The lack of regulations governing factory meals and high food prices have led to increasing rates of food poisoning among workers, many of whom are now fighting back with more frequent strikes.
"Many of the recent wildcat strikes are the result of bad meals," said Ho Xuan Lam of the Ho Chi Minh City Export Processing and Industrial Zone Authority (HEPZA). "The workers are frustrated with the meals and some even skip them."
"There should be regulations on minimum calories per person per lunch. Prices per meal must also be regulated at reasonable amounts," he said.
On August 19, the HCMC Food Safety Agency held a conference on preventing food poisoning in the city. Most of the discussions focused specifically on lunchtime meals provided to factory workers.
According to the food safety agency, 628 cases of food poisoning occurred at factories in the city over the first seven months this year. The number for all of 2010 was 734.
Nationwide, 1,776 cases of food poisoning have killed nine people. The major cause has been identified as microorganisms like bacteria that often grow when rotten food begins to decompose.
During food safety month (April 15-May 15), inspectors found 15,636 food service facilities nationwide violating food safety regulations.
Do Thi Ngoc Diep, director of the HCMC Nutrition Center said simply regulating a minimum calorie count would not ensure better health for workers. "Companies can then just increase the fat content to increase calories, but the food still won't be nutritious enough," she said.
Cheap and poisonous
Most factories set aside some VND10,000 (US$0.48) to VND15,000 ($0.72) to spend per meal, per employee. The companies cook and serve lunches for their workers, or they hire food catering services. Some just give the workers the allowance to buy food outside their workplaces.
An inspection of 105 companies and food catering services in HCMC found 85 of them violating food safety regulations and 11 were found operating without required food safety certificates. The survey was carried out over the first six months of the year.
So far this year, food poisoning has occurred at five companies in HCMC, including the Lien Hung, Latex, Quang Thai and Wooyang Vina factories. More than 500 workers have been hospitalized in these cases alone.
Lam from HEPZA said many companies hire food caterers that offer the lowest priced meals, no matter whether they offer hygienic food or not.
"A company at Linh Trung Export Processing Zone with 14,000 workers was found not providing meals for its employees. A caterer was hired but was still unable to serve all workers at the same time, and they had to take turns to eat. Much food went bad as workers waited, and food poisoning in this case is a clear threat," he said.
Lam said many workers contracted caterers to prepare meals for only VND8,000 each, which he argued was far too low a price to provide anything healthy to eat.
An official from food caterer Minh Nam Company in HCMC's Binh Tan District said food prices have increased drastically and many companies were not willing to pay more for their workers' meals.
Minh Nam caters for around 3,000 workers at the Tan Tao Industrial Zone for some VND12,000 per meal. The official said that price was too low to provide a nutritious meal.
According to Nguyen Cong Khan, director of the Food Safety Administration at the Health Ministry, cheap food like that is not only lacking in nutrition, it is also probably unclean.
The administration has said it would coordinate with the Nutrition Institute to evaluate the situation and draft regulations on new requirements for worker's meals at industrial zones next month.
According to HEPZA, there have been 70 wildcat strikes in the city so far this year, including ten caused by poor break time meals, and 60 due to low salaries.
Vietnam's year-on-year inflation may rise between 20 percent and 21 percent by the end of 2011, Le Xuan Nghia, vice chairman of the National Financial Supervisory Commission, told the Dau Tu (Investment) newspaper in a recent report.
Consumer prices rose 22.16 percent in July from a year earlier, compared with June's 20.82 percent, according to the General Statistics Office. This marked the fastest price increase in Asia.
Facing harsh living conditions, workers are easily frustrated by poor and unhygienic meals.
Nguyen Thi Thu, a worker at Hai Duong Company, said the lunches supplied by her employer have become "inedible" over the past two months due to their poor and declining quality.
"Many workers are too tired while on the job and they faint while working," she said, adding that this still happened even after the company increased its lunch allowance from VND9,000 to VND11,500 per person.
Pham Thanh Binh, a worker at a brick company, said the meals served by his company are often rancid. "We have complained several times but the situation remains unchanged," he said.