Life on the dirty canals

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Workers from the District 8 garbage collection team move baskets of garbage to the shore to load onto a truck

Poorly paid and protected, 25 workers of a garbage collection team on Ho Chi Minh City canals nevertheless are keen and happy to clear 15 tons every day.

"Today we collect a little, tomorrow a little more, and all will be cleared someday," says a member of the team, which spends most of the day on the black, stinky canals.

The Hygiene Team No.5 of District 8 Public Service Co. is equipped with 18 composite boats, big and small, to collect trash from 12.4 kilometers of Doi and Tau Hu canals.

Most of the trash comes from retailing boats, families and factories along the canal, as well as other canals upstream.

The team was established in 1998 and suspended for two years in 2009 and 2010 due to fund shortages. However, the company asked the city government to bring the team back to operation after the garbage on local canals became "unbearable," says the company deputy director Nguyen Van Tot.

According to the team, the garbage increases dramatically near the Lunar New Year holiday and shortly thereafter, as people throw away garbage from their parties and sellers dispose of unsold flowers and fruits. Tet, the country's biggest holiday, arrives in two weeks.

It takes more than one hour for the team to clear away heavy bags of garbage from just one kilometer of the canal, according Thanh Nien's observation.

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Tran Minh Thien, a member of the team, said he once heard about a regulation to punish people who litter in public places. "But then I've seen no one going to punish anyone."

Other members of the team even said that when some people litter, they don't pay garbage workers any courtesy. Huan, a member of the team, said, "Some people threw dirty water or bags of garbage into us while we're working."

Another worker recalled when heavy bags were dropped from Chanh Hung Bridge across the Doi Canal while the team was under the bridge. "If they hit my head, I would have surely died," he said.

However, on most days, the workers are still working hard. They sail out at 4 am and return at 7 pm because the boats are fully loaded -- not because the canals are cleared. A truck garbage arrives an hour later, and the team members have to load the garbage onto the truck.

Doan Hong Nhanh, the team leader, said he needs six more workers to "fairly" handle the work.

But the work takes courage. Tran Van Hoang, a 31-year-old member of the team, said collecting garbage is a light job compared to loading it. The garbage stinks badly on hot days, and the workers are easily exhausted.

Although the team is thinly staffed, the members have also voluntarily fished many bodies  -- mostly suicides -- from the canals, including five in 2011. Some of the team members said they had run away the first time they retrieved body, but then they got over the fear.

Thien, considered one of the most courageous members when it comes to the matter, said "it makes no sense" not to collect a dead body. He explained, "The family of the person is already sad with the loss. It would be even more painful if they could not find the body."

Thien said when he sees a body, he feels sad for the person, because "they ended their life without thinking it through."

For all their work, each worker receives VND4 million per month  (US$190), in addition to regular checkups, a tetanus vaccination, and VND6,000 per day (less than $0.30) as a hazard bonus.

The tiny bonus is less than a bottle of eye drops the workers have to buy when black water from the canals accidentally splashes into their eyes.

Thanh Nien observed one worker, Huynh Van Tu, got canal water in his eyes and had to suffer with red and painful eyes for more than two hours until his work was finished.

There are other inevitable hazards to the job, the team said. Workers have to soak themselves in water to remove garbage that is stuck to the boat propellers, or get poked by used syringes, glass splinters and nails in garbage.

Huan, one of the workers, just squeezed out blood, and washed out his injury with soap and water after many times he was poked.

Despite the challenging work, the team does not complain. Members even joke about sending one worker to a television game show for poor people called, "Overcoming yourselves," in which the players receive monetary support if they can perform their daily work task in one and a half minutes.

Huan said, "I will apply. I'm not sure about the one and a half minutes, but I will fill 30 garbage baskets very quickly."

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