Workers underpaid, but worse, underfed

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Laborers eat US$0.26 lunches as caterers skimp on costs

Nguyen Thi Ly says she never buys the VND5,000 (US$0.26) ice cream treats she likes because they cost her nearly an hour's worth of salary.

The 26-year-old garment factory worker in Ho Chi Minh City left her hometown in the central province of Quang Tri several years ago in hope of a better life. Now she works for a meager VND1.2 million ($63) per month.

"The company promised a monthly salary of VND2 million ($105), but I was only paid VND5,000 per hour for the three-month probation period and VND7,000 ($0.37) later on," she said, adding that she was now desperate for a higher-paying job.

But low income is not the only problem for workers like Ly.

Lunches supplied by the company have little nutritional value and dinners are no better at home because they need to save money for the increasing costs of rent, electricity and water.

Last week, a female worker at a company in HCMC's Linh Trung 1 Export Processing Zone fainted during her lunch break. Her coworker, Dong, said it was common because many workers skip breakfast to save money.


A recent survey in the southern province of Binh Duong, home to many industrial parks and export processing zones, found that although many firms were spending significant amounts of money for their company meals, the actual value of each meal was being halved.

According to a Binh Duong Food Safety Agency survey, a worker's meal is worth only VND4,000-VND5,000 although the company pays VND8,000- VND10,000 each. The agency reported that the final value was far less because caterers count commissions they have to pay to the companies (in order to win contracts) into their food costs.

The survey said the meals lack sufficient protein, fat and vitamins due to the cost cuts.

"The workers' meals quality problem is at high alert levels. The meals are so poor while many workers regularly work overtime," said Nguyen Ngoc Son, a member of the Binh Duong People's Council, the provincial legislature.


Son said there should be stricter management of the issue to ensure the health of about 500,000 workers in the province.

In a recent case, the Binh Duong Labor Federation worked with the Green River Wood and Lumber Company to address complaints about meal quality lodged by hundreds of workers. The workers said the company paid VND8,000 for each meal but the actual value was only half of that.

According to the labor agency, the caterer involved said it counted taxes, transportation costs and serving costs into its expenses for food. Therefore, the caterer claimed, it could not spend more on the meals.

An official at the HCMC Export Processing and Industrial Zones Authority (HEPZA) who spoke on condition of anonymity said the HEPZA Labor Union had encouraged firms to improve workers' meals over the past several years.

However, he admitted that there had been little improvement and that current meals were unable to ensure workers' health and recreation.

Struggling poor

A worker who rents a sloppily-constructed house with four others near HCMC's Linh Trung 1 Export Processing Zone said they often had instant noodles or a steamed glutinous rice ball for VND2,000- VND5,000 for breakfast.

"The price for everything is increasing, including electricity, water and rent. We have to save because food prices have also increased," said Phuong Dung, a laborer at HCMC's Tan Thuan Export Processing Zone.

She was buying a fish, three tomatoes and some vegetables that she would cook for herself and her three roommates. Each spent around VND8,000 for the dinner.

The hardship is double for workers who have children.

A worker at Pouchen Company in Dong Nai Province's Bien Hoa Town said her monthly salary of VND2.5 million was relatively high in comparison with many others.

However, the native of the northern province of Hai Duong said her husband earned the same salary but they had sent one of their two children back home to live with their grandparents because they could only afford a family of three.

"We can't save even a single dong due to increasing expenses. I have to think twice before I buy a cookie for my child," she said.

Another garment worker in Dong Nai said she earned only VND1.5 million a month working away from home at a factory in Ha Nam Province for four years.

"We couldn't imagine how we could afford to live if one person in the family gets sick. We are thinking about going back home to work because daily expenses are less there," she said.

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