembering a co-worker who fainted while working because of hunger and cold.
The language barrier was also a problem, as the workers' complaints could not reach upper-level management.
Some workers thought about escaping, but it was impossible, he said, describing a huge factory in a remote province, guarded by big, ferocious dogs.
Those days in Russia still haunt him day and night, even now that he has returned home, he says.
As soon as he got back to the country three months ago, he reported his case to provincial authorities, but so far has received no response, he says.
Meanwhile, he still has a debt to pay, and finds it difficult to access bank loans to start the small business in his hometown that he planned.
However, Van is much luckier than many people because he has arrived home. Many people have trusted illegal labour export intermediaries too much, paying thousands of dollars to get a job in a foreign country - only to end up stranded in debt.
Without access to job training courses and ignorant about their new countries' languages, laws and customs, many Vietnamese guest workers are mistreated and conned by both intermediaries and foreign employers, according to a survey of more than 350 returnees in three northern provinces (Hung Yen, Ha Nam and Thai Binh) early this year. Meanwhile, a majority of workers don't know where to ask for help when they live abroad - or even when they return to Viet Nam.
Nearly 7 per cent of respondents suffered fraud at least once when they applied to work abroad, and over 93 per cent said they experienced fraud when working abroad.
Many (67 per cent) suffered fraud after returning home, when they could not get their deposits back. Over 16 per cent said they could not find the "service providers" to complain.
Many people, mostly poor, borrowed money at a high interest rate, paying outrageous fees for intermediaries or unlicensed labour export companies, says Nguyen Thi Van, a sociologist from the Ha Noi-based Centre for Studies and Applied Sciences in Gender, Family, Women and Adolescents.
Workers had to pay much higher fees than regulated but did not receive any receipt or contract, she says, adding that nearly one-fourth of the workers said they did not know there were legal documents regulating those fees or the compensation they would get if the labour contracts were broken.
In some cases, workers were urged to sign contracts minutes before their flights that they were unable to understand, since they were often in foreign languages, she says.
Van says that respondents' stories reveal significant human trafficking was occurring, although the victims themselves were unaware that they were being so exploited.
For examples, more than half of respondents had their passports and other personally identifying documents kept by employers or intermediaries as soon as they stepped into the recipient countries.
They were then forced to work overtime or do extra work not mentioned in the labour contract.
Living and working conditions were also much worse than those described in contracts, respondents said in the survey.
However, current Vietnamese regulations have yet to recognise them as trafficking victims, so they cannot access support services, she says. Seeing themselves as victims of fraud or even human trafficking for labour exploitation, many returnees first wanted legal aid and then asked for support to start new jobs, Van says.
Meanwhile, deputy director of the Overseas Management Department under the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, Dao Cong Hai, says that most of the mistreated and conned guest workers were sent abroad by unlicensed companies.
He urges people who want to work abroad to contact reliable licensed labour export companies. The ministry has made efforts to raise public awareness on labour export and educate workers better about their situation.
The ministry co-operates closely with the Ministry of Public Security to detect violations, he says. This year, Viet Nam has sent over 500,000 workers abroad to 40 countries and territories. It has also set up eight overseas labour management offices to support Vietnamese migrant workers.
The survey was conducted by CSAGA, United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human-Trafficking and funded by USAID. — VNS