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An NGO brings home children found working in harsh, illegal conditions, and provides them with an education

Children working at a stone mine in a northern province in Vietnam. Authorities are well aware of Vietnam's child labor problem, NGOs say, what they need is concrete measures to end the practice.

He's clearly much older than his third-grade peers and is too shy to talk to them.

At first glance, he could have been any primary student stressed out by his studies. But as he began to tell stories about his past and his family's new home, paid for by an NGO and local authorities, 14- year-old Truong Van Thien said that going to school and living with his parents in their Thua Thien-Hue Province hometown had been just a dream two years ago.

In fact, his back still experiences sharp pains that began when his work at a HCMC sweatshop forced him to sit for days a time.

Stark poverty had prompted Thien's parents to send him to work for a private garment factory in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Tan District in 2008. Thien said he had to work almost 18 hours with two main meals per day.

"I was so exhausted that I could not sleep well for the rest of my night," Thien told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Brought back to his hometown in Thua Thien Hue's Phu Loc District last November thanks to a campaign launched by NGO Blue Dragon Children's Foundation and Thua Thien Hue authorities, Thien said his life was finally headed in the right direction.

"Now I can go to school. I can live in my new house with my parents. I no longer have to work extremely hard. My life couldn't be simpler and I love it."

Thien is attending fourth grade classes next school year, due to all the years of school he missed, and his family's makeshift tent has been converted into a new home thanks to support from Blue Dragon and the local government.

But bringing child laborers back to Thua Thien-Hue from the big city has not been a simple task.

"When we started this work in about 2005, there was very little awareness of the issues. Those who did know about it didn't know what to do about it," said Michael Brosowski, the country director of Blue Dragon.

"Local officials even tried to cover-up the fact that many children in their localities had been sent to work in HCMC or elsewhere. They refused to cooperate with us," said Ta Ngoc Van, the NGO's legal counsel.

Since 2005, Blue Dragon members have visited HCMC with staff from the Hue Red Cross and People's Committee representatives from communes in the central province. Together, they look for children who have been taken from Hue to work in garment factories in the southern metropolis.

When they find kids they take them back home and provide monetary support to their families and provide school funding. The idea is that if the kids can complete their educations, they can then get jobs and support their families on their own later.

The organization and Hue authorities have also reported several cases of workplace abuse and illegal employment to HCMC police.

"Hue officials have now been to HCMC themselves, they've seen the conditions and been moved by what they have seen. Now they strongly advocate against child exploitation," Brosowski said.

"Vietnam cannot afford to have its most precious resources, its children, slaving away on factory floors when they should be studying and preparing to take part in society."

For better, but for worse

Child labor is not a new issue in Vietnam. Poor parents often see no hope for their children if they stay at home, so they think going to big cities like HCMC will be good for them.

"They want a better life for their children, and they don't understand the terrible hardships that the child workers face in HCMC," Brosowski said.

And HCMC is not the only place where children have been deprived of their basic rights.

A recently-released report on child labor in eight provinces and cities of Vietnam told several woeful stories.

The International Labor Organization-funded study, conducted by the Vietnam Institute of Labor Science and Social Affairs, contained in-depth interviews, surveys, and data collection, profiling several children working in dangerous conditions.

Scenes described in the report included a rock exploitation field in the northern province of Ha Tinh, a fish processing plant in the central province of Quang Nam, a rubber farm in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai, brick and tile kilns in the Mekong Delta's An Giang Province, garment workshops in Ho Chi Minh city and food processors in Hanoi.

Sixteen-year-old Nguyen Thanh Trung quit school in 2006 to follow his father to work at a stone mine in Ha Tinh Province's Thach Khe District, according to the study.

"Working at the mine is very dangerous because workers have to climb up to the tops of high cliffs to drill for stones."

He said it was normal that stones would fall from the cliffs, injuring and even killing other workers.

But for Trung, it was splitting stones that proved the most dangerous part of the job when he lost a finger to a wayward swing of the sledgehammer.

Trung said many children were working at several stone mines in the area.

"No investigators have come here to examine production safety," he said.

"˜People already know'

Dang Hoa Nam, vice head of the Child Rights Protection Department at the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs, told Thanh Nien Weekly that local authorities should be the first to be held responsible for protecting children from labor abuses.

But Nam said there weren't clear regulations that stipulated which agencies would be held responsible for protecting children.

As many NGOs in Vietnam prepare to raise awareness of child labor issues for the World Day Against Child Labor on June 12, Blue Dragon's Brosowski said workable measures would be the key to doing away with child labor in Vietnam.

"People already know about child labor. What we need now are practical steps to end it," he said.

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