Working In The Developing World
Part I: Peter Gets Blackmailed With Deportation
This is the first in a 3 part series. This first installment is about my first 72 hours in Vietnam. And I don't write this for the sake of trash talk, (the company in question is earning a bad enough reputation without my help) rather, I write this to let you know some of what can go wrong out here. Working abroad in the developing world carries a different set of challenges that growing up in the West does not prepare you for. Hopefully, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, you will have learned a little something about how to sort it out from reading this.
So let's begin...
I went to Vietnam planning to sign a ‘6 or 9 month ish’ contract with a company called SET Vietnam (Supply English Teachers). They gave me some guidance in acquiring my visa, sent somebody to the airport to collect me when I arrived, and even let me sleep in one of their classrooms for my first 2 nights in the country before I found a place to stay. This was very nice of them.
However, after only a day in the country I was already hearing overwhelmingly bad things about this company from all the expats I brushed elbows with. People told me stories of the company manipulating people, bullying them, and straight up just not paying them. So this was cause for concern. To be real, I didn’t really know anything about them.
The day was fast approaching that I was scheduled to sign the contract with them. I decided that it would be prudent to pull the thread a little bit and see what happened. I arrived with a couple negotiating points for the contract in mind that I thought would be quite reasonable. I was really just looking for some reassurance that they were reasonable people.
When I entered the office they were quick to shove a contract at me. A girl told me in broken English that she thought it was a good contract. The manager of the company was in the other room though. She was apparently not planning on being present for my contract signing. Whatever. I smiled and told the girl that I had some things that I wanted to talk to the manager about. She looked uncomfortable but called the manager in to talk to me.
I politely began to talk to her about some of my concerns. As I spoke she quickly dropped her polite smile and became quite angry. I spent the next 30 minutes trying to back track to a place where I could dismantle the bomb that I had inadvertently triggered. Everything I had said was quite reasonable so I was sure that it was a mere misunderstanding that was to blame. These types of negotiations are much more difficult when there is a language barrier.
Eventually though I knew that I had been understood. The real issue at hand was that this woman was hell-bent on bullying me into signing her contract, exactly as it was, today.
I told her that my understanding was that this was supposed to be a negotiation and in a negotiation both parties need to make some concessions in good faith. I highlighted to her that I was doing that and that she needed to meet me half way. She angrily responded that she would not change the contract in the slightest. She told me that I needed to sign it exactly as it was.
Inner monologue: "Ok Peter, you’re a bitch if you sign this right now."
I told her that if she was going to be this way then I wanted to no part in a contract with her or her company. She responded that if I didn’t sign it immediately that their company would go to the government to have my visa revoked so that I would be "kicked out of Vietnam", which I assume(d) meant deported.
This was a threat I had not anticipated. Would they really do that? More importantly, could they do that? I was not knowledgeable enough to know the answer to these questions and unfortunately, this was a fact that she was taking advantage of. So if I chose to walk out I was taking a huge risk. I thought about all my friends back at home who had said goodbye to me. It would be pretty embarrassing to have to come home a week later as a failure.
Now that I have been here for a while, I know that this was SO stupid. I cringe when I think about it. First of all, I didn't do anything wrong. But, let's talk 'worst case scenario' here and assume that I had. They had/have no power to deport me. Even if they had gone to the government (which I doubt they would have) and even if the government had actually bothered to do anything about it (I’m pretty sure the Vietnamese government has bigger fish to fry than this) the most this woman could have done was get my work permit revoked, which amounts to no more than a slap on the wrist. In order to revoke my actual visa she would need my passport, which she did not have. Without the work permit I would still have been perfectly capable of finding new work (and better paying work) and my visa would have remained valid.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that she did indeed have the ability to get my visa canceled. What then? The answer is that I could have gotten a new visa issued the very next day. Also I maybe would have had to pay a fine at the airport. It would have been a hassle, but it would have been very doable. Vietnam is a stickler when it comes to visas, which is why there are entire (albeit, sketchy) companies devoted to acquiring visas for anybody who wants one. I would have had a few days at least before I needed to leave the country if any of this had actually happened, during which time I could have gone to any one of these companies and secured a new visa. Then I could have taken a flight to Bangkok and returned the next day a worry-free man. This is called a 'visa run' and it is how at least 80% of teachers working here operate.
But I didn’t know any of that yet. It was my third day in Vietnam. I didn’t know anything. I actually didn't even know that I had a work permit separate from my visa. This was something that I didn't even know they had gotten for me. I didn't know that they had it locked away in a drawer somewhere. But I did know that if she was capable of doing what she claimed then walking out would land me in quite a bad situation. This was more than I wanted on my plate during my first week in Southeast Asia. So I angrily signed to contract, knowing full well that I was being taken advantage of.
The manager breathed a visible sigh of relief when she saw my name written on the dotted line. She owned me for the next 6 months. She asked me if I had been talking to or consorting with any other companies (that might have made me a better offer).
WTF! NO! But maybe I should have been...
Signing that contract is honestly one of my biggest regrets. I shouldn’t have played it safe. Why did I play it safe? Because I was afraid. I allowed myself to be bullied and intimidated into submission. I would soon learn that the potential fallout from breaking this 'contract' was pretty minimal. I knew this, but still, I stayed. Why? I'd like to tell you it's because I'm such a great guy, but that's not the reason. I stayed because I was afraid of rocking the boat. But as time passed, I realized that my ‘boat’ was much more stable than I had originally thought. I should have just walked out when I had the chance, before I signed the contract, come what may. But I didn't. I didn't have the balls to do that. And now I was stuck.
Furthermore, making decisions based on fear is pretty contrary to what I had flown across the world to accomplish. I came here, at least partially, to free myself from that pattern.
Oh well, lesson learned. There was so little time left in my contract by the time I had this 'rocking the boat' epiphany that it was less profitable to quit and tell them off out of pride than it was just to put my head down and complete my contract. So I swallowed my pride and resolved finish my contract, collect my salary, and rock the boat at every opportunity from there on out. It's all part of the process.
Another big complaint I had about my indentured servitude to SET was how little I was being paid. I was a guaranteed $1,300 per month (plus overtime at 20 USD/hour). This sounds decent (for Southeast Asia) until you do some math. I was required to work 21 hours per week. I worked every one of those hours, and then some, which put my hourly rate in the 14.50 USD/hour ballpark. This is insultingly low for an English teacher here. Now usually work for $25/hour. Honestly though, I felt kind of guilty complaining too much. While this might be low for a teacher, it is still stinking rich in Vietnam. The average Vietnamese person makes maybe 5,000,000 VND per month (a little less than 250 USD) and my paychecks were usually around 35,000,000 VND. Poor me.
So, despite mixed feeling, I worked the duration of my contract. And I did my best to make light of the situation by working hard to sharpen my teaching skills. The contract lasted until early February. The expiration was right before Tet, Vietnam's Lunar New Year. It was never a good (or even decent) work environment but for as many ways as they made my life worse, I will admit, they also made it easier. And even though I resented dealing with SET, I was actually having a good time teaching. I would definitely have been having a better time elsewhere, but I was having a good time nonetheless. It turned out that I really liked teaching.
It was all going fine… until one Thursday evening in mid January.