Embodied Economies: Vietnamese Transnational Migration and Return Regimes

By Small, Ivan V. | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Embodied Economies: Vietnamese Transnational Migration and Return Regimes


Small, Ivan V., SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


"Overseas Vietnamese"

Thanh, a thirty-year-old male migrant labourer (nguoi lao dong) from near the city of Vinh in northern Vietnam, spent $12,000 for a "secret" (illegal) labour contract to work in Europe, in hopes of sending remittances back home. Smuggled from Hanoi to Moscow to Ukraine, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and finally Germany, Thanh spent six months in 2005 living in an apartment with twelve other Vietnamese men, selling black market cigarettes from Eastern Europe in Berlin. He estimated it would take him a year to pay off the debts from the migration fees, after which he could send ali of his money back home to his wife and family so that they could, among other things, upgrade their ramshackle wooden house to a tall concrete one, like many of their neighbours in the village who had also gone abroad. But before that materialized Thanh was arrested by the German authorities as ah illegal migrant and, despite applying for asylum, eventually sent back to Vietnam. Thanh's unpaid debts were assumed by his brother, who added them to even more debts incurred as he prepared a similar journey to earn money in Europe. The fees to secure a labour contract in Europe were expensive, Thanh explained, but the process was faster and the money was better once you got there. It was preferable over going, for example, to the Middle East, as his neighbour Loan had done. Paying $3,000 to go to Jordan, she had lived in isolated worker dormitories earning a paltry salary, and was not even close to paying off her debt when labour abuses in her factory resulted in a shutdown, with all of the foreign workers sent home without compensation. A U.S.-based non-governmental organization (NGO) had intervened when abuse cases were reported, bringing hope to the workers that labour conditions would improve, but this instead led to a mass forced return before the end of their contracts. Back home in Vietnam, she fretted daily about how to repay the large sum her family had borrowed to send her abroad, which was increasing each day at brutally high interest rates. Although Loan's migratory labour route was legal, unlike Thanh's, the Vietnamese government's Ministry of Labour, despite actively promoting labour migration as a means to national development, had done nothing to help her case. She explained that when she had discussed the idea of going to the capital Hanoi to protest her situation directly, she was deemed a troublemaker by local government officials. The dilemma of how to repay the debts of their failed labour migrant journeys weighed heavily on the minds of both Loan and Thanh. Local agricultural employment options, mainly rice farming, offered low marginal returns, and the high rate of interest meant that even domestic migration to Hanoi for work would be insufficient to pay off the loans within a realistic time frame. The only real hope of repaying their already incurred and rapidly increasing debts was to go into more debt--embarking on yet another risky employment gamble abroad that might or might not pan out into a steady stream of remittances and economic stability.

Meanwhile, on the southern side of the country, Kim, a Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) from Washington in the United States, whose family had fled the communist regime by boat after 1975, travelled back and forth regularly between the United States and Ho Chi Minh City, where she worked for a prominent international medical NGO. Although her salary was modest by American standards, it afforded her a prime condominium overlooking the Ho Chi Minh City skyline and one of the few major parks left in this rapidly urbanizing city. Her American passport had a "five-year visa exemption" specially granted by the Vietnamese government to overseas Vietnamese returnees, allowing them to move freely in and out of the country. The visa exemption programme had been implemented in 2007 to promote "homeland return" and encourage investment from overseas Vietnamese settled in Western countries. …

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