Migrant workers need better protection at home and abroad

By Lam Le   December 28, 2020 | 04:00 pm PT
Migrant workers need better protection at home and abroad
Technical trainees from Vietnam work at a knitwear factory in Mitsuke, Japan, February 26, 2019. Photo by Reuters/Linda Sieg.
A new ban on brokers' fees is a small step toward protecting Vietnam’s migrant workers from unfair exploitation at home and overseas, experts said.

Four years ago, Nguyen Thi Tuyet got an offer too good to refuse.

Migration brokers told her that for a fee of VND130 million ($5,619), they would get her a job with food processing factory in Taiwan that paid VND30 million per month.

When Tuyet finally arrived in Taichung, Taiwan, 19 years old, she realized that she'd been cheated. Her actual monthly pay was just half what she'd been promised. But she could not do anything about it.

A new law could change things for other Tuyets aspiring to work overseas. Under the Vietnam Law on Contract-Based Vietnamese Overseas Workers, which was revised last month, Tuyet’s broker would be fined and could lose their license for false advertising and charging illegal broker fees.

The new law, which will take effect January 2022, removes brokerage commissions payable by migrant workers to recruitment agencies and prohibits the levying of service charges on migrant workers who use public, non-profit entities to migrate abroad. It has been found that migrant workers who pay high recruitment fees and related costs are more vulnerable to labor exploitation, including forced labor/human trafficking.

The new law is a welcome step, experts say.

"By reducing allowable costs chargeable to migrant workers, the law offers greater protection from these harms," said ILO’s Regional Labor Migration Specialist, Nilim Baruah. "When workers are indebted by high migration costs, they may be less able to leave employment when they are abused, exploited or forced to work. Removing brokerage commission from the costs permitted to be paid by migrant workers goes part of the way to addressing this risk."

The law also prohibits discrimination and forced labor and permits workers who are subjected to, or threatened with, maltreatment, sexual harassment or forced labor to unilaterally terminate their employment contracts without financial penalty.

Under the new law, recruitment agencies may have their licenses revoked if they use deceitful advertising or other deceptive means to recruit workers for the purpose of forced labor/trafficking in persons or other forms of exploitation.

For years, Vietnamese migrant workers in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and other major destination markets have been oppressed by some of the highest pre-departure fees faced by workers in Asia, which have put many in debt bondage situations.

To secure a three year job contract in Taiwan, a Vietnamese worker needs to pay between $5,000 and $7,000. Their counterparts from the Philippines and Thailand pay $3,200 and $2,700 respectively, according to the Open Working Group on Labor Migration.

Workers like Tuyet have had to spend at least one year to repay the debt incurred to secure legal employment in Taiwan. Four out of five migrant workers interviewed in a 2015 ILO study were still in debt upon return.

Tuyet is one of the more fortunate ones — her food processing company has offered her another three year contract in Taipei. She plans to return, even though she does not know whether she would have to pay broker fees again.

Getting out of a vicious circle

Over the years, Vietnamese workers in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan — the major host countries — have developed a reputation for breaking contracts to seek informal work. Migration experts attribute this trend to the pressure of having to provide financially for their families back home, as well as unresolved grievances and abuses at work.

"Should I abide by the law or not? I asked myself this question many times, wondering whether I should run away," says 26-year-old Phung Phuong Thao who studied and worked in Japan for six years starting in 2014. While officially in the country on a student visa, Thao's primary objective for traveling to Japan was work.

Nguyen Thi Mai Thuy, national project coordinator at the ILO in Vietnam, said: "If we ask many young people like Thao, we'd know that they didn't just go to Japan, South Korea, or even Germany to study but actually with a wish to obtain employment.

"This study work program is in essence migration for work which is not covered by the law. Regulations remain unclear and so is the responsibility of labor and education ministries."

Thao had to pay brokers, who had painted a rosy picture of study and work in Japan, a whopping VND340 million. But when she arrived in Tokyo, there was no job waiting for her. With no knowledge of Japanese during the early days, Thao had to pay an additional VND6 million in commission fees to find work. She ended up working in a warehouse, carrying and stocking packages too heavy for her small frame.

Still, even though Thao could have repaid her debt much faster if she had left the school and worked full time as an undocumented worker, she chose to follow the rules and learn Japanese. She advises others to do so too. Her decision has allowed her to find a new job in Japan without the need to go through any brokers after she returned to Vietnam last year.

Le Thanh Trung, 40, repeats Thao's message, saying breaking contracts "affects other workers' chances to find work." He too had a painful experience with brokers when he first went to South Korea to learn the language and work in 2005 - 2007.

So, upon his second employment term in Korea, he took a different route. He went to his provincial department of labor (Phu Tho) and joined the EPS, which stands for South Korea’s Employment Permit System — a labor migration program which recruits workers exclusively through state channels on the basis of bilateral MOUs signed with sending countries.

Trung's pre-departure costs under EPS amounted to just $640. "That’s because I found the way straight to the department of labor. Many others end up having to go through various intermediaries to finally get to the right people."

It is especially hard for would be migrants in rural areas to access reliable and trusted sources of information of overseas work opportunities, says Trung. Migration experts agree. Most people rely on informal local networks of acquaintances that make them susceptible to high fees, deception and even trafficking.

The fact that most recruitment agencies are privately run and poorly monitored has only aggravated the risks faced by workers. While there are 456 licensed recruitment agencies in Vietnam, only 104 are monitored and ranked.

With the new law, hopes are high that more affordable avenues like South Korea’s EPS will become available to workers. To what extent and how soon that would become reality depends on subordinate legislation and degree of enforcement, says Thuy of the ILO.

A different bottom line

As the ILO is supporting the labor ministry in completing relevant decrees, Thuy says it is critical that "relevant stakeholders participate in the process, including the representatives of workers and recruitment agencies."

None of the workers interviewed had heard of the new law and what it means for their rights going forward. But when asked what they wished for, the message was clear.

Thao said: "Life there is difficult, many are abused by the Japanese, are not duly paid or paid via brokers who take high commission. There are plenty of clashes among the Vietnamese too, and the workers' union can't protect us.

"I would like a law that protects workers in Japan."

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