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After UK Truck Deaths, Vietnam Asks Why Workers Go Abroad


In this file photo taken on April 26, 2015 shows new buildings are seen along the Saigon river in southern Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon City), Vietnam.

Today Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, high levels of optimism in public opinion surveys, and good relations with its old wartime enemies, the United States and France. So locals were caught off guard by the high-profile deaths in Essex, which suggest that some thought they could find more opportunity abroad than at home.

British police found 39 people dead in a truck last week, prompting fears that the deceased were the victims of human trafficking. Several people have been arrested in the United Kingdom and one man has been charged with manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people. Vietnam’s prime minister has ordered an investigation into whether this was a case of human trafficking.

FILE - Police forensics officers attend the scene after a truck was found to contain the bodies of 39 people, in Thurrock, South England, Oct. 23, 2019.
FILE - Police forensics officers attend the scene after a truck was found to contain the bodies of 39 people, in Thurrock, South England, Oct. 23, 2019.

Some here are surprised that people would spend tens of thousands of dollars, equivalent to hundreds of millions of Vietnam dong, to leave, even though Vietnam has a fast-growing economy that has lifted many out of poverty. One local noted that such money could be used to find work domestically.

“No matter what the country is, this is sad and depressing,” one poster on the news site Vnexpress said of the deaths. “I think the current life in Vietnam is not too difficult. Instead of spending hundreds of millions to go abroad, that amount of money in Vietnam could create many jobs.”

Life in Vietnam has improved for many people, and it is a different place than it was in wartime. In the 1960s and ’70s, waves of boat people left the violence of the Vietnam War. It was a time when some in the country would go hungry, most had only bicycles at best for transportation, and few could do business with the outside world amid international isolation.

Sill, labor migration continues to be a reality, with Vietnamese choosing to go to work in factories in Russia, construction in Libya, or cannabis farms in the UK. Drive around smaller towns like Da Lat, and there are signs posted by brokers offering to take workers overseas.

Some say it is not always helpful to label the workers as modern slaves, or victims who were tricked into human trafficking. In the UK example, researcher Nicolas Lainez said treating Vietnamese as victims who need to be saved by police could be “a smokescreen to conceal the severe control over human mobility enforced by the UK and its European counterparts, the deregulation of labor markets, the prevarication of workers, and the increase in inequality under neoliberal policies.”

In other words, he says authorities treat labor migration as an issue of public safety or criminal activity, rather than take responsibility for state policies that are harmful to workers and migrants.

“These structural forces, ignored in discussions on modern slavery, leave both citizens and non-citizens with little or no protection, and encourage labor exploitation and migration on a large scale,” Lainez wrote in a blog post.

Vietnamese have also viewed the latest tragedy as a case of disadvantaged workers, in search of a better life.

“They did not have enough money to leave as entrepreneurs,” one Facebook poster commented of those who died in the truck. “They went to look for a good future and take care of their families but ended up trapped ... but the result is heartbreaking ... Condolences to the victims.”

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