Crisis puts migrant workers in a bind

PRAGUE — When the global demand for consumer goods tumbled, production and assembly line jobs here evaporated. The consequences for some migrants from the developing world have been catastrophic.

With jobs scarce, the Czech government decided to try to send some of the migrants home. But for some, the way they came here makes it financially impossible to take advantage of the offer.

In one of this city's largest outdoor markets, merchants, many of them from Vietnam, hawk clothes, furniture, food and an assortment of gadgets.

They all speak some Czech, but ask the vendors about the government program to return unemployed foreigners to their homelands and most of them suddenly forget the local language. They said a vendor named Milot was the person to talk to in their community. But without looking up from the case of rings or the collection of handbags he was adjusting, Milot only huffed, “I'm not interested.”

More than 1,000 foreigners have signed up to take the government's offer — 500 euros (about $650) and a free plane ticket home, according to Bela Hejna, who manages the Interior Ministry's Project of Voluntary Returns. The vast majority — more than 800 — are Mongolians. About 200 Uzbeks and 100 Vietnamese also have signed up.

The Czech Republic has seen its foreign worker population explode in recent years, more than doubling since 2001. Last year there were nearly 440,000 foreigners in this country of 10.4 million, according to the Czech Statistical Office, a state agency.

The repatriation project was set to run for eight months in the hopes of sending 2,000 unemployed foreigners home. With more than half of the slots already gone, the ministry wants to offer another 3,000 airplane seats, and is seeking another 90 million Czech koruna ($4.5 million) in funding, on top of the 60 million koruna allocated to start of the program.

“I think we can call it a successful project,” Hejna said. “We didn't suppose that within two months we would have fewer than 800 spaces left."

But back at the outdoor market, it's clear that many more foreigners have no use for the government program. Speaking amid a cacophony of synthesized bird songs and other carnival-like sounds, one vendor, who gave his name as Tom, explains that taking the government's offer to return home now would mean losing any chance of repaying their debts and bettering their economic situation.

“In Vietnam there is little money,” he said. “A lot of people want to come here. Some people here pay $10,000 to $15,000. If they go back to Vietnam they'll be bankrupt.”

Despite a per capita income in 2008 of $12,700 — little more than a quarter of the average U.S. income — this seemingly modest wage was nearly 20 times greater than the average annual income in Vietnam, according to World Bank statistics. A laborer earning Vietnam's median income — less than $700 a year — would have to devote every penny of his salary for more than 20 years to pay down a $15,000 debt.

But some of the more recent migrant arrivals found their jobs gone by the time they arrived and have never worked a day in the Czech Republic, according to Tereza Rejskova of the Multicultural Center in Prague, a non-governmental organization.

The organizations that help Vietnamese villagers acquire visas, work permits and jobs in the Czech Republic are charitably referred to as agencies. But due to the exorbitant debt these migrants undertake, the agencies effectively own them.

“The agencies are often involved in some kind of criminal activity,” Rejskova said.

Hejna, at the ministry, agreed. Migrants pay a lot of money to the agent, which is not really necessary, she said. “You have to pay some fees but [what the agents charge] is much, much higher than the money that's required.”

The near total dependence on the agencies results in “a kind of forced labor,” she said. “The problem is the promises that are given in the country of origin are not fulfilled in the Czech Republic.”

The Czech system that allows these agents to operate is partly to blame, Rejskova said.

“Agencies basically hire out these foreigners to Czech employers who need them,” she said. “And that's a big problem because the easiest way of getting rid of your staff is to get rid of the agency employees, because there are no social security guarantees for them.”

The labor code offers wide-ranging protections for regular employees, but the rules don't apply to the migrant workers, who are employed by the agency.

“The agencies don't take responsibility for them either,” Rejskova said. “So these people are virtually in a catastrophic state because they have absolutely no money and no security and they are depending on charities now.”

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