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For Young Vietnamese, ASEAN is A Workplace

The Vietnamese version of this article is available in Thanh Nien Online:


   By Diep Uyen*

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (7 Aug) – Tran Thi Thu Ly, a 30-year-old administrative assistant here in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, decided to explore work and life overseas by taking on a job as a customer service officer in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2017. A year later, Ly moved to Bangkok, Thailand doing the same work at a regional Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) operation aimed at the Vietnamese market.

Thu Ly

Thu Ly in Bangkok

Thu Ly, one among many skilled young Vietnamese choosing to work in ASEAN countries, wanted a change in her professional environment and take on new challenges. “I feel that the working environment (overseas) is more professional, the salary is higher, the work is assessed based on capacity, not emotional factors,” she said. “(There is also) the opportunity to learn and exchange with other cultures in ASEAN, have many international friends, expand knowledge and have more life experiences when abroad.”

More than two decades after joining ASEAN member, Vietnam counts among the countries that export labour within Southeast Asia along with Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Cambodia and Lao PDR, according tothe TRIANGLE in ASEAN Quarterly Briefing Note for January-March 2019. Workers’ and professionals’ usual destinations are the more developed ASEAN countries, all of them net-labour receiving ones, such as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

“Labour migration is an established feature of ASEAN labour markets,” the report confirms. While several ASEAN countries have been exporting labour for nearly five decades, the growth of intra-ASEAN labour mobility reflects the integration process underway in the region over the last few decades.

In a report released ahead of the ASEAN Community’s launch in 2015, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) pointed out that the intra-ASEAN share of the outflow of international migrant workers from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines rose from 2006 to 2012. By 2012, the share of Vietnam’s workers going to ASEAN countries had grown to more than 20% of the total, according to figures in the report ‘ASEAN Community 2015: Managing Integration for Better Jobs and Shared Prosperity’ published by the ADB and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

While it used to be common to find Vietnamese contract labour in domestic or construction work, more recent years have seen a shift to workers going overseas through individual contracts for skilled or high-skilled jobs in Southeast Asia.

It was a friend’s tip that got Thu Ly stated on her career path through ASEAN. She recalls being surprised when she was accepted as a customer service officer within just two weeks. After completing her Malaysian contract, Thu Ly found no shortage of other job options in the ASEAN region. In fact, she received job offers in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. In the end, she chose Thailand because she found the job offer there interesting and because many of her ex-colleagues in Malaysia were also going over.

The number of Vietnamese who left the country to take up contract work increased from just 31,000 in 2000 to more than 85,000 a decade later, according to the Review of Vietnamese Migration Abroad that was published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam as early as 2012.

By 2016, this number had reached more than 126,000, consisting mainly of Vietnamese in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).These countries and others in Asia, Africa, Middle East have labour cooperation agreements with the Vietnamese government that are implemented through labour export enterprises and the Department of Overseas Labour (DOLAB). In first six months of 2019, the number of overseas Vietnamese women workers totalled 18,995, and the total number oversea is 66,983, according to DOLAB.

For many developing countries, exporting human labour is a response to domestic unemployment, and to the challenge of reducing poverty and increasing incomes.

For 2018, the World Bank reported that Vietnamese migrants sent home 15.93 billion US dollars, making Vietnam the country with the tenth largest migrant remittance inflows. This figure, which reflects a 16% increase from 2016, accounts for 6.6% of Vietnam’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a percentage that is second only to the Philippines (10.2% of GDP) in Southeast Asia. Often called the world’s largest exporter of contract labour, the Philippines received 33.83 billion dollars in personal remittances in 2018. Globally, it ranks fourth among the top recipients of remittances after India, China and Mexico, says the World Bank’s latest Migration and Development Brief.


While it used to be common to find Vietnamese contract labour in domestic or construction work, or in textile factories, more recent years have seen a shift to workers going overseas through individual employment contracts for skilled or high-skilled jobs in Southeast Asia.

In short, the wave of young people looking for jobs in Southeast Asia today is no longer consists the same labour exports seen in earlier decades.


Marketing professional Pham Thuy Bich Nhi. Photo: Diep Uyen

“The jobs in demand for human resources in Southeast Asia are not manual work, but require skilled and knowledgeable workers, as well as (those with) experience and qualifications,” said 25-year-old Pham Thuy Bich Nhi, a customer service officer at a global company providing online travel and related services in Bangkok. Skills in demand include those in information technology, customer service, research or data analysis, she points out.

Nhi, who holds an education degree from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Education, has been a marketing executive as well as a staffer providing support in customer relations. Several trips to Thailand piqued her interest in living and working there, so she applied for work in the Thai capital.

While there are many examples of Vietnamese expanding their professional and personal horizons in Southeast Asia, complete and detailed information about them are not always easy to document,  something that even the ADB has pointed out.

But employment statistics from JobStreet Vietnam, which is part of the JobsStreet International network that recruits professionals in the region, point to an increasing flow of young, highly skilled Vietnamese moving to countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Jobstreet Vietnam data, which was sent to ‘Thanhnien’ newspaper in June in response to its query, showed that the number of young, high-skilled labour going to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia grew by 11%, 38% and 8% respectively over the last six-month period, compared to the last 12 months. JobStreet’s findings were based on the number of professionals applying for work from seven economies- Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Infographic Uyen-final

Infographic: Diep Uyen

ASEAN is indeed a potential labour market for young Vietnamese as it has become much more interlinked with Southeast Asia, agrees Tran Ha Giang, who works as a regional marketing officer in Singapore after having worked in Malaysia and before that, in the Czech Republic and Germany.

