Brokers lead Vietnamese workers into exile in foreign lands

By Le Giang Lam   January 13, 2019 | 01:35 am PT
Many workers seek jobs abroad, but high brokerage and other fees are demanded of them, often illegally.
Le Giang Lam

Le Giang Lam

On Taiwan’s Shifen Old Street, famous for its sky lanterns, I came across the sign "Viet Nam Quan," meaning a Vietnamese shop. The saleswoman there was from Ninh Binh, a province in the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam. She said she had come to Taiwan several years ago as a guest worker.

She asked me about how much I had paid for a visa and the visa application procedure.

"It was easy. I got my tourist visa for free through an online application and am allowed to stay for two weeks. The plane ticket and accommodation cost the same as a trip from Hanoi to Saigon," I told her.

"Then you can come, find a job and then overstay, right?" she asked, but clammed up soon after.

I didn't want to tell her that a Taiwanese tourist visa is only easy to get for someone who has got a U.S. or European visa before.

After speaking to about 10 other Vietnamese workers in Taiwan, I understood more about why the conversation at the lantern street had been a bit awkward.

For Vietnamese tourists, going to Taiwan is cheap - VND15-25 million ($647 – 1,079) for a five-day tour. In contrast, guest workers, who need the work to help their families make ends meet, need to cough up $5,200-6,000 to brokers.

This figure, according to the Migrant Forum in Asia, is the highest any Southeast Asian worker has to pay to get the same job in Taiwan. It is two or three times what a Thai or Filipino worker pays to get there.

Vietnamese carry banners on a protest calling for an end to labor brokers on January 7, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Andy IP

Vietnamese citizens carry banners during a protest in Taiwan asking for an end to labor brokers on January 7, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Andy Ip

Hai Phong City native Nghia is one of the thousands of Vietnamese workers in Taiwan. He decided to go abroad to work since he was earning just VND5 million ($215) a month in Vietnam and could not take care of his wife and two children.

So, when he saw an advertisement seeking workers for Taiwan with a salary of NT$22,000 a month ($717) plus opportunities to work overtime, he decided to borrow money and apply for the job.

However, when he arrived in Taiwan, he found there was almost no opportunity to work extra shifts. Furthermore, after deducting taxes and fees, the actual wage was only $400-500. After living costs and paying off debts, he practically had nothing left after the first year.

"Brokers have no idea what they’re talking about," he said.

Nghia found ways to work extra hours on his own. When Vietnamese everywhere were watching the 2018 AFF Cup semi-final between Vietnam and the Philippines last month, he was busy selling roasted sweet potatoes at a night market. By his calculation, it would take him six years to make a meaningful profit.

Nghia is not the only person to "feel tricked." According to the Migrant Forum in Asia, the labor export market is dominated by private companies which compete with each other to find the cheapest labor for employers.

This happens at the expense of the workers, who end up paying higher commissions.

In Vietnam, studies show that the high costs for workers result from mismanagement by authorities and because of corruption.

According to a study published in 2013 by Daniele Bélanger and Hong-zen Wang on Vietnamese emigration to East Asia, many private brokers hire workers by renting the licenses of licensed agencies. Then, they collect the departure costs from the workers themselves, though the recruiters should be responsible for the cost of training, visas and air tickets.

Most workers are disadvantaged by the fact they do not know their rights, the study found. Hence many people are also tricked by fly-by-night operators who collect thousands of dollars as fees, take victims to Taiwan on tourist visas and abandon them there.

Some others manage to find a job through acquaintances in Taiwan, travel there and overstay their visas. This option is less expensive than the legal channel and more lucrative because they do not have to pay tax or health insurance.

Two Vietnamese shop owners in Taipei told me that two months’ pay in a restaurant (illegal job) is equal to three months’ wages at a factory.

Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency has said Vietnamese top the list of illegal immigrants followed by Indonesians. If brokers’ fees are the highest in Vietnam, it is second highest in Indonesia.

Happens at a cost

But staying illegally comes at a cost: The workers must live underground and are not protected by law.

Pham Thao Van, who managed a fund that supported Vietnamese workers experiencing hardship in Taiwan, said more than 200 people have died in the last four years, mostly due to accidents or sickness. The workers do not dare go to a hospital because they are not legal residents.

Although the governments of Vietnam and Taiwan have introduced a number of measures to protect workers, effective implementation remains a challenge.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Labor has stipulated that agents should not charge more than $4,000 for sending a guest worker to Taiwan. Since the beginning of last year, the ministry has also carried out a direct recruitment program that charges only VND13 million ($560). But many brokerages still function with impunity, collecting additional fees without invoices.

Convention 181 of the International Labor Organization bans private recruitment companies from charging workers, but Vietnam has not ratified this.

It is reported that there are around 25,000 illegal Vietnamese workers in Taiwan. Their path to illegal status had most likely begun in Vietnam, where thousands of illegal brokers continue to trick workers with fake promises of a better future.

Twin Bright, one of the companies allegedly involved in the recent case of 152 Vietnamese tourists going missing in Taiwan, is not a licensed tour operator. This case has highlighted the urgency of Vietnam’s labor export market needing better management.

When there is not enough work available in the country and the official labor export route is too expensive, poor workers are faced with tough choices and decide to take risks.

But the truth is that, given a choice, as Nghia says: "Nobody wants to live in exile."

*Le Giang Lam is a journalist based in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are her own.

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