A few months ago I reunited with Nguyen Van Phuong, a former student of mine, in Phu Quoc.
He used to work in South Korea under the Employment Permit System (EPS) program. When we met he told me he had just moved to the island in search of a long-term job.
Phuong belongs to the first generation of Vietnamese guest workers who went to South Korea.
He worked hard but also thanks to a good South Korean won-dong exchange rate at the time he managed to save nearly VND1 billion (US$42,650) after four years and 10 months, the duration allowed under the E9 work visa.
On returning home to Dong Thap Province in the Mekong Delta in 2015, he cleaned up his father’s garden, bought a pickup truck and set up a farm to raise cows.
But within a few months some disease killed most of his cows and left the rest debilitated, and Phuong even had to sell the truck to pay off debts.
Having lost everything he had earned overseas, he scrambled to find a job.
Phuong spent the next four or five years helping his wife sell cloth at a local market but his financial situation did not improve.
On a number of occasions he considered applying for work under a seasonal agricultural worker program (C4 visa) between Dong Thap and South Korea’s Cheorwon and Yeoncheon counties.
But he finally decided to move to Phu Quoc Island with his family in tow.
His wife’s younger brother, Quang, also a former guest worker in South Korea, has also been considering moving to Phu Quoc and join Phuong in his business of selling ornamental plants.
A report published by the Department of Overseas Labor last year showed 500,000 Vietnamese were working in more than 40 countries and territories and suggested this number would increase sharply.
As if to prove the point, the number of people applying to work in South Korea has skyrocketed this year.
Some 12,000 people will be chosen through an examination in May-June under the EPS program, but nearly 23,500 have applied, the highest number in the last 10 years.
This record number can be explained in many ways.
After the Covid pandemic, Vietnam lacks jobs because many businesses have gone bust or lack orders.
South Korea is meanwhile a familiar destination that has opened its doors to Vietnamese workers for nearly 20 years. Its requirements are not too tough compared with other labor markets, and it even has policies to extend visas for up to 10 years for committed workers and to convert E9 visas (for unskilled workers) to E7 (for skilled workers and allows them to bring spouse and children).
People understand there are challenges in living in a foreign country, but still opt to work abroad to mitigate their families’ economic problems.
Every year Vietnam sends around 100,000 workers overseas, and inward remittances top $3 billion, helping improve the lives of guest workers’ families and making a contribution to the country’s economy.
But a major challenge people like them have to face is to find a steady long-term job post-repatriation.
Most localities are only interested in exporting their human resources, and are yet to have plans in place to support and create jobs for returning workers.
Their only solution now is to organize job fairs. But often organizers admit that they struggle to link up jobs and job seekers and there are mismatches in terms of wage and skill expectations.
Many returning workers find it difficult to accept the salaries offered especially when comparing them with their earnings while working overseas.
Businesses in Vietnam meanwhile consider these returnees to be low-skilled.
Guest workers do not receive proper vocational training before going abroad or after returning home. They are usually just instructed to carry out certain tasks of a job and it is difficult for them to apply what they learn for a sustainable livelihood.
What they bring back home is just some money, and so, if they unfortunately lose it like Phuong, they have to start all over again with an empty hand.
Sending workers abroad and their repatriation should come with proper planning.
Providing them with training and career orientation is necessary, and they should not be done cursorily, merely to issue certificates for legitimizing applications submitted to job recruiters as many localities currently do.
Workers need to receive proper training so that they acquire actual skills both before leaving and after returning home.
Localities also need to be in close contact with businesses to ensure that guest workers work in fields in which they are trained.
Besides, I don’t think it is clever for job fairs for returning workers to focus exclusively on jobs in industrial parks as is being done now. We should pay attention to jobs in agriculture and services as well.
Looking at the agricultural sector’s contribution of 10-15% of GDP, I believe there are no shortage of jobs in rural areas.
In 1963 the South Korean government recruited 5,000 miners and 2,000 nurses to be sent to Germany to work for three years.
Some 47,000 people applied for these jobs.
They had to work hard in difficult and strenuous conditions, but the money they sent back home greatly helped improve the lives of their families.
After returning home, thanks to their skills, they soon found jobs in Saemaul-undong New Villages, a model used in South Korea’s movement to develop new rural areas.
Today South Koreans view those guest workers as part of their country’s development history.
I believe Vietnamese guest workers are also an important part of the country’s development, and they deserve practical support when they return home.
*Nguyen Nam Cuong is a lecturer at FPT University. The opinions expressed are his own.