Tricks of the trade

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Teenagers and younger children working in trade villages have no protection against occupational hazards


Teenagers work on a stone sculpture at Ninh Van Village in the northern province of Ninh Binh. Researchers have warned that children and adolescents working in trade villages are being exposed to serious health hazards and are not receiving adequate medical attention.

It is just another day for the 17- year-old girl from Ha Nam Province.

She starts works from 6:30 in the morning until late afternoon for VND4,000 (US$0.22) per hour.

“I have stopped going to school. I have been working full-time since I was 15. I work for a private company in the village.

“I operate four or five weaving machines at the workplace. I work for 8-10 hours a day on average. Sometimes I work even later, especially in the summer,” said H., who works at the Hoa Hau Traditional Textile Village in the province’s Ly Nhan District.

Almost all working children at Hoa Hau have complained of regular headaches and muscle and bone pains besides coughs and sore throats. However, not many of them are aware of the working conditions that can cause even more serious diseases and injuries.

Researchers have found that noise at Hoa Hau was continuous and more than 104 dB, far exceeding the Health Ministry’s allowed level of 85 dB. The workers also labored in the environment polluted with cotton dust that was measured at 1.12 mg per cubic meter of air. Cotton dust can cause byssinosis, also known as Monday fever or brown lung disease, which can result in narrowing the trachea in the lungs, lung scarring and death from infection or respiratory failure.

The situation is the same for many children and adolescent workers at the Ninh Van Stone Sculpture Village in Ninh Binh Province’s Hoa Lu District, where they face the threat of silicosis - a killer disease caused by inhalation of silica dust that damages the lungs - from inhaling dust during exploiting and carving stones.

Unaware or indifferent?

Rapidly growing trade villages nationwide have attracted a large number of children to work both part time and full time, drawing concern from policymakers and labor management agencies over their occupational health and working conditions, the International Organization of Labor (ILO) has reported.

The legal minimum working age in Vietnam is 15, but younger children are also allowed to work in certain low-risk jobs with the consent and monitoring of their parents or guardians, for instance, as performers, athletes and craftspeople. Children are also required to work for no more than four hours a day and employers have to sign labor contracts with them.

However, the ILO, which researched the working conditions of children and adolescents engaged in work in three sectors of wood carving, stone sculpture and traditional textile making, reported that the employers and employees had never taken any steps to either check up on the latter’s health or find out what hazards they were exposed to.

There was also almost no study done on working conditions and relevant impacts on children's health, especially in occupational health, according to a recent report conducted by ILO, Vietnam Association of Occupational Health and Center of Occupational and Environmental Health.

The report surveyed around 300 workers under 18 years of age in Bac Ninh’s Dong Ky Wood Carving Village, Ninh Binh’s Ninh Van Stone Sculpture Village and Ha Nam’s Hoa Hau Traditional Textile Village.

The study found 35 percent of the children liked their jobs, slightly more than 52 percent were neutral about it, and 12.5 percent disliked it because it was boring and they received no encouragement from the employers.

The children also complained of bad working conditions like dust, noise and hot working environments.

Local preventive health centers have indicated some cases of silicosis among workers exposed to limestone dust, the report said.

Several workers at Hoa Hau Traditional Textile Village are suffering from hearing impairments due to continuous noise with frequencies higher than allowed levels at their workplaces.

Many children have also complained of problems with their upper respiratory system like coughs and sore throats as well as headache and other musculoskeletal pains.

But all these cases were found only after the parents took them to the hospital when the health problems became worse. The employer had no part to play.

Part of the problem is that many Vietnamese families consider children working a normal thing. Given their poverty, they feel working kids can be better monitored, that they will stay out of trouble and contribute to the family income, something that is badly needed.

In the survey, 35 percent of the children had to stop attending school to engage in the traditional jobs of their families and the villages.

Proposed solutions

The report said that current working requirements were only for adults and that there should be separate criteria for children and adolescents.

Lawmakers should revise related regulations and further expand the list of current jobs that children are not allowed to do, and tighten working condition requirements for employers using children.

Related agencies should also enforce inspections of small-andmedium sized enterprises that often use children as employees.

Young employees should also receive regular and improved medical examination and treatment services, the report said.

It also called for improvement of people’s awareness of the health and working conditions of young workers and the need to improve their working environment.

It stressed the need for an efficient data collection system on children labor at national, regional and local levels that includes occupational hazards and related health problems.

The government should strengthen the occupational health and safety network by training more experts in the fields.

It is estimated that 6.7 percent of children aged 6-14 years in Vietnam, or nearly 930,000 children, are economically active, of which 503,389 did jobs that they are not allowed to do, according to the latest 2006 Vietnam Household Living Standard Survey.

Reported by Minh An

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