Vietnam workers kept like slaves at factory in Russia
- 10 August 2012
- From the section Europe
The BBC has found disturbing evidence of Vietnamese textile workers being kept in slave-like conditions at a Vietnamese-run factory in Russia.
Staff at Vinastar, a medium-sized business in the village of Savino south-east of Moscow, said they were being forced to work up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
They said they were poorly fed, beaten up regularly and forbidden to leave the factory premises.
"I have been working here for 18 months," said one of the factory workers, Nguyen Thi Bich Tuyen.
"I'm barely paid enough to afford two meals a day - a bowl of rice and some bread. We are often beaten up. Not so long ago, 20 people were beaten up."
By the time the BBC visited the factory last week, production had stopped but factory workers told us security guards were not allowing them to leave.
We found 75 people sharing four small rooms, two of which did not even have windows.
None of the rooms had electricity. Workers told us wall sockets had been removed to prevent them charging up a mobile phone.
Vietnamese migrants showed us red rashes on their bodies - caused, they said, by the fact that they had been unable to take a shower for at least two months. They also told us they were not allowed to use more than five litres of water per 25 people per week for brushing their teeth and for personal hygiene.
"I came here because I was promised good money," one worker, Duong Thi Thu Lam, complained. "Instead, I was locked up. We were not allowed outside."
"In the summer, sometimes they let us walk around in the backyard so that we could hang up our clothes to dry. But in winter, we had to stay indoors all day."
Lured by promises
Workers came to this factory from all over Vietnam, lured by promises of high salaries and guaranteed employment. Some paid Vietnamese intermediaries up to $2,000 (£1,300; 1,600 euros) in order to get the job.
Most were unable to raise this amount of money. They were then offered a chance to borrow the funds directly from factory owners.
But when the migrants arrived in Russia, they were told their salary would be, on average, about $220 per month.
Even this was never paid in full: more than half of the money was withheld by managers as payment for food and accommodation. This made repaying the debt almost impossible.
Less experienced workers were only paid about $100 per month. This meant that the longer they remained employed by the factory, the more debt they accumulated.
Earlier this year, workers went on strike. Factory owners invited diplomats from the Vietnamese embassy to talk to staff but embassy officials simply reminded workers that they had signed a legally-binding contract and had to abide by its terms and conditions.
Factory managers were clearly pleased with what the embassy said.
The BBC has a copy of a video recording which shows the meeting between workers, managers and Vietnamese officials.
In the video, CEO of Vinastar, Nguyen Quang Tuan, is seen telling staff: "If you want to look for work elsewhere, you have to get your new employers to pay your debts.
"If you want to leave for Vietnam, you are more than welcome to do so but you will also have to pay the debts first."
After this strike, according to factory workers, many of them were beaten up.
One worker, Nguyen Van Dung, told us he and his colleagues had been taken away, one by one and then beaten up.
"They called me into a separate room," he told us. "There, they put a rag over my head and starting the beating. They went for my hands and my feet."
We asked owners and managers of the factory to respond to these allegations but they were not willing to talk to us.
The Vietnamese embassy in Moscow denied allegations of any malpractice at the factory.
The First Secretary at the embassy, Nguen Hung Anh, told the BBC's Vietnamese Service: "Workers come [to Russia] in order to work, not to go on strike.
"They say 17 people were beaten up but there was no evidence, no signs, no bruises, so we can't draw any conclusions. We have visited the factory four times, and we have asked them to improve the working conditions and wages for workers."
Weeks after the strike, and a few days after the BBC spoke to migrants, officials from the Russian migration service conducted a surprise raid on the premises of the factory.
They found 75 people locked up in four small rooms. None of the migrants had any documents on them.
The official who organised this raid, Konstantin Pavlov, said they had now contacted the police. "What we saw at the factory," he said, "bore all the hallmarks of a criminal offence. An investigation is now under way."
To date, 24 workers have been officially identified as illegal migrants. They will be deported to Vietnam over the next few weeks. The Vietnamese embassy in Moscow is offering others free travel home.
The police investigation continues. Owners of the factory could, potentially, be charged for organising the employment of illegal migrants.
While Vinastar's workers are now preparing to go home, this factory was just one of dozens of similar sweatshops run by Vietnamese entrepreneurs in Russia.
The number of Vietnamese workers employed in Russia is likely to be in the thousands, with many of them facing conditions similar to what the BBC found at Vinastar.