Why Doesn’t Anybody Have a Work Permit?

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Teachers in Saigon.

VietNamNet Bridge reports that, according to the conference on overseas-funded training centres held by the Hanoi Education and Training Department on November 5, only 30% of foreign English teachers at language centers in Vietnam have work permits.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody who’s spent time as an English teacher in Vietnam. Kim, an American English teacher for an international school in HCMC says she doesn’t know any English teachers who have a work permit: “Some of us applied but it’s been six months and I still haven’t gotten anything back.”

The main reason English teachers seem to avoid getting a work permit is the cumbersome application process. The most difficult part is getting official documents such as diplomas “legalized” for use in Vietnam. This is a legitimate need and to make it easier most countries have signed the 1961 Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement for Legalization of Foreign Public Documents. Signatory countries can just have documents certified at one; the documents are then automatically acceptable in other signatory countries.

Vietnam, of course, is not a signatory and requires foreign official documents to go through a lengthy process of legalization. In the U.S., this means a long process of authentication from your local notary public all the way to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. If Vietnam were a signatory to the 1961 Hague Convention, you could just get an “apostille” stamp from the State Department of Authentication and be done with it.

The complexity disproportionately affects short-term workers such English teachers. “A lot of English teachers aren’t here long, one year at most,” says Mark, an English teacher at ILA in Hanoi. “They’re kinda like backpackers, hopping from one country to the next teaching English.” This means many English teachers don’t come into Vietnam with all their documents prepared. They may not have their diplomas or background checks with them at all, much less legalized. Such teachers have to send documents back and forth between their home country and Vietnam up to five times by mail to get all the necessary government verifications.

Add onto that the lengthy processing time for applications and it’s easy to see why English teachers coming to Vietnam for a year or even just a few months find it easier to just not get a work permit at all.

Decree No. 34, passed last year, eased some of the work permit requirements. Notably, expats who have been in Vietnam for six months or longer can get a Vietnamese background check instead of one from their home country. Of course, relying on this means you’re not supposed to work for at least six months until you can get your Vietnamese background check.

But the question really is whether anybody actually cares whether English teachers, or any skilled expats for that matter, have work permits?  The Vietnamese government doesn’t seem to. Even at large multinational corporations, where the company often pays high prices for special legalization firms such as apostilla.com to legalize documents for employees, many expats are working without work permits while their applications processes. “The firm paid for all my papers to get legalized by this U.S. company, but they needed me right away and weren’t going to wait six months until all the paper work cleared with the Department of Labor,” says Nick, a real estate consultant in Hanoi. “They told me I could start as soon I got here. We just had to make sure my taxes were all paid and taken care of.”

And ultimately, it seems like taxes are what it comes down to. Foreigners in Vietnam get paid much higher wages than local Vietnamese—and get taxed accordingly. It seems unlikely that the government’s going to give up that source of income over work permits. “Getting my tax code was easy,” says Tam, a marketing analyst in HCMC. “HR sent in my picture with some forms and the got back to me in two weeks. Haven’t heard anything about my work permit though.”

Some expats don’t even need work permits. “You need a work permit?” Dan, a foreign lawyer in HCMC, asks in surprise. “Lawyers just get a license from the Ministry of Justice. I got mine in a week.”

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