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Vietnam workers in East bloc - a far cry from slave labor

Some of Vietnam's soldiers just back from Kampuchea are likely to find themselves taking another long trip soon, this time as civilians - to work in East European factories.

And despite the attachment most Vietnamese feel for their homeland, they will probably count themselves fortunate.

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There have been charges of slave labor in a number of accounts of Vietnamese workers going to the Eastern bloc. One Vietnamese exile told a US congressional subcommittee recently that 500,000 Vietnamese were being sent to the Soviet Union to help build the natural gas pipeline to Western Europe.

Another opponent of Hanoi says the workers are being shipped off to pay for Hanoi's debt to the countries of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, known as Comecon.

But reliable reports suggest being sent to Eastern Europe is more privilege than punishment.

There are, according to Soviet figures, about 7,000 Vietnamese workers in Soviet textile and chemical factories, or in irrigation and land reclamation programs. Most of them have arrived there since the signature in May 1981 of a ''work training agreement'' between Hanoi and Moscow. They join about 4,000 other Vietnamese studying there.

Czechoslovakia has another 14,000 Vietnamese guest workers. In all, Hanoi says there are about 50,000 workers in the Comecon countries.

A description in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia of Vietnamese women working in a Soviet textile factory describes them receiving a crash course in Russian, followed by a six-month apprenticeship that gradually turns into piecework. The women working there, Izvestia says, can earn ''as much as 145 rubles ($203) or 204 rubles ($286) a month. How long the women will stay there is not specified. Other sources suggest six years, with a trip back home after three.

The arrangement would not appeal to most Westerners, who in any case view the Soviet Union as a sort of consumer's purgatory. But if the Soviet account is correct, the Vietnamese must regard the deal as something approaching heaven.

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The annual average per capita income in Vietnam is $153, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - a drop of $100 since last year. In the Soviet Union, it is $4,550, and in Czechoslovakia, $5,820, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, inflation in Vietnam exceeded 100 percent last year.

Unemployment at home increases the program's attractions. In Ho Chi Minh City , for example, unemployment is running at between 10 and 20 percent in most city districts. Hardest hit are the young, who make up 80 percent of the jobless, and every year about 100,000 more young people enter the job market in the city. It hardly seems to be a coincidence that nearly all of the Vietnamese going abroad are between 17 and 35.

Most of the workers going overseas seem to come from the privileged categories in Vietnamese society - children of revolutionary families or whose parents were killed or wounded in the war, members of the party youth wing or newly demobilized soldiers.

Competition is stiff. And the Vietnamese news media quite often carry angry accusations of bribery or profiteering, such as photographic shops charging exorbitant amounts for the photographs applicants need to submit with their dossiers.

One thing is clear: Hanoi is not trying to ship out its juvenile delinquents in the program - its relations with Comecon are delicate enough as it is.

In fact, the overseas labor program is probably one of the few ways that Hanoi can show its Comecon partners, some of whom are unenthusiastic at Hanoi's rather costly membership in the group, that its relationship with East European countries is a two-way street. Hanoi's debt to the Soviet Union and its allies currently stands at $2.18 billion, so there is little the laborers can do to wipe that out. On the other hand, the Soviets suffer from a chronic labor shortage. They claim that 2 million jobs are lying vacant and that its labor force grows more slowly each year. Hanoi can help, in a small way, with that.

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