By Dung Phan
It is the summer time, and several cities in Vietnam are experiencing the hottest days of the year. Yet it is not time off work for children in Quynh Luu district of the central province of Nghe An. Children aged 12 to 15 are busy carrying bricks at a brick factory without any personal protective equipment.
For carrying 1000 bricks, they will get paid for the equivalent of $1.3. These children work with a minimum of adult supervision.
About 1.7 million Vietnamese children are in child labour, and thousands of them, like those in Quynh Luu are in factories or vegetable fields instead of a classroom. Most of them are toiling for their family.
Last year, The Guardian reported that 3000 Vietnamese children were trafficked to the UK as forced and bonded labourers. They were used for financial gain by criminal gangs who took charge of brothels, cannabis farms, nail bars and factories. When asked, they all said they were there to work and to pay off debts for their families back home.
A trap for children
Hieu, not his real name, was raised in a small village in Dien Bien, a mountainous area in the north-western Vietnam. Hailing from one of the country’s poorest provinces, and coming from an ethnic minority group, Hieu and his family have been severely disadvantaged.
At the age of 16, he took on a job making coal bricks, justwhen a woman approached him to offer him vocational training. He and a dozen other children from his home village were then taken away by bus thousands of kilometers away, to Ho Chi Minh City, in the south of the country.
Hieu and the other children spent the next two years practically incarcerated in a small room, making clothes for a small garment factory, with no salary given.
“We started at 6am and finished work at midnight,” he said. “If we made a mistake making the clothes they would beat us with a stick.”
Eventually, Hieu became one of more than 230 child-trafficking victims that the Vietnam-based charity Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescued since 2005.
The country records about 600,000 children who often have to work upwards of 42 hours per week, rendering them unable to go to school, according to Dang Hoa Nam, Deputy Director of the Department of Child Protection and Care under the Ministry of Labour. Despite prohibition of child labour and indentured servitude, children make up a large proportion of the unskilled work force, and can be found in virtually almost factory, workshop and field.
“Children are often highly vulnerable because parents’ incomes are insufficient or because informal family enterprises cannot afford to hire adult workers to replace the unpaid work of their children,” said the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Vietnam Director Chang-Hee Lee.
Although the Vietnamese Constitution prohibits child labour, in 2013 the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) authorises “light work” for children between 13 and 15 years old, which includes tasks such as “mat weaving, making incense, weaving net, making home appliances and fine art crafts from wicker, rattan and bamboo, rearing silk worms, packing candy”.
However, recent studies noted that the problem does not lie on whether the child is begging on the street or making fine art crafts at home. What’s concerning is that some of working minors don’t seem to be performing errand work that will instill in them a strong work ethic and understanding of responsibility.
Rather, they are in jobs that can and have jeopardised their health and safety.
Surveys conducted by Statistical Information and Monitoring Programme on Child Labour (SIMPOC/ILO) in Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia and Vietnam suggest that children have a low exposure to dangerous conditions in the workplace in three out of four countries, excluding Vietnam. Vietnamese child workers are alarmingly exposed to dangerous conditions with 43% of employed 5 to 14 year olds, and 51% of employed 15 to 17 year olds.
The predominance of agriculture is a particular concern as this sector is one of the three most dangerous in which to work at any age. Children are likely to face a range of serious hazards such as operation of dangerous equipment, pesticide exposure and heavy loads.
Hampered by two-minded policies
In 2012 the US Department of Labour added garments from Vietnam to its annual list of products made with forced and child labour, making Vietnam one of just six other countries whose garments received this designation.
Facing the decline in garments export, the government officials urged the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) to prevent child labour in garment industry. However, one year later, MOLISA decided to authorises “light work” for children between 13 and 15 years old, which can be regarded as an invitation to more exploitation. The working conditions are even not incompatible with ILO standards.
Its argument was that child labour is essential to the survival of garments sector. This flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that the number of children working in garments factories or workshop in Ho Chi Minh City has been augmenting. Yet Deputy Minister of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs Doan Mau Diep recently admitted that the situation is getting more complicated to control as such establishments are normally based in the suburbs and in disguise of “family business”.
Over the years, although many officials insisted it needs gathering help from the society and many relevant organisations, government policies in Vietnam continue to restrict the establishment of independent grassroots non-governmental organizations, many of which could investigate labour rights abuses and assist workers, and to prevent the establishment of independent trade unions. Information about unconditional worst forms of child labour is also very scarce. This is due both to the methodological difficulties inherent in investigating them and to their cultural sensitivity.
Reports from Human Rights Watch noted that advocating for labour rights and monitoring working conditions independently of the apparel industry and government authorities is, for this reason, more difficult in Vietnam than in China.
Lately, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has given the green light to a programme on preventing and minimising child labour during the 2016-2020 periods. With the pressure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement to end forced and child labour, it is time for the government to think of a more consistency plan.