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Crisis puts migrant workers in a bind

Some Vietnamese paid so much to get to Prague, it's impossible for them to return home.

“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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