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Wrap up: Is the foreigner-local salary disparity in Vietnam fair?

By Editorial   September 29, 2017 | 10:30 pm PT
The key question remains, does foreigner bias exist, and if so, does it limit Vietnamese career opportunities.

Many readers have questioned why we are debating the local-foreigner pay gap in a country where there are other issues considered more serious like income inequality among Vietnamese, cronyism and corruption, to name but a few. We acknowledge this, have reported on these issues from the beginning, and have no intention of stopping, unless we get shut down.

Skeptics of the debate argue that the gap is fair because it reflects the shortage of a skilled workforce in Vietnam. Foreigners are paid more because they "will not come to Vietnam unless they are paid at least as much as they would back 'home' for them," Jon R argues.

Jon goes on to say that the gap will diminish once there are capable local candidates to replace foreign workers. And "since the company didn't want to pay so much for the expat in the first place, the incoming Vietnamese should expect a lower salary." Examples of such a transition include Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

The above argument raises a question of whether such a transition is already at work and points back to the original question we raised, which was misunderstood by a number of readers.

We did not call for Vietnamese and foreigners to be paid the same. We pointed out the gap and asked whether the disparity is fair. In order to gauge this fairness, we raised two sub-questions: (1) whether there is a bias in favor of foreigners based on a mindset, as Linh Nguyen put it, that "anything foreign is better", and (2) whether this bias contributes to the pay gap and is denying capable Vietnamese workers of jobs traditionally reserved for foreigners.

Duc further explains it: "This disparity might exist because of the locals’ unwarranted perception, or because of their vanity, or because of the difference in productivity between foreigners and locals, or because of any combination of these, we are not sure and we need to find out and solve it. But to find out, at least the problem should be discussed."

Following Jon's reasoning, the gap made perfect sense in the early 2000s when Vietnam was still an underdeveloped country with a largely low skilled labor force and hence had to rely a lot on foreign expertise (and aid) to lift itself of out poverty, build infrastructure, industrialize and open up its economy to the world.

But fast forward to 2017 and Vietnam has achieved middle income status and ranks fifth among the countries with the most students at American educational institutions. We've started to see  more Vietnamese with international experience returning home. The internet has also increased exposure to the latest knowledge and know-how for those unable to afford overseas training.

So while the notion that foreign experts are more skilled than Vietnamese was likely true in the past. But if it persists in the system as the actual skill gap gets smaller, it’s going to be problematic. Why? Because it could make the gap unfairly big or even prevent skilled Vietnamese from proving their worth and hence correcting the bias as businesses and organizations continue to advertise some jobs exclusively for foreigners.

Jon R and Mark Haskell argue businesses are smart enough not to waste money on more expensive foreign workers if there are equally capable locals ready to work for a lower wage.

In addition, another reader Matt points out that Vietnamese law actually treats foreigners unfairly by making it very hard for them to buy a house, obtain a work visa, open a bank account and basically giving them "no legal status" - which could also explain their high salaries being a way of compensating for such shortcomings.

But one thing no one has disputed is Vietnamese parents’ preference for white teachers. This, as mentioned by Alex Kherington in a comment under the opinion piece on this topic, has resulted in unqualified teachers abusing their positions while "they get a pass and are dealt with differently simply because they are foreigners, particularly white".

This indicates that while the businesses doing the hiring may be well aware of who’s qualified for the job and who’s not, the customer’s bias spurned from ignorance and lack of understanding to gauge a teacher’s ability, has prompted some English centers to hire less capable, sometimes even incompetent candidates.

But is the customer always right? Don’t businesses and we as a society have an obligation to question and challenge such biases?

Also, while the case is clear for English teachers, are there similarly ignorant demands from customers and businesses in other industries? Have such demands, which have nothing to do with actual ability to do the job, prompted businesses to favor foreign workers even though locals could have done it too for a lower wage?

If there are, we’d love to hear these stories to better understand how such biases work and come up with a solution to make the labor marker fairer. If there aren’t, then indeed, we can say there’s nothing unfair in the pay gap, with the exception of incompetent English teachers who are appointed just for being foreign.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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