Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fragments of Vietnamese Immigrant Workers’ Lives in Thailand

In January 2008, I was watching a Thai language news program when I heard a terrible news about a group of young Vietnamese people. Twenty-one people tried to cross the wide Mekong River from Thailand into Laos in the middle of the night on a small boat. When they reached the middle of river, the weight of the people and their belongings was too much for the boat to bear. It began to sink. In the end, 13 lost their life. Only 8 survived.

These young Vietnamese were on their way to Vietnam to celebrate the Lunar New Year with their family in the province of Ha Tinh. But they all entered Thailand to work illegally, which was the reason why they decided to find secretive but dangerous ways to cross the Thai borders in order to return home for the New Year celebration.

Because this issue of Dan Chua Magazine highlights the situation of Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand, I have decided to introduce to our readers three young people to find out a little bit of their backgrounds and life as a migrant worker in this country.

Nguyen Van Doan

Nguyen Van Doan is a 24 year-old young man from Thanh Hoa province. He is the third son in a family of 7 children. The two older brothers are married with their own families. Doan has the responsibility of help take care of the three youngest siblings who are still in school. Doan quit school after he finished year 9, and crossed the border to Thailand when he was 18 years old.

Like many other young Vietnamese in Thailand, Doan sews clothes for a living. Doan works and lives in the house of a Thai family who is his boss. He has been sewing for four years. Everyday he starts working at 8 in the morning and finishes at midnight. “I choose to stop working at midnight,” Doan said. “But I know others who work until two or three in the morning. I think it is very bad for your health.” Working 16 hours a day, Doan earns about 7,000-8,000 baht a month, which is equivalent to 240-275 AUD.

Doan sews pants and is paid by the number of pairs he finishes. He is paid 17 baht each pair. With his earning, he sends whatever he could to his family which has many fiancial hardships. “But a lot of times I don’t send anything, or I have to borrow from friends to send to my family,” Doan said. The reason is that sometimes the living expenses take up all of his earning which does not leave him much to send home. Other times, some of the earning is given to the police. Like virtually all Vietnamese workers in Thailand, Doan is an illegal and is always in danger of being stopped by the police when he is outside. In the past 6 years, Doan has been stopped by the police 6 times. However, he relates that most of the time, he is able to talk to the police into letting him go.

Despite the risks of living in Thailand, Doan feels that this is still a better place to work than in Vietnam. “Right now, in Vietnam, there are not many jobs. The pay is low, but the price of goods is high,” he said. Recently, Doan thought about returning to Vietnam to find work selling goods for commission for Amway, a foreign company. But he has changed his mind and decided to stay in Thailand further until a better opportunity comes along.

Tran Van Tuan

I met Tran Van Tuan the first time when he went to Mass in Vietnamese language that was organized at a church in Bangkok. As I talked to him, I found out that he was working in a restaurant very close to where I was living in Bangkok at that time. The restaurant is located near a big and beautiful park in the heart of the city. Tuan works there with a friend from his hometown in Ha Tinh province.

Tuan is 22 years old and like Doan, he also came to Thailand when he was 18. Tuan is the fourth child in a family with five children. Tuan managed to finish only the 8th grade. He quit school twice, the first time after he finished year 6. At that time, the family had no one to take care of the buffalo, so Tuan had to quit school to take on this responsibility. After some time, he returned to school and completed the 8th grade. But because of financial difficulties in his family, Tuan had to quit school again to go to work.

Like many young people from Ha Tinh province, Tuan decided when he was 18 to find work in Thailand. Tuan ended up working in various restaurants, and has worked at the latest location for a year and a half.

One time Tuan told me that he took a bus to Pattaya, a tourist city two hours drive from Bangkok, to find a job. He only had a few hundred baht in his pocket. He wandered from place to place looking for work in restaurants, but was not able to find a good job. At night, he had no place to sleep because even cheap motel rooms were still too expensive for him. So he had to sleep on the beach. According to Tuan, having to sleep outdoors like a homeless person made him feel the most pitiful that he has ever felt in his life.

After he left Pataya, he took a bus back to Bangkok. After he got off at the bus station, he walked along many streets to look for work in restaurants. After many hours of job searching, by chance, he found the restaurant where he is now working near the center of the city. Tuan works from 4 in the afternoon until 1 in the morning, earning a base salary of 5,500 baht (189AUD) a month plus tips.

Vietnamese entering Thailand can stay for 30 days before they have to leave. Tuan, of course, stays for much longer than that. If he wants to maintain his legal status, he has to cross the border into Laos, then come back with an extension of 30 days. To make this trip costs about 1000 baht in transportation expenses, not including money lost for not going to work. Like most Vietnamese workers, Tuan decides to risk it instead of making the monthly trip.

In the past four years, Tuan has been stopped by the police 4 times. The latest incident took place only a few weeks ago. Tuan was helping a friend from Vietnam looking for work when they were stopped by the police. Tuan recountted, “Even though my passport was still valid, the police said he did not believe I was a tourist. He said, ‘I know you are here to work. If you are a tourist, why don’t you have any money to spend? What hotel are you staying?’ He took us in his car and drove us to the front of the immigration agency. He said, ‘You decide whether you want me to take you inside or you pay me and I let you go.’ We didn’t have much money in our pocket, so he took my cell phone instead.”

Tuan’s experience is not uncommon. Many Vietnamese workers have to pay the police in money or by cell phone to be let go. Recently, I received a call from Thoai. He told me over the Thai New Year, he went out with some friends and were stopped by the police. As a result, he also lost his cell phone. Thoai said sadly, “Now I have to work for about two weeks to have enough money to buy another phone.”
Duong Hoang Thuan

Duong Hoang Thuan is Thoai’s older brother. He is 25 years old, and comes from Huong Son District in Ha Tinh province. Thuan came to Thailand in 2004 and found work sewing clothes. He is paid 16 baht for every pair of pants he finishes. According to Thuan, on average, he can complete about 25 pairs of pants each day. As a result, each month, he is able to make about 8,000-9,000 baht.

Thuan has also had encounters with the Thai police. But unlike others who only had to pay money and let go, Thuan was put in prison for ten months not long after he came to Thailand. During those ten months, Thoai, Thuan’s brother had to use most of his earnings to take care of Thuan while he was in prison. After that period, Thuan was deported to Campuchia because he told the police that he was from this country. However, family and friends sent him money so that he could make his way back into Thailand again.

After returning from Kampuchia barely a month, Thuan was arrested again. This time, he was not even outside on the streets, but working inside the Thai owner’s home. Someone had reported to the police that there were illegal workers in that house. Thuan was put in prison for one month.

Another time that Thuan was stopped by the police, he only had to pay about 800 baht. “I only had 1000 baht in my pocket. So the police took 800 and let me have 200 so I could take the taxi home,” Thuan recounted. For some people, depending on how well they can deal with the police, they may have to pay 3,000-4,000 if they had the money in their wallet. But most are willing to pay to be let go because they don’t want to be taken to the police station, and then to the immigration agency. Once they are taken in, things become even more costly and complicated. Even though police corruption is bad for Thai society, but for the illegal workers, police corruption also helps them to be not arrested and deported to Vietnam.

According to Thuan, “The bad thing about working in Thailand is that we don’t have freedom to go about as we like. But on the other hand, Thai people are very good-hearted. Life here is more pleasant than in Vietnam.”

No one is sure how many Vietnamese workers there are in Thailand. The workers themselves tell me that there may be up to several hundred thousand. Even though life is not easy here, but for most, it is still better than in their home villages in Vietnam, where the situation is difficult and nowadays, even expensive.

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