Hell's kitchen

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Factory workers are served cheap, deadly meals by employers who are apathetic, seek to cut costs, or are on the take from caterers
 
  Factory workers being treated for food poisoning at the Binh Duong General Hospital. Cheap and unhygienic meals served by companies are causing workers' health as well as efficiency to deteriorate, critics say.

Le Chi Cuong was lucky: he detected the maggots in his food before eating it during his factory lunch break on August 17.

But by the time the 46-year-old worker reported this to his supervisors at the Cu Bi Rubber Plant in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, 13 other workers had eaten the food supplied by caterer Dung Ha Company.

They did not know if there had been maggots in the food.

The plant immediately took back the food served to 109 other workers and found maggots in nine people's braised pork.

Tieu Van Linh, head of the provincial Food Safety and Hygiene Agency, told Vietweek that the caterer did not make an honest report to his agency when submitting the requisite food sample for testing that day.

Caterers must store samples of the food they provide for 24 hours, in order to have them tested, in case of food poisoning or similar incidents. Tests upon food samples may also be conducted upon demand, by either related agencies, or the catering company itself.

In this case, the Cu Bi Rubber Plant requested their food be tested without mentioning workers' reports of maggots, as if the company was just making sure there was nothing wrong with the food.

"They only asked us to test for microorganisms without mentioning maggots, which are insect larvae and not a microorganism," he said.

Linh said his agency does not test for microorganisms and had sent the samples to the preventive health center for testing and was awaiting the results.

"The plant should have reported that there were maggots in food. Then we would have conducted a full inspection instead of forwarding the samples to the other agency to test for microorganisms," he said.

Many similar incidents have been reported by the media in the past few months. Some workers reported seeing maggots in their food, though it could have been worse. Maggots, unlike microorganisms, are at least visible to the naked eye.

On August 25 the Suoi Tre Rubber General Hospital in Dong Nai Province admitted 58 workers from the nearby Dau Giay Rubber Plant suffering from symptoms of food poisoning.

Dr. Do Cao Khai said the workers became dizzy and had stomachaches after eating the lunches provided by the company.

Their symptoms worsened at around 5 pm and they had to be taken to the hospital. All had been discharged by the following day.

The health of factory workers and manual laborers is at grave risk since many are being fed tainted food due to lax government oversight and corruption at the company level, with caterers having to pay bribes to win contracts.

Poisonous meals

A report this month from the Vietnam Food Safety Department said there were 927 cases of food poisoning between 2007 and 2011, with 30,733 people being hospitalized and 229 dying.

Food served at companies accounted for more than 20 percent of the cases, with a significant proportion occurring at industrial parks and export processing zones in the southeast, it said.

The National Institute of Nutrition said recently that its tests of food served at factories revealed pesticides and other toxic substances.

A cook at a caterer's in Binh Duong Province, who asked for anonymity, admitted that hygiene was not a factor in workers' meals.

She said: "We buy large quantities of vegetables and just cook them without throwing out rotten ones and those with worms. We have few workers and a huge workload. We might be fired if we take the time to do such things."

Dr. Luu Ngan Tam, chief of the nutrition department at Ho Chi Minh City's Cho Ray Hospital, said: "Authorities do not pay enough attention to factory workers' food safety. They eat with fear [of food poisoning]."

On July 29, 62 workers at confectioner Art Tango Company in HCMC's Vinh Loc Industrial Park were hospitalized after eating ground pork porridge, rice, fried fish, prawn, and pumpkin soup for lunch.

In another case, on July 4, more than 100 workers at textile and garment maker Takson Vina Company in HCMC's Hoc Mon District came down with food poisoning.

They had eaten rice, braised pork, and vegetable soup at noon supplied by the Tu Anh Company based in Binh Chanh District.

Undernourished

Of course there are many factory workers who have not suffered from food poisoning. But the chances are they are likely to be undernourished.

A recent report by the HCMC Nutrition Center said one in every three workers at industrial zones is malnourished.

Of the 400 workers it studied, more than 19 percent were anemic and 70 percent had iodine deficiency.

On August 13, the Vietnam Food Safety Department held a meeting with the Binh Duong Health Department to discuss the undernourishment of workers in industrial parks and export processing zones.

Several experts warned that millions of workers in the country's 256 industrial parks and export processing zones are threatened by poor and tainted meals supplied by the companies.

They blamed companies' apathy and efforts to cut costs for the poor and unhygienic meals.

The National Nutrition Institute reported at the conference that the meals only met 77.7 percent of women workers' calorie needs and less than 90 percent of men's. It had surveyed 900 workers aged between 18 and 60.

Le Bach Mai, deputy director of the institute, said it was detrimental to workers' health and would impact on their working capacity.

"The gaunt, thin appearance of many workers is the result of working for years without enough food," he said.

Tran Quang Trung, director of the Vietnam Food Safety Department, said many caterers use cheap ingredients that could cause food poisoning.

"Local authorities and the managements of industrial parks do not play an active role in ensuring food safety," he said.

Food safety agencies and health inspectors do not discharge their responsibility properly, he added.

For the past several years Vietweek has been reporting that many factory caterers cut corners because they have to pay commissions to company officials awarding contracts.

The price companies pay for meals used to be VND8,000-10,000 (US$0.34-$0.48) a few years ago and has increased to VND10,000-12,000.

If it seems too meager, considering the fact that the actual cost is only around 60 percent of that, what with overhead, commissions, and profit margins.

Frustrated workers

The HCMC Labor Federation reported a total of 57 wildcat strikes in the first half of this year with more than 32,700 workers taking part. Companies' refusal to improve the meals was among the reasons, it said.

In Binh Duong, which has many industrial parks, there were 44 strikes.

A survey by the Binh Duong Food Safety Agency found that around half the workers at industrial parks remained hungry after lunch. Around 51 percent said the food was not tasty or nutritious.

At a recent conference on nutrition for factory workers, Nguyen Thi Cuc, a medical worker at the Chang Shin Company in Dong Nai Province, said many workers are forced to spend less on meals at home since they have to send money to their families.

"Many workers eat instant noodles without even boiling water [to save on power]," she said.

"Monday is when the largest number of workers faint [at work] because they did not eat enough at home over the weekend."

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