THANH BINH, 22 November 2011 (IRIN) - Growing numbers of Vietnamese labourers are being trafficked to factories and plantations in China where they are exploited, according to the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP).
When a woman visited Phan Quoc Suu and Phan Van Lin's farming village near the Chinese border with offers of well-paid work in China, the two young men suspected little.
"She was Chinese, but came from the same ethnic group as us, and she said that if we went with her, we would get high salaries," said Suu and Lin, who were 16 and 18, respectively, when they and three other young men from their village left in 2007.
"I recognized her face, but I did not know her personally," Lin said. "But we thought that since she came to the village so many times and she has relatives here, we could trust her."
She had promised each about US$200 every month - more than a quarter of the average annual salary for Vietnamese in 2007 - but when they arrived at a brick factory in the mountains of China's Guangdong province more than 900km away, they realized they had been deceived.
To avoid the beatings other workers suffered, Suu and Lin toiled each day from 5am to 7:30pm.
After two months, they had still not been paid. In the third month, Lin complained to the employer and was paid $80. He took the money and fled back home. Only in the sixth month did Suu manage with co-workers to pool enough cash to escape. He arrived at the border crossing to Vietnam empty-handed.
"When we heard people say this was a bad place and we were deceived, we were scared, but we did not know how to get away. We didn't have any money," Suu and Lin said.
"We continued to obey the guards and the employers, so we weren't beaten. The others who did not obey were beaten," Lin said. "We decided to stay until we got money and then find a way to escape."
Cheated and exploited
Following a 2008 law that requires better pay and benefits for nationals, Chinese factories are increasingly turning to foreign workers whom they can pay substantially less, according to a UNIAP report due to be published in December.
Some of these Vietnamese workers may receive contracts, travel papers, and even plane tickets and job training, only to be exploited and abused. Because Vietnamese law only recently recognized such labour abuses as trafficking, statistics on the numbers exploited are scarce.
Some 850,000 legal migrants leave their homes in Vietnam to work abroad each year, according to the government.
"A number of these migrants are trafficked by bad companies. They have their passports confiscated, they have their contracts violated. They are forced to do jobs different from what they agreed prior to departure. They have to work much longer hours," said Nguyen Ngoc Anh, UNIAP project coordinator in Vietnam.
By international standards, human trafficking is defined as "the recruitment, transport, receipt and harbouring of people for the purpose of exploiting them sexually or for labour".
Vietnam is not a signatory to the 2000 UN anti-trafficking protocol that defines how deception can turn a voluntary migrant into a trafficking victim.
"Once they end up in another country, instead of being a machine operator, they have to produce bricks. Instead of $10 a day, they get $2 a day. Instead of 9 to 5, it's 7am to 10pm. That's when trafficking occurs," Ngoc Anh said.
Focus on men
Until recently, Vietnamese law focused on women and children trafficked for sex and did not recognize men as victims of sexual violence or address labour exploitation, for either gender, according to UNIAP. In 2009, the penal code was amended from "trafficking in women and children" to address "trafficking in persons".
From January, a new anti-trafficking law will be enforced, protecting male and female survivors of all types of trafficking.
According to Ngoc Anh, it is crucial that the government target human traffickers and employers, who at present escape unscathed.
"For employers who exploit workers, you can't do much. They [individuals and companies] may get some administrative fine, but that's it. They're not even criminally prosecuted," he said. "If we can fix the law to make it in line with international standards, it will address a number of issues. More traffickers will be prosecuted, and more victims provided with assistance."
Meanwhile, authorities are trying to increase awareness about human trafficking in border areas and other locations with vulnerable populations, said Nguyen Van Thai, head of the drugs and crime control office for the Lao Cai Province border military guard command near the Chinese border.
"The less people know about human trafficking, the more risks they face. If people know that there are a lot of tricks waiting for them in China, then they might not go," he said.