Support for the poor rural families who send their kids to city sweatshops is a must, says NGO
A boy works at a garment sweatshop in Binh Tan District, Ho Chi Minh City
At least 110 private businesses are violating child labor laws by illegally employing and exploiting Ho Chi Minh City youth, according to the city's Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs.
Nguyen Thi Tuyet Nhung, deputy director of the department, told members of the HCMC People's Council at a meeting August 5 that the figure was taken from a survey conducted between January and June.
Nhung told the meeting the department had the names of the 110 establishments that employ 342 children, according to local district, ward and commune authorities that responded to the survey. She said department investigators would embark on "unexpected" inspections of the establishments in the coming time.
Most of the establishments are small, family-owned household factories in outlying districts like Binh Tan, Go Vap and Binh Chanh, according to Nhung.
Inspectors from the Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs have already inspected more than 30 of the businesses, where most owners said that the children working were their relatives.
Nhung said that many of the businesses force the children to work extremely hard, for extremely long hours, under poor or even hazardous working conditions, for low pay. She described many of the small factories and manufacturing houses as "sweatshops."
"Some owners told inspectors that the families of the children sent them to the sweatshops for both "˜work and study,'" Nhung said. When found out by authorities, many sweatshops try to pose as legitimate vocational training or internship programs.
The 30 establishments were ordered to pay fines, but Nhung said she was concerned that the remaining establishments may have heard of the inspections already and could temporarily close or dismiss their child employees to protect themselves from investigators.
Nhung called on authorities in districts and wards to inform the department anytime they discover any sweatshops in their areas.
At the meeting, Truong Thi Anh, vice chairwoman of HCMC People's Council, said the city is also home to around 1,500 homeless children who work various odd jobs on the streets to make enough money to eat.
Tran Vinh Hoa, chief of Binh Chanh District's Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs Office, said his district authorities had discovered six cases of "child labor abuse" involving 22 children in the first half of this year.
The children were found working 8-9 hours a day, even 10-12 hours during holidays, in small garment factories.
The children must work in small and suffocatingly hot rooms, Hoa said, for a mere VND10-15 million (US$480-720) per year.
"Most of the sweatshops are owned by individuals or households; they rent small land plots to turn into workshops and do not have business licenses," Hoa said.
"When they are discovered by local authorities, they always say that the child laborers are their relatives who have come to HCMC for vocational training."
Most homeless children and child laborers at sweatshops are immigrants from other provinces to HCMC, according to Luong Thi Thuan, chairwoman of the HCMC Children's Assistance Association.
The children do not only face the risk of being forced into labor-slavery but also physical and sexual abuse, she said.
"Many [children] told me their employers give them a pack of instant noodles for breakfast and then they have to work from 7 a.m. to 12 a.m.
"They are provided a bowl of steamed rice for lunch and half an hour break and then they continue to work until late, sometimes midnight.
"Hard work and lack of food make them tired and sleepy, which can easily cause industrial accidents."
It takes a village
While blaming the owners of the sweatshops for the children's plight, Thuan also warned that parents should be aware of the possible dangers they may cause to their children by sending them to work in sweatshops.
Australian NGO Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, which "rescues" children from Thua Thien-Hue Province who are trafficked to work in HCMC factories, found that sweatshop owners often promise vocational training to families and then just use the children as slaves.
But they are becoming trickier and harder to track down, according to the organization.
They often keep the children hidden from the street so they are more difficult to find, Blue Dragon's founder and CEO Michael Brosowski told Vietweek.
"As before, the traffickers are still targeting children living in extreme poverty in Thua Thien-Hue.
"We find that once we have conducted two rescue trips from a particular commune, the trafficking tends to stop - because the families and community know of the trafficker's tricks, and understand that the children are safer at home."
So far this year, Blue Dragon has rescued 16 children from Loc Dien District in Thua Thien-Hue. All 16 are at home with their families now, preparing to start school again.
"We believe, however, that there are eight more children from Loc Dien who are still in HCMC garment factories," said Brosowski.
"We are planning to go soon to find them and bring them home."
According to Nhung (vice chairwoman of HCMC Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs), in many cases, parents of children who have been rescued from sweatshops simply "resold" them to other sweatshops.
Nhung recommended new measures to protect children from being sent back to sweatshops, including more "education" for the parents and more coordination between local governments.
Brosowski told Vietweek that Blue Dragon had not encountered a family that had re-sold their child to another sweatshop.
But in order to prevent such an occurrence, he said that families must be consulted and "must be involved in discussions about what has happened to their child and included in all decision making."
"The family should be offered support to keep their child at home. This might mean financial support, but it might also mean practical assistance, such as government help with enrolling the child at school, or providing a teacher to give extra lessons at home."
Brosowski said that once the children are home from the sweatshop, there remains a lot more work to do.
"For example, we must ensure the children's families are safe and well.
"We must also pay attention to the needs of the whole community."
In June, Blue Dragon opened a road that it funded in Loc Dien. It is also building four houses for children it has brought home.
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