Three teenage girls, aged 15 to 16, returned home last week from brothels allegedly disguised as barbershops in the Central Highlands town of Buon Ma Thuot.
Two of the girls were being returned for the second time.
Last November, a non-governmental organization rescued the girls from virtual slavery to their homes in Kien Giang Province, in the Mekong Delta.
Three months later, they learned that the parents had sold the children to traffickers.
"The parents went into further debt and traffickers were right there offering a quick solution," said Caroline Nguyen Ticarro-Parker, co-founder and executive director of Catalyst Foundation, a US-based non-governmental organization (NGO).
"It is so frustrating but [the parents] felt desperate enough knowing that the girls could make some money," said Ticarro-Parker. "The traffickers promised that [the girls] would work in a shop "˜for haircut only'. Of course that wasn't the case."
Ticarro-Parker claimed that her organization had to pay the barbershop owners in Ban Me Thuot double what they had paid their parents in order to secure the girls' release.
Having been engaged in a project to help children of families who survive by scavenging from a Kien Giang garbage dump since 2006, Ticarro-Parker said the latest rescue was the third time Catalyst has succeeded in bringing girls home from brothels in the Central Highlands.
The organization is still struggling to track down another girl who had allegedly been moved by the barbershop owner in Buon Ma Thuot Town.
But Ticarro-Parker said the fact the girls are now home does not mean their future is secure, by any means.
"The bad news is that the traffickers are still there," she said.
In Kien Giang, she explained, brothel recruiters are always waiting to enlist the children of cash-trapped parents.
But what appeared to worry Ticarro-Parker the most is that the parents in the Catalyst-supported community (which she described as plagued by illiteracy and gambling) are all set to sell their kids again.
"What they want is a quick solution," she said. "We can't pay off their debts and our vocational training program takes time."
Catalyst provides education, counseling, vocational training, and a micro savings program to a number of young women in the poor rural province, so they can help support their families.
"We don't have jobs to place them in right now and now is the only time frame [the parents] know," Ticarro-Parker said.
At the sweatshop
Seventy percent of Vietnam's population live in rural areas and Vietnam's economic growth has passed up many in this demographic.
According to a country profile published by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, "[Vietnam's] poorest rural people generally have small plots of low-quality land or are landless, and their opportunities for off-farm employment are scarce."
But experts in the field say that it's not only poverty that pushes parents to hand over custody of their young daughters.
George Blanchard has been working for twenty years to combat female trafficking in Southeast Asia and founded the NGO Acting for Women in Precarious Circumstances Vietnam (AFESIP) in 2001.
He argues that a culture of sacrificing a single daughter for the good for the family economy has existed in the region for a long time.
"It is an old story," he said. "We've found 300 year old documents in a library in Macau, documenting [women being trafficked out of Vietnam]."
Lately, he said, the growing phenomenon of divorce and remarriage has left some daughters unwanted, particularly in families led by single mothers.
"Trafficking is one way they get rid of them," Blanchard said.
"Extreme poverty is almost always the main factor, but it's not the only factor," said Michael Brosowski, country director of the Australian NGO Blue Dragon Children's Foundation.
In February, the organization conducted a pilot survey on child labor in a district in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue.
Over 50 local families responded to researcher questions. Many parents considered child labor "normal," especially in the context of overcoming severe economic constraints.
"The parents see [child labor] as normal when you and I would not see that as normal," Brosowski said. "For me, that's the most significant finding."
Since 2005, Blue Dragon members have visited Ho Chi Minh City during joint sweeps with Thua Thien-Hue authorities. Together, they look for children who have been taken from Hue to work in garment sweatshops in HCMC. When they find the kids, they return them to their parents.
"It is very rare that the kids were kidnapped or taken by force," Brosowski said. "The big question for us is: what are the parents thinking about?"
"The money the parents can get immediately seems to matter the most," said Tran Xuan Phat, chairman of the Hue Red Cross.
"I wish I could bring all the parents to HCMC so they could see their kids slaving away on factory floors when they should be studying," Phat said.
"Doing away with child labor is an uphill task that requires the participation of different actors. But the most crucial role of the parents cannot be denied."
Blue Dragon's researchers found that the children were being forced to work up to 18 hours a day, 6.5 or seven days a week with no salary. The majority were only paid at the end of their verbal agreements, which often last for one year, with the recruiters.
According to the study's findings, parents, almost universally, were not aware of what conditions their children would face when they consigned them to recruiters. The parents were either misinformed or did not bother asking about the fate of their children, the study said.
For years, officials from the HCMC labor department have pledged to crack down on factories exploiting child labor"”many of which are concentrated in outlying districts like Binh Tan, Tan Binh, Tan Phu, or Hoc Mon.
But the department said such sweatshop owners always find ways to cover up their wrongdoing.
"Since the laborers badly need their jobs, they often tell authorities they are related to the owners," a department official said, declining to be named. "Another problem is that all the parents have agreed to let their kids work at those factories."
Vietnam's Labor Law prohibits the employment of children below 15 with the exception of certain jobs specified by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs. The law also states that minors are not allowed to work for more than seven hours a day or 42 hours a week.
About 27,000 children work in harmful and hazardous conditions throughout Vietnam, according to a joint report released last year by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Vietnamese government.
"˜Big city lights, big city pay'
Thao, whose name was changed to protect her identity, was the 100th child to have been rescued by Blue Dragon in January. In 2009, she was sent to work in a sweatshop in HCMC's Binh Tan District.
During her time there, she began each morning at 7 a.m. and finished at 2 a.m. the following day.
Her job was to sew together handbags.
Today, the eighteen year-old girl works at a restaurant in the central city of Da Nang.
"I'm too scared to recall my days there," she said. "Before working in the sweatshop, I had been told that HCMC is a place where I can have a much better life. Now I'm completely disillusioned."
Catalyst's Ticarro-Parker said that naÃ¯ve attitudes towards urban centers pervade in the poor rural areas of developing Vietnam.
"The way the economy is growing so fast, in Vietnam, is only resulting in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer," she said. "Everyone wants the big city lights with the big city pay."
Brosowski of Blue Dragon said his people travel to HCMC every four months and bring home up to a dozen children each time.
"The number we rescue is quite steady," he said.