The secret world of Vietnamese workers in Russia

This story may not be new to insiders, yet outsiders may find it quite shocking and surprising. I myself find it normal. There are always risks, whatever you do and wherever you go. I feel happy that I am here, working and living in a modern city state, earning enough for a living and some savings for future days, and be exposed to the world while still keeping a deep root of Vietnamese through my network of friends and acquaintances, both online and in real life 🙂


BBC, 4 April 2010

Three years ago, Cuong left his wife and two children in Vietnam and went to Russia in search of a job. The young man from Hai Duong province thought he could make a good living as a garment factory worker. Like many other Vietnamese illegal workers, he even changed his name – Cuong is an assumed identity – in order to avoid being detected and thrown out of the former communist state. Vietnam has a rapidly growing economy, but many people still go and work in Russia, whose ties with the South East Asian nation date back to the Cold War era. Cuong is one of thousands of Vietnamese who have left the heat of the countryside for the Russian cold to become “ghost workers” – people who are employed in factories that are not registered and do not pay taxes. Now, three years after arriving, Cuong’s dream of making lots of money has become a nightmare. It all started when he could not find work in Moscow, so had to travel to Tula 200km (125 miles) away to find a job. Cuong says from there everything went downhill.
“I had to work 20 hours a day to make just over $30 (£19),” he says. Despite working day and night, Cuong soon ended up in financial trouble because he could not earn enough money to make ends meet. “Within a few months I was in the red by more than $165.” He says his passport was confiscated by the owner and foreman to prevent him and other workers from leaving. Eventually Cuong managed to escape and found another job in a Russian construction company. Just as things began to pick up the owner of the firm withheld several months of his salary for no reason. Today Cuong is worse off than when he first arrived. He is desperate to go back to Vietnam because his mother has been diagnosed with cancer and his wife is raising their two daughters without any help from him.

Under Russian law migrant workers like Cuong and the companies they work for do not actually exist. Critics say this means employees can easily be exploited. Some factory owners told me they survive by paying bribes to rogue Russian police, tax officials and people in charge of overseeing foreign visitors. Working in these invisible factories is very risky because it is illegal and as some workers told me, they over-stay their visas and live in constant fear of being deported. Russian law bars deportees from returning for five years. But people have found ways around the system. Some workers explained that with a certain amount of money, they bought new passports with new names to come back and earn more dollars.Some Vietnamese told me, that despite the dangers, they have made money that they would not dream of earning back home.

Thanh, a young woman, comes from the same province as Cuong. She returned to Moscow for the second time in 2006. She admits that there are many pitfalls, but has absolutely no regrets. “I am lucky to have a good employer. Work is hard but I make enough to make it worthwhile.” Thanh works 12-14 hours a day in a “ghost” factory just outside Moscow and earns $700-800 a month. She does not spend any money on rent because she sleeps at the factory for free. Thanh fell in love with a Vietnamese man in the same factory. They went home to get married and returned to Russia under the names they have now. She is now seven months pregnant, but her bump is still tiny – she says the long work hours have probably taken their toll on the baby’s development. The couple have already decided to return to Vietnam for the baby’s birth. They say they are prepared to take the risk because it is too expensive to deliver the child in Moscow. Once the baby is born they will go back to Russia with their new baby and new names.

However some, like Cuong, cannot wait to get out of Russia. He obtained a document from the Vietnamese embassy in Moscow which will allow him to travel back home – a new passport is too costly. His hopes of making a living have been well and truly dashed and now he just wants to be with his family in Vietnam. The only problem is he is stranded in Russia because he does not have the plane fare to go home, and he cannot leave until his family sends the money for the flight.


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