Rewind: Renewing My Visa
As much as I resented my employer, SET, I had been doing my best to keep my pride out of the equation in planning my next move. And 3 months into my time in Vietnam I needed to renew my visa. I had 2 choices here:
- Renew my visa for a full year through SET on the condition that I continued to work for them in some small capacity after the termination of my current contract.
- Do a ‘visa run’ like most English teachers and get my own 3-month visa, independent of SET.
What’s a boy to do? Setting aside my pride, if I worked part-time for them a few hours per week then I would be paid a much more reasonable hourly wage. And that was my main complaint apart from the grudge I had against them – the low pay. Visa laws in Vietnam have been changing a lot so having a year-long business visa would be quite a valuable asset to me.
So when it came time to renew my visa 3 months into my time in Vietnam, I agreed to get my next visa through SET for 1 full year on the condition that I would work the minimum number of hours for them possible and that there would be no contract available for them to manipulate me with. The manager told me that I could work 7 hours per week at 22 USD/hour and this would be okay - a promise I should have gotten in writing.
That still left the matter of the visa fee. Most employers will at least offer to help pay for the cost of a new visa. I knew that SET had no intention of helping me in any way they didn't need to so some haggling would be necessary to receive any financial help. After my swift indoctrination into the realm of business negotiations in the developing world, I did my best to persuade them to pay for the fraction of my visa cost that was proportional to the amount of time that I would be working for them full-time. I had 3 months left on my full-time contract with them so, if I got a visa for 1 year, they should pay for 3/12ths of it (25%). They agreed, so we went ahead and renewed my visa accordingly. I paid the other 75% of the fee out of my own pocket.
Fast forward: Back to the present
Now fast-forward back to where we started. I had renewed my visa through SET even though my contract with them was about to end. The clock on my contract was ticking when, one day, the manager called me into the office and told me that she changed her mind about the 7 hours per week. In order to keep my visa she would require me to work 15 hours per week minimum and I would need to sign a contract. I had to laugh. Of course this would happen. What had I been thinking renewing my visa with them?
Apparently I had forgotten that they are manipulative fiends because it was only then that I saw their strategy:
- Convince naive foreign teacher to get a long-term business visa through their company by proposing a reasonable work arrangement
- After the naive foreign teacher has paid for the visa, change the terms of this arrangement. What are they really going to do about it?
- The naive foreign teacher will be unhappy, but ultimately do what they say, because changing visas introduces costs and uncertainties into the equation that most people prefer to avoid
"That's it," I thought "I'm done." I was officially pissed. The mischievous, spiteful little demons inside me were starting to tell me all the crazy, deceitful ways I could seek revenge against them for screwing me yet again. Meanwhile my shoulder angel... actually for me it's more like my shoulder Dad, reminded me that you'll never regret keeping your cool.
I chose to stay cool and act like an adult. I took a deep breath - *inhale* *exhale* - and then I was okay.
So what's my play? I definitely wasn't going to give in and work for SET a nanosecond longer than I needed to, so I knew immediately what was going to happen. Since I paid for it myself (or what remained of it), I didn’t want to cancel my year-long visa. I thought that would be very unfair. But SET didn't care if it was 'fair' or not. They were going to keep me under their thumb at all costs. But they couldn’t cancel my visa without my passport. In order to cancel my visa they would need to convince me to give them my passport. How could they do this? By holding my final month’s salary hostage until I met their demands. It was actually less than a month’s salary but it amounted to about 1,000 USD. And sure enough, that's exactly what they did.
So was my yearlong visa worth more than 1,000 USD to me? That was the question. It was one that I should never have had to answer but in the end I decided it wasn’t. But by the time this all happened I was dangerously close to leaving for Indonesia (my lunar new year trip). If I didn’t have my passport back in time for my flight I would have wasted even more money on the plane tickets that I had already bought. I needed to hedge my risks somehow. What would a smart business person do next? I don't know, but here's what I did.
I agreed to give them my passport. But I was beyond frustrated with them so before I gave it to them I pulled out a napkin and wrote a small contract on it, you know, since they love contracts so much. The contract said that they would reimburse me for all my expenses and buy me new plane tickets if they failed to return my passport to me in time for my flight. I made the manager sign, stamp & scan it for her and my records.
Hindsight is 20/20—Let's do the math
Since I have now finished my last visa run in Vietnam, I can answer the big question: did I make the right financial choice in choosing the 1,000 USD over keeping my year-long visa? Let's do the math. I did 2 visa runs since then...
Visa Run #1: By sheer coincidence, I was flying anyway so we'll eliminate the flight costs from the equation. The visa itself cost me 95 USD
Visa Run #2: My trip to Thailand was 100% visa motivated. So we need to take into account my flight costs, my visa costs, and any extra money that I wouldn't have spent had I not had to leave Hanoi. The visa was 95 USD again. My flight was about 130 USD. I spent an additional 50ish USD in Thailand. It would have been much more but my hosts redefined the meaning of the word hospitality and I barely paid for a thing.
I got lucky though. I would not have been able to do this so cheaply without some luck and some help. So let’s imagine that I had had to pay for the flights, hotels, and everything else both times.
