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Vietnamese construction workers tell of tough times

Vietnamese construction workers tell of tough times

VIETNAMESE workers fill many Phnom Penh construction sites. Company managers point

to their high work ethic, their education and experience, as why they make good workers.

Mr Xuan (not his real name) agrees, but also cites another reason why Vietnamese

employees are attractive - their vulnerability to exploitation.

Xuan, in his 30s, articulate and well-dressed, has been working as a supervisor of

Vietnamese workers on construction sites. Like many others, he left Vietnam - and,

for him, a respected position in the civil service - to try to earn more money in

Cambodia.

"I was lucky to have few problems at the border," he says of when he came

to Cambodia in 1990. "I convinced the guards to let me through, I didn't pay

anything."

Other Vietnamese, he says, pay $4 to $20 to cross the border, or more - "sometimes

they take all your belongings before they let you in".

To Phnom Penh there are many official checkpoints where more money is demanded. "We

are more afraid of the military police than the immigration officials because they

are more brutal and often beat us for no reason," says Xuan.

Once in Phnom Penh, he used his savings to open a small shop, but it didn't prosper

and he soon closed his doors. Many of his customers were Vietnamese workers, so he

asked them where he could get a job as a construction worker. "After my supervisors

saw that I worked hard and could be trusted," Xuan says, "they promoted

me to supervise other Vietnamese workers. My pay was 8,000 riel a day." The

average unskilled worker is paid 5,000 riel a day, he says, while a skilled worker

gets double that.

"Cambodian and Vietnamese workers get promised the same amount of money for

the same type of job, but the result is different," he says.

"Twenty percent of the time, the Vietnamese worker gets paid the full amount.

But it is more common that the boss pretends he gets upset and calls in the authorities

who beat us.

"Or, the boss pays us only a certain fraction of what he had promised us. He

may pay us 10,000 riel for ten days instead of 50,000 riel as he promised. We go

back to the boss, begging him for a little bit more money. Every day we go back,

spending money on transportation and wasting our day, and the boss sometimes pays

us bit by bit.

"Vietnamese workers are usually given harder work than Cambodians. In the Cambodiana

Hotel, we had to climb three floors carrying heavy loads on our backs.

"Vietnamese and Cambodian workers are kept separate on the work-site. This is

because of the language difference... Another reason is that Vietnamese work harder

than Cambodians, and the boss is afraid that we will become lazy if we see how the

Cambodian works. Also, there is a lot of fighting between Cambodians and Vietnamese.

"Many Vietnamese have difficulty finding jobs. Some use their bicycles, if they

have one, to go to work-sites every day to ask if they need a worker. I have joined

together with other workers, as subcontractors. I can get 100 workers together in

several days. To get a job, we must pay the boss 10-20 percent of our pay.

"The Cambodian military always harasses us. It is not just at construction sites,

but at our homes, by the Mekong bridge. They beat and rob us for the fun of it."

Despite all this, Xuan does not regret leaving Vietnam. "As long as the current

government is still there, I would rather suffer in Cambodia. It is still easier

to find a job in Cambodia than in Vietnam. A person without connections cannot get

anywhere in Vietnam... Despite all the propaganda in the media that Vietnam is changing,

it is still the same. A poor person cannot make a living there."

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