Since joining the Minjian International mailing list, I have been receiving all sorts of interesting articles. List members have, for instance, forwarded several articles on illegal Vietnamese workers in China. Fellow MqVU member Zhang Juan and Caroline Grillot are both writing their dissertations on the Vietnam-China border, but there they only encountered Vietnamese prostitutes and petty traders. Now apparently there is a new flow of Vietnamese workers alleviating the shortage of Chinese migrant workers in the factories of Guangdong. Or seeing it in another way, undercutting domestic wages at a time of widespread labour protests and after a series of suicides of Chinese migrant workers in the province. To my knowledge this is the first instance of cheaper foreign factory labour in China, occurring at a time when Chinese workers continue to play that same role in many countries, and when the growing numbers of Chinese workers on infrastructure projects in Vietnam have also been getting increasing attention.
The latest article, from yesterday’s issue of the Canton newspaper 羊城晚报, reports the deportation of 15 “三非”(“three-illegal,” referring to illegal entry, illegal residence and illegal employment) Vietnamese, eight men and seven women, who have worked since the beginning of the year in a factory in Zhongshan, Guangdong. The police was tipped off by “the masses” (“concerned citizens,” as they would say in Arizona). Local police told the paper that such cases were increasingly common: in the first half of the year, 154 arrests of illegally employed foreigners have been made in Guangdong, up from 180 in the whole of last year.
(An earlier article reported that Vietnamese workers have been arrested in factories as far from the border as Fujian, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang, on construction sites in Guangxi and Sichuan, restaurants and shops in Guangdong and Hainan, and on the sugar cane plantations of Guangxi. Most workers are arrested on buses trying to get from the Guangxi-Vietnam border to inland cities, but some go to the mainland from Macau after the expiration of their labour contracts there. The majority of the workers are young women, inlcuding one who was just 16 when she went to Hainan to work at a shop selling cellphones. Recruiters charged with “organizing others to cross the border illegally” [组织他人非法过境] have received very light sentences by Chinese standards — deportation, a fine, or reduction of the duration of permitted stay in China, as compared to a recent case of 14 years in prison for stealing 53 sheep — suggesting that “human smuggling” continues to be seen in China as an administrative infraction rather than as organised crime, as it is in the West. On the other hand, China does not recognise the authority of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, so that being recognised as a refugee by UNHCR does not prevent deportation.)
A 20-year-old Vietnamese woman told the paper that she had paid 500 yuan to a man who take her across the border. After the Spring Festival, she was hired by the factory, which had difficulties finding workers to replace Chinese migrant workers who went home for the holiday. The factory had first hired two Vietnamese workers, one of whom, who spoke some Chinese, acted as the recruiter for the rest. She made up to 1,400 yuan per month in the factory and since the factory provided lodging and meals she was able to send money home. (Other articles suggest that wages around 800-900 yuan are more typical, and that while such wages are half of what a Chinese worker asks for they are double of what a similar job earns in Vietnam.) According to a Chinese manager, Vietnamese workers are “hard-working, obedient and can withstand hardship” (能吃苦) — exactly the same terms in which Chinese migrant workers abroad describe themselves. Since their arrest, the factory has been unable to replace them. Employers of illegal workers can be fined 5,000 to 50,000 yuan, but this does not prove an effective deterrent.
Readers’ comments on the article suggest that some see it as a cautionary tale to Chinese workers: you should consider yourself happy to earn as much as you do. Others oppose the deportation and express sympathy for the workers. Another comment decries the regime that keeps wages low and yet deports foreign workers — “the worst is that you can’t change it.” Many comments curse the “northerners” 北人, i.e. the Chinese migrant workers, rather than at the Vietnamese; two suggest that Vietnamese are at least better than Africans who “steal and rob”; several comment that Vietnamese are indeed very hard workers and that Vietnam is developing much faster than Chinese people think. And finally some demand stricter measures to keep foreign workers out when many Chinese are unemployed. So there is the full range of opinions, but without the dominance of xenophobia that such topics tend to unleash on European online forums.
In the earlier, more analytical article on the subject, the Vietnamese government was described as promoting the export of labour force as a way of alleviating unemployment, generating remittances, and training workers, and therefore closing its eyes to the illegal border-crossings of Vietnamese workers in Guangxi. (According to Zhang Juan’s research, local Chinese authorities in Yunnan also close their eyes to such crossings by Chinese citizens, considering that their trade activities are a major source of income.) On the other hand, the article reports on the discontent with Chinese construction companies bringing their own workers. As elsewhere, Chinese managers are quoted as saying that Vietnamese workers are “lazier” than Chinese (“it takes three to five Vietnamese do the job of one Chinese”) — which is, the article notes, ironic since Vietnamese workers are in demand in China for their industriousness. Unlike in Africa, but like elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Chinese workers are substantially more expensive than locals: according to a manager from 中国十四冶建集团, a Chinese company specialised in building factories with several projects in Vietnam, skilled Chinese workers receive 5,000 yuan as compared to the 1,000-2,000 yuan made by a local worker. The party secretary of this company therefore suggests that China and Vietnam should come to an agreement that will permit certain numbers of workers from both sides work legally in the other country. “China has already benefited from [labour export as a way of learning advanced skills], now it can offer similar help to developing countries in Southeast Asia.” Yet it seems that she envisages Vietnamese workers taking very low-skilled jobs, such as on the Guangxi sugar cane plantations, which are, according to her, tens of thousands of farmhands short