“Vietnam has a high population acquiring a fast-growing middle class and high consumption capacity, which makes Vietnam become a big market in Southeast Asia, besides Indonesia and Thailand, and attracts companies to pour investment into. These companiesneed Vietnamese people to work in regional  headquarters and manage the Vietnamese market, the 26-year-old Giang said. ”The demand for Vietnamese labour force is for those who have the ability and desire to work abroad.”


The rise of international migration within Southeast Asia is probably influenced by the globalization trend, as more people identify themselves as global citizens instead of only belonging to a country, explains Prof. Michele Tuccio, author of the ‘Determinants of Intra-ASEAN Migration’report published by the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) in 2017. The number of people identifying as global citizens in Vietnam is over 80%, while it is 75% in Singapore, and over 90% in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the same report says.

Interestingly, the report also found that the more highly educated workers from migrant-origin economies tend to want to go abroad more than lower educated people. In Vietnam, the difference in this ambition between the more highly educated and those with lower educational attainment is double, or ranging from 7% to 15%. A JobStreet survey of attractive work destinations in Southeast Asia in 2018 shows Vietnamese to be among the top three nationalities whose preferred job destinations are Singapore and Thailand.


What does the future look like in terms of Vietnamese and other ASEAN nationals moving about for work in the region?

The ASEAN Community’s goals include reducing barriers to the labour mobility of certain professionals among its member states, as part of a larger blueprint for regional integration toward the freer movement of capital, services and skills within the region. The ASEAN Economic Community, one of the ASEAN Community’s three pillars, has a mechanism meant to allow skilled professionals to more easily move to, and work in, other ASEAN countries, by letting this flow reflect skills shortages and surpluses across countries.

This was to be implemented for just eight professions through Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs) that ASEAN governments negotiate so that their countries can recognize professional certifications issued in other ASEAN states, and set up procedures for ASEAN professionals wishing to work elsewhere in ASEAN.

These MRAs, which are in varying degrees of implementation and use today, only apply to these professionals: accountants, architects, dentists, doctors, engineers, architects, surveyors and those working in tourism.

In sum, this freer movement of skills under the ASEAN Community covers a limited amount of highly skilled professionals. As early as 2014, an ILO-ADB report explained that the professionals to be covered by the MRAs account for just around 1.4 %, or less, of ASEAN countries’ total employment.

In addition, different ASEAN countries have varying comfort levels about letting foreigners practice their professions locally, reflecting skepticism and concerns by domestic groups, according to the ILO-ADB report on the status of the signed MRAs in ASEAN in 2016.

Some requirements for ASEAN nationals to work have been so steep as to become barriers to freer movement, as explained in the report ‘Open Windows, Closed Doors’.Among the seven professional areas covered by these MRAs at the time of the report’s publication, tourism was the only one where the recognition of competency credentials of ASEAN nationals was automatic. The report pointed out “major restrictions” in accountancy, engineering and architecture. The “least open” MRAs were in the practice of dentistry, medicine and nursing, the same report said, calling the labour market in these fields “virtually closed” despite the ASEAN Community goals.

But despite these limitations, the awareness of a more open ASEAN now that there is an ASEAN Community has increased the appeal of working in other ASEAN countries, providing an additional push for workers to seek out job opportunities and for companies to recruit employees across borders.

Bui Hai An, the chief executive officer of O2 Financial who has nine years’ experience in technology start-ups, shared his experience in sending staffers to ASEAN nations: “I did send our staff to ASEAN countries to set up companies to implement some projects with partners on request in three to six months. Working permit procedures for employees were supported by partner companies. Our company mostly produces products in Vietnam, but there are some stages that need resources to work directly, such as with business groups, I would send staff to Singapore and Indonesia.”

The growing number of young Vietnamese working in countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia is likely to create a good foundation for Vietnamese companies eyeing the Southeast Asian market.

Mark Alan Brown

IOM’s Brown

The push and pull factors in migration for work are such that high-skilled and knowledge workers are able to get work overseas, even without state mechanisms. Their employers will sponsor their visas without government involvement. This is also why statistics around such skilled professionals are difficult to track, explains Mark Alan Brown, Head of Office for the IOM in Ho Chi Minh City.

In its ‘Determinants of Intra-ASEAN Migration’report, the ADBI explains that professionals often find employment through self-selection mechanisms, which depend on workers’ and employers’ choices, as well as through the skills-based immigration policies of receiving countries.

Countries that are destinations for professionals from ASEAN have different demands and needs, depending on their skills profiles and priorities. Singapore, for instance, puts distinct efforts into tiering its work visas “according to skilled and highly educated foreign talent as opposed to transient blue-collar workers”, said a 2017 article entitled Singapore’s Lesson: Managing Immigration to Create A Win-Win Situation’in the ‘Global-is-Asian’ magazine of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

For its part, Vietnam would find it useful to develop policies that promote the safe, productive deployment of its skilled workers overseas, an approach that has been used by the Philippines,.

Nearly two-thirds of Filipino migrant workers have a tertiary education degree, while on average, less than a third of the population graduated from university, says the ADBI report. This difference is partly due to the fact that most Filipinos migrate to work in the industrialized countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which requires higher levels of education, and partly because of their government’s own strategy.

The IOM’s Brown added: “We will continue to support ASEAN member countries, including Vietnam, to remove restrictions to promote free labour migration.”

Away from the formal state mechanisms  aimed at easing professionals’ employment across ASEAN countries’ borders, there are more community-based initiatives underway. For instance, the ASEAN Human Development Organization is conducting research into cross-border internships by companies, looking to produce a white paper on their usefulness for young professionals, companies, educational institutions and governments.

(*This article was produced in collaboration with the ‘Reporting ASEAN’ media program and its Cambodia-Lao PDR-Myanmar-Vietnam (CLMV) Integration Series.)

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