Vietnam’s youthful population of 90m adds up to 1.5m each year to the growing work pool. But economic growth, at 6%, is not fast enough to keep all of them employed. Dreaming of fortune, young Vietnamese are pouring overseas as maids, builders and factory workers.

Than Thi Hang is a daughter of Tan Lieu farmers. She flew to Taiwan when she was 18. Assembling mobile phones on 12- and 16-hour graveyard shifts was “easier than farming”, she says. Yet to finance the trip, her family borrowed close to $5,000 to pay a labour broker. Ms Hang spent more than a year nervously working off her debts.

Once, Vietnamese sought to work in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Today the prime destinations are Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea. Since 2005 the number of Vietnamese working abroad on labour contracts has nearly doubled, to about 500,000. The $1.6 billion that migrants send home each year helps a bit to bridge a yawning wealth-gap between rich and poor provinces.

Official migration channels are surely safer than illegal ones that facilitate the movement of sex workers across Vietnam’s northern border to China. Yet of the many Vietnamese who migrate legally, more than a third of them women, some end up being exploited. A report on trafficking last year by America’s State Department concluded that Vietnamese have among the highest debts of all Asian expatriate workers. As a consequence, they are “highly vulnerable” to debt bondage and forced labour. A survey in 2013 by CSAGA, a Vietnamese NGO, found that nearly a third of over 350 interviewees felt they had been cheated, deceived or exploited.

Poor treatment encourages some workers to break their contracts and look for better work, often illegal. It became such a problem in South Korea that in 2012 its government cancelled its Employment Permit System for Vietnam. Permits were later issued again on a trial basis, but Vietnam’s labour ministry said in January that South Korea would close the gates again unless the share of illegal workers among Vietnamese declines from 40% to 30%.

Vietnamese authorities say they get the message. With support from international aid donors, they have opened a handful of offices where prospective migrants can learn about their rights. Vietnam’s press also makes much of police busts of lawbreaking labour recruiters. Yet changes are mainly skin-deep. Futaba Ishizuka, a researcher at the Institute of Developing Economies in Japan, says the government lacks the political will to regulate the labour agencies, which are often unlicensed affiliates of state-owned enterprises.

For all the tribulations, rural Vietnamese, especially from northern and central provinces, are still eager to go abroad. The fruits of migration are clear. In Tan Lieu, 64km (40 miles) from Hanoi, slender concrete homes, financed by remittances, are rising next to the paddies. Ms Hang says she has already saved the $3,200 needed for the renovation of the family home.

The Economist - February 14, 2015