Influx of illegal Chinese workers an open secret in Vietnam

Influx of illegal Chinese workers an open secret in Vietnam Hanoi - Vietnamese officials Monday said rising numbers of Chinese workers in the country may be costing some Vietnamese jobs.

But some officials and economic experts said there were good reasons for Chinese firms carrying out projects in Vietnam to employ Chinese workers, even though many such workers lack proper visas.

The issue has become controversial since reports last week in the newspaper Tuoi Tre and the news website VietnamNet claimed that Chinese companies had illegally imported thousands of unskilled Chinese workers to do jobs that could be performed by Vietnamese.

"Foreign illegal workers certainly have the effect of taking away a number of jobs that Vietnamese can do," said Nguyen Dinh Thiet, chief of the Secretariat of Vietnam's Vocational Training Association.

Pham Si Liem, Vice Chairman of Vietnam's Construction Association, said such workers were brought in by Chinese contractors on several major infrastructure and mining projects.

"Using Chinese workers is more effective than using Vietnamese ones, as they speak the same language (as their supervisors)," Liem said. "But we are worried because this takes job opportunities from Vietnamese."

Vietnam has no official statistics on the number of illegal workers in the country, Chinese or otherwise, said Nguyen Dai Dong, head of Vietnam's Labour and Employment Agency.

But VietnamNet estimated that at several Chinese-contracted projects, including coal-fired power plants in Haiphong city and Quang Ninh province and a gas-turbine power plant in the province of Ca Mau, there are between 700 and 2,000 Chinese workers, most of them lacking work visas.

Tuoi Tre reported that Chinese companies working on bauxite mining projects in Vietnam's Central Highlands were also using thousands of unskilled Chinese laborers.

Chinese contractors think Vietnamese workers are too unskilled and undisciplined, said Lt Col Tran Duc of Vietnam's Immigration Department. "They are afraid Vietnamese workers will steal material while working."

But using Chinese workers may be a simple matter of efficiency, said economist Adam McCarty of Mekong Economics in Hanoi. Chinese companies win large infrastructure projects by underbidding Western, Korean or Japanese competitors, and can do the job most effectively with their own workers.

"The Chinese do things dirty but cheap," McCarty said. "If you do a deal with them, accept that they'll do it the way they want to do it. You expect them to take on a whole lot of Vietnamese who they can't control as well?"

If the laborers have no work permits, that is largely because Vietnamese law does not allow unskilled foreigners to receive them. Only foreigners with special skills are eligible for working visas, according to Dong of the Labour and Employment Agency.

Reports on the Chinese working at bauxite projects in Vietnam's Central Highlands suggested national security might be compromised by allowing large Chinese settlements in the region. (dpa)

But Chinese firms have been told not to bring in workers for the bauxite mines on tourist visas anymore, said Doan Van Kien, chairman of the Vietnam National Coal-Mineral Industries Group, the state-owned company that owns the projects.

And security concerns over the Central Highlands are overblown, according to Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

"There is no real prospect of large-scale Chinese settlement that would displace Vietnamese and ethnic minorities from this area," Thayer wrote via email.

Phan Dang Tho, deputy chief investigator of the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, agreed that illegal Chinese workers were costing Vietnamese jobs, but called the problem "sensitive work." On April 3, the government directed the Ministry to issue a report on how to deal with illegal workers.

"We will fine employees who have tried to use illegal workers," Tho said. "Besides that, we will recommend that the relevant agencies expel them."

Under Vietnamese law, immigrant work-permit violations are subject to a maximum fine of 20 million dong (1,130 dollars). (dpa)