Lunch for workers at a shoe factory in Binh Duong Province is mostly rice and a little pork and vegetables.
But the problem is not just the lack of nutrition: sometimes a meal can put a worker’s very life in danger.
The mass food poisoning suffered by 441 workers at the factory on October 21 was a reminder of the unhealthy factory lunches provided in Vietnam, which has been a major cause of wildcat strikes and the fact that its productivity is among the lowest in the world.
Truong Thi Bich Hanh, vice chairwoman of the Labor Union in Binh Duong, an industrial hub with 150,000 companies, said at least 8 percent of them pay only around 40 cents for a worker’s meal, or less than half the price of a cheap meal at a street eatery.
She said she does not have an exact number since many companies do not have a trade union, and workers’ meals are managed by the province’s labor department.
But the department director said he had no idea.
At least 33 cases of mass food poisoning involving 2,302 people, most of them factory workers, have been reported across the country this year.
Nguyen Thanh Phong, head of the food safety department at the health ministry, said the cost of the meal is too low to ensure quality.
“Low-quality ingredients easily suffer bacterial or toxic contamination,” Phong said, adding that some kitchens even use ingredients that are already spoiled.
He also blamed local authorities for failing to monitor hygiene in factory kitchens, many of which are open for a long time before receiving any food safety and hygiene checks.
Le Bach Mai, deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition, said even when a meal is safe, it does not properly recharge workers since more than 70 percent of it is starch.
Most women workers are of reproductive age, but a study by the institute found that the lack of vitamins in factory lunch affects their reproductive health, Mai said.
Labor officials said they can only negotiate with businesses about improving workers’ lunch since there are no laws governing factory meals.
Need lunch rules
Mai Duc Chinh, vice chairman of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, said the confederation had once recommended that the government should regulate factory lunches, but the labor ministry rejected that, saying it should depend on negotiations between workers and employers.
But since the negotiations never end in workers’ favor, the confederation has asked the ministry’s Institute of Labor Science to study factory meals and the nutrition and calories they provide, he said.
“The study will be a foundation for us to ask the government again to force businesses to provide workers with proper meals.”
He said factory workers are already struggling with poor wages, and the lunch only makes their life harder.
“They don’t have enough energy to work and we keep demanding higher productivity from them.”