Granted it was a situation that was easily avoidable if I had used some basic street smarts in the beginning, but we can’t change the past. All we can change is the future. I had my future in my hands and I made the right call. Good job Peter! You’re decision-making is really coming along! Thanks, Peter.
The Contract To Liquidate The Contract
When I came back a few days later to pick up my passport and last pay check, they made me sign ANOTHER contract to ‘liquidate’ my current contract before they gave me the money. This contract stated that I couldn’t work with any of SET’s clients even after the termination of the contract. To be clear, this "not working with any of her clients" term was nowhere in my original contract, the one I had been bullied into 6 months ago. I planned on working for some of their clients.
In this weird, last minute contract, this term came in the form of an ambiguous, 1-line statement. I later sent it to my father (a lawyer in the U.S.) and my friend (a lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City) for them to look at. They both concluded that this was ‘Past Consideration’ and that I was under no obligation to honor this ransom note of a contract. Not that it would have mattered in Vietnam anyway.
There was a moment in this negotiation that I always think back on. In this moment, the manager realized that I just wanted out. I was leaving even if I had to cancel my visa to do it. At that point her tactic changed and she began trying to talk up her company again. And then, she asked me why I was leaving.
I was almost insulted she would even ask that... but then again, that question was kind of an opportunity. This was my chance to tell her exactly what I thought of SET. If ever there was a moment to unload, this was it. My mind raced. What's the most hurtful thing you can say in a situation like this? (Yeah, it's an ugly thought but we've all thought it at one point or another so shut up.) I didn't want to be so mean that I lost credibility. I had to pick something believable, something subtly destructive, something that would linger and pick at her soul like a dry scab. I needed to confirm one of her deepest, darkest insecurities. They say that the tongue can hurt like a sword and I needed to use that sword to slice her heart with a malicious yet witty one-liner that would bring her whole world crashing down around her in a devastating cloud of smoke and ash.
So what should I have said?
In all my experience with her, if she had proven anything it was that she was a sociopath, so the emotional route was out. She's a businesswoman (of sorts) though, so here's what I came up with:
"Your company provides a service that teachers just don't need."
And I walked out. Yeah, maybe it could have been better. I'm not great at being mean when I need to be. But that was the end. I washed my hands of SET. Until this series of articles that is.
SET is a weird place. Anybody with some experience can pick up on that even from the interview. And the manager that I have been referring to – I can’t quite explain it, but she has a certain… quality. I have discussed this at length with other teachers who have dealt with her. This quality goes beyond the usual sketchiness of business in the developing world. It might sound dramatic, but I would go so far as to say that the quality I am picking up on is evil. Is that dramatic? Well I threw these same thoughts out over dinner and drinks with other teachers that had had similar issues with her and nobody scoffed at the word 'evil', rather, they all nodded gravely. The SET office has a strange dynamic. Everybody that works there is afraid of her. She enters the room and her underlings cower and grovel at her feet like Hades's minions.
SET’s business model is to prey on the inexperience of foreigners. They will rush and bully people with no experience into fake contracts and then use these “contracts” to bully them even more. There are lots of terrible stories floating around Hanoi from people just like me. But it’s not just foreigners like me that are being taken advantage of though. Other Vietnamese companies that deal with SET are also having similar issues. I don’t know all the details but I have heard staff from more than one other company that deals with SET explain how they are being extorted and taken advantage of continuously.
As for their Vietnamese staff, there was a core of employees that seemed to be forever indentured to SET but the final spot on their roster was constantly changing. I became actual friends with one girl who briefly filled this spot. She said that when she quit the manager refused to pay her an entire month of salary. She was barely scraping by as it was so this was a big financial blow. I think it all worked out for her in the end though. This girl, however, is just one link in an extensive chain of people that SET does these things to and, statistically speaking, it probably hasn't 'worked out in the end' for all of them.
Now I freelance, and even though finding work is more of a hassle, I am SO much happier without them in my life. The termination of that contract was nothing short of freeing. Working in the developing world continues to be a challenge: the norms are different, people are far from professional, and sketchiness is just part of the deal. However, you will be happy to know that not everybody is like SET. I have worked for many companies since then, and most of them, despite their developing world short-comings, are good people. And that is the most valuable thing I can ask for in an employer.
Working for SET was a bad time, but it taught me a lot. So here are my big takeaways, for whatever they're worth:
- I'm learning what I value in a job: I will always choose a better work environment with better people over more money.
- This is a bit more academic than I normally get, but I am learning about effective management techniques. How you treat your employees is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat employees well, they will go above and beyond for you. If you (try to) rule by fear, you will be resented and business will suffer.
- But most importantly, I have learned (some of) what it is like for immigrants to be taken advantage of when they are "fresh off the boat". It happens all over the world in some seriously heartbreaking ways. When I return to the U.S., I hope that I can find some sort of consistent way to help immigrants get on their feet when they first arrive because now I know what it is like to be lost, alone, and scared in a new place. And worse, I know what it is like to be preyed upon in that vulnerable situation.