It pays to work overseas. At least that's what many young Vietnamese think and why, each year, many leave their country to earn a living.
They go to Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, or the Middle East. There, many women become nannies for wealthy families or maids at first-class hotels. Men mostly undertake to work at construction sites or offer their services as labourers.
These migrants are all dreaming of a better future, or trying to get away from a terrible situation at home. But reality can often be quite different.
"Migrant workers' contracts-if they exist-are not always honoured," explains Pham Quoc Anh, President of the Vietnam Lawyers Association. "Some migrant workers have the unpleasant surprise of receiving lower wages than those they were expecting. Others have a much too heavy workload. In addition to that, many women are victims of harassment and sexual assault. These victims often prefer to remain silent for fear of losing their jobs."
Since most have borrowed money to pay their placement agency, many must continue to work under abusive conditions so they can pay back their loans. Only once the loans are paid can they save money to return home.
When they do go home, they often feel ashamed and find it hard to tell others of the abuse they have suffered. Also, their families may hold a grudge because they have been deprived of revenue from the overseas work that they had been counting on.
"There are about 500,000 Vietnamese workers abroad, and that number keeps growing," adds Mr. Pham. "Hence the urgent need to protect their rights."
The Vietnam Lawyers Association seeks to improve the lot of migrant workers by studying how international laws regarding working abroad can be applied to Vietnam's legal context.
In the provinces of Ninh Binh and Lam Dong, for example, two consultation centres have been established to offer free legal aid services to the community, which includes many ethnic minorities. Workers at four legal aid clinics in these provinces meet face to face with people who live in remote areas to provide those wishing to work abroad with all of the information they need to ensure that their rights are respected from the time they sign the contract until they return to Vietnam.
To carry out these activities, the Vietnam Lawyers Association receives support from SEARCH, a Canadian program focusing on cooperation in human development in Southeast Asia. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) supports this program, which aims to improve legal and institutional mechanisms in the region to better protect the rights of children, ethnic minorities, and migrant workers.
"We plan to publish a guide for migrant workers in the near future so that they will know their rights," says Mr. Pham. "They will thus be better equipped to identify traps and, where possible, avoid them."
The Vietnam Lawyers Association launched two projects in cooperation with SEARCH: the legal aid project which started in August 2007, and the migrant workers project which started in September 2007. As of March 2008, these projects have achieved the following results: Legal aid project:
Migrant workers project: