Jobs for sale in Vietnam

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When she finished her studies, Hoa (not her real name) dreamed of finding work in a Vietnamese public bank. The 24-year-old graduate had a flawless academic record: she was selected to go from her rural village and continue her secondary education at a boarding school for promising students in Hanoi. She went on to become an outstanding university student in international business and has a perfect command of English.

But she soon discovered that her brilliant academic profile was not enough to land her a job. After months of unsuccessful job-hunting, she was discreetly offered the chance of a job in the branch office of a state bank, in exchange for around 500 million Vietnamese dong (almost €20,000). The bank would pay her a monthly salary of around VND5 million (€200, or US$225).

“An acquaintance told me that’s how he had got his job. It was an indirect way of offering me the same, but I don’t have that kind of money. Other people accept it, because it is a good job for a young woman: it is prestigious to work in a public company and although the pay is not high in the beginning, it guarantees you a good pension when you retire. What’s more, being dismissed is virtually impossible,” she explains.

Although over the last 30 years Vietnam has gone from being a socialist to a virtually free market economy, the huge state conglomerates, inherited from the years of strict communism, continue to account for around 40 per cent of GDP.

Whilst private companies are moving with the times and such practices are a rarity, they are very common in the public sector, especially in the north of the country. Sometimes, as is the case with Hoa, the advantages are the social benefits and the status acquired from working for the state. But in many cases, candidates pay out the money because such jobs offer an easy source of extra income to supplement the measly official wage.

According to the 2015 report of the Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI), endorsed by the United Nations Development Programme, almost half of the respondents said bribes had to be paid to secure a job in the public sector.

“Personal relationships and informal payments still play an important role for those who wish to pursue public sector careers. Nepotism and corruption in the public sector have become a systemic problem,” says the study. In Hanoi, for example, 86 per cent of those surveyed considered the payment of bribes necessary to work in the public sector.

It is a vice the country has been dragging along for decades, without any major improvement in recent years, according to the report. The government has recognised the problem and the Communist Party general secretary himself, Nguyen Phu Trong recognised, last year, that it was “quite common” and pledged to take measures to eradicate it.

The communist leader called for greater transparency and in-depth investigations. He also announced that contact would be prohibited between job applicants and those in charge of selection. In addition, the government has also proposed that the hiring process for certain jobs should depend on various governmental agencies rather than just one, to make bribery more difficult.

But the number of cases continues to rise. One of the most striking examples took place in September, when the local press uncovered a bribery scandal with payments of up to US$10,130 (€9,000) being paid for jobs in a public nursery school in the capital, in a country where the per capita income is US$6,000 a year(around €5,420).


The intermediary, a key figure

The intermediary or ‘broker’, the key figure, appears in all the press reports and the accounts given by the Vietnamese people who dare to talk openly about the problem. The bribe or pay off is rarely given directly to the boss but goes, at least initially, to a person close to him.

Hoa insists that even if she had the money to pay the bribe, she would turn down her dream job, not for ethical reasons but because she would have to look after her relationship with the intermediary throughout her career.

“I worked hard. I went to one of the best universities. If I accepted something like this it would ruin my reputation and, on top of that, I would have to look after my ‘contact’ for the rest of my life. You have to give them presents every so often and treat them well because if they’re not happy they can spread rumours about how you got the job. People would talk behind my back, and reputation is everything,” she explains.

Although Hoa did not go down that route, her sister-in-law, a physical education teacher in Hanoi, did have to pay to better her position and her paltry wage of VND1.8 million a month (€72 euros, US$81).

“We don’t know anyone in the public administration or the education sector, so she had to resort to a broker. She never told us how much she paid but we know that she did it,” she reveals.

Bill Hayton, a former BBC correspondent in Vietnam, neatly summarises the bribery that runs through the education system in his book Vietnam, Rising Dragon, published in 2010:

“The kindergarten teachers will have to bribe the boss to get hired, the children’s parents will have to bribe the teacher to ensure their children get well-treated, high school pupils will bribe their teachers to get good marks in exams, and Ph.D. students pay to get their theses written for them by their examiners’ colleagues.... Extra payments are required to get good treatment in hospitals, to get electricity connections fixed and to get business.”


Education, health, police, the sectors most affected by bribery

Aside from education, press news and reports often point, in particular, to two other public sector areas where such practices are most common: health (where patients are ready to pay doctors and nurses an extra to ensure they receive good care) and the police.

Dung (not his real name), a young man hoping to become a police officer knows from the experiences of various family members that it is common practice, but he is hoping to find a legitimate way into the force. “The entrance exam can be done legally or with the right connections and a bit of money,” he explains in a café in Ho Chi Minh City.

In this case, the incentive, aside from the social benefits that come from working for the state, is the prospect of making good money from corruption.

“The most sought-after positions are in the traffic department and the financial and economic division, because officers can get rich from the fines on drivers or by demanding continual backhanders from business people in exchange for permits for their businesses,” says Dung. Although the wages barely reach €200 a month, the young man says some candidates pay over €10,000 (around US$11,250) to secure a job.

Although some, like Dung, accept the problem as one of Vietnam’s “cultural peculiarities”, other young people despair at how such practices bar the way for talented individuals and favour those with enough money to buy a good job.

Hoa, who is now working in a private bank in Ho Chi Minh City is wary of allowing herself to be consumed by the despair into which some of her friends have fallen:

“Sometimes I speak with my school and university friends. We were all very good students and had big dreams, but we struggle to find a job because of this system. Some have gone back to their towns or villages, disillusioned. They say they would have liked to have spent more time with their families or having fun during their teenage years, because it doesn’t matter how much effort they put in, what matters is having money and being well connected.”