[lg policy] Czechs Cool to Presence of Workers From Asia

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jun 7 22:21:42 UTC 2009

June 7, 2009
Czechs Cool to Presence of Workers From Asia

PRAGUE — Trieu Dinh Van’s long journey two years ago from the rice
paddies of northern Vietnam to a truck-welding factory in the Czech
Republic was supposed to open up an economic lifeline. His parents,
poor farmers, bet everything on him, putting up the family farm as
collateral for a loan of about $14,000 to pay an agent for his plane
ticket and working visa. Instead, Mr. Van, 25, is jobless, homeless
and heavily indebted in a faraway land, set adrift by a global
economic crisis that swallowed his $11-an-hour job and those of
thousands among the wave of 20,000 Vietnamese workers who came here in

The Vietnamese workers are part of a larger influx of poor Asian
workers, including tens of thousands from China, Mongolia and
elsewhere, who were recruited to come to Eastern Europe to become
low-skilled foot soldiers in then booming economies. Now, they have
been hit particularly hard by the sudden contraction of those
economies. In Romania, hundreds of desperate Chinese migrants camped
out in freezing temperatures in Bucharest for several weeks in a
protest against contractors who had stopped paying them.

In the Czech Republic, soaring unemployment, which economists think
could hit 8 percent by year’s end, has driven many Czechs to seek the
low-wage work they once left to foreign laborers.

There has been a corresponding surge of resentment against minorities
here, leading to fears of attacks like the one last month in which a
young Roma child and her parents were severely burned when their home
was firebombed in the northeastern town of Vitkov.

Vietnamese workers have been a particular point of contention, even
though there is a longstanding Vietnamese community here, born amid
the fraternal work programs in the 1970s.

“The Czechs don’t like us because we look different,” said Mr. Van,
who lamented that he had already been accosted in Chocen, the small
industrial town in eastern Bohemia where he worked, by locals
shouting, “Vietnamese, go home!” Vietnamese laborers, he said, were
also denied access to local discos and restaurants.

The government has responded by trying to find ways to ship out Asian
immigrants. Under a voluntary return policy started in February, any
unemployed foreign worker who wants to go home is eligible for free
one-way air or rail fare and about $700 in cash.

In the first two months, about 2,000 Mongolians, Ukrainians and
Kazakhs took up the offer.

But like Mr. Van, many of the Vietnamese workers here, saddled with
debt, would prefer to stay and wait for better times.

“It would not be good for me to go back to Vietnam,” he said on a
recent day, wondering where he would spend the night. “I would return
home with empty hands and couldn’t marry or build a house. That would
be a great shame for me.”

Ivan Langer, who until recently was the interior minister and devised
the return policy, said he worried that an estimated 12,000 jobless
foreign workers were vulnerable to becoming involved in organized
crime or being exploited as slave labor.

Julie Lien Vrbkova, who has worked as a Vietnamese interpreter at
several automobile factories in the Czech Republic, said she had been
shocked by “slave-like” working conditions, including 12-hour days
during which Vietnamese workers were beaten if they stopped working.

At one factory, she recalled, a Vietnamese man had worked a week with
a broken rib because he was afraid to ask for time off.

The tensions are a troubling setback for the Vietnamese community
here, long considered a regional success story. Many own thriving
corner shops, speak Czech, and send their children to mainstream
public schools, where they are routinely ranked at the top of their

After the overthrow of Communism in 1989, thousands more Vietnamese
joined those who arrived in the 1970s. Today there are an estimated
70,000 Vietnamese in the Czech Republic, the second largest foreign
community after Ukrainians.

But Vietnamese leaders here say they fear the new class of
dispossessed workers threatens to disturb a coexistence they built
over decades. An April poll by Stem, a Prague-based public opinion
firm, found that 66 percent of Czech respondents said they would not
like to have a Vietnamese person as a neighbor.

Linh Nguyen, 22, a second-generation Vietnamese Czech who is
campaigning for the government to improve its integration policies,
said the hardworking Vietnamese preferred to quietly prosper while the
Czechs were content to pretend they were not there.

He lamented that four decades after the first Asian migrants arrived
in the Czech Republic, there were no Asian faces on television, in
Czech popular culture or in Parliament.

In an effort to improve integration, the government recently
introduced new rules that require immigrants who want to acquire a
business license to have 120 hours of introductory Czech; but the
lessons cost about $250, a price that many poor migrants cannot afford
to pay.

The challenges of assimilation are evident at Sapa, a sprawling
Vietnamese market on the outskirts of Prague, where newly arrived
migrants can find Vietnamese hairdressers, Vietnamese insurance
companies and a thriving business of Czech-speaking Vietnamese
“middlemen,” who for fees ranging from about $25 to perhaps $7,000,
can arrange for visas, take fellow Vietnamese to doctors and attend
parent-teacher meetings as surrogates.

Trang Thu Tran, 21, a Vietnamese blogger, who came to the Czech
Republic when she was 13 and now calls herself Tereza, after a Czech
soap opera star, said the construction of a separate and parallel
world meant that many Vietnamese, including those in the country for
decades, could not speak Czech and were forced to phone a middleman to
interpret, even when pulled over in their cars by Czech police

Tran Qang Hung, the managing director of Sapa, said many jobless
migrants were coming to the market in a vain search for work.

He said he had proposed to the Czech government building a school for
the migrants, where they could study Czech and become more employable.
But he said he had been turned down.

“Now that the economy is bad, the Czechs don’t want these people
here,” he said. “They only want them to go home.”


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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