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Vietnam’s struggle with forced child labour

By Kait Bolongaro

Motorcycles are the main mode of transportation in Vietnam.

On the streets of Hue, motorcycles and busses whizz past as pedestrians try to cross the road without becoming roadkill. Young hipsters fill the dozens of impromptu sidewalk cafés, chatting and smoking. Stray cats and dogs jostle for scraps and caresses from passersby. Life is always on the move in the imperial capital.

Heralded as a development success story by the World Bank, Vietnam has enjoyed one of the world’s fastest GDP per capita growth over the past three decades. Despite its economic achievements, the country continues to struggle with inclusive economic growth.

Forced child labour remains an issue in Vietnam, particularly in manufacturing. Lured by traffickers with the promise of a paid job in another city, minors as young as 11 are enslaved, forced to work long hours with little or no pay.

Vietnamese family

Children from underprivileged families are at the highest risk of becoming forced labourers. Scouring Vietnam’s most remote and rural provinces, such as Hue and Dien Bien, traffickers target families with few resources and educational opportunities.

According to the International Labour Organization, an estimated 1.75 million Vietnamese children were employed in 2014, most of them from poor socio-economic backgrounds.

Ngoc was one of them. At the age of 12, the fisherman’s daughter was offered a job in a garment factory in Ho Chi Minh City. Since her parents couldn’t afford to pay her school fees, they thought it would be a chance for their daughter to learn a trade. The traffickers promised her family 700,000 Vietnamese dong (€29) for a year of work.

Instead, she found herself working 18 hours per day, packaging clothes. She slept in a crowded room inside the factory, which she shared with more than a dozen women and girls. Her boss had a temper and yelled at employees. She was never paid.

After six months, Blue Dragon, a non-profit group that helps children escape poverty, rescued her. The organisation regularly raids businesses suspected of using child slaves. Their aim is to return the young people to their families and provide schooling or professional training.

Trafficked at 12, Ngoc has since rebuilt her life. She now attends a local university.

Today, Ngoc is studying design at a local university. Now 22 years old, she enjoys city life with her classmates and dreams of pursuing her passion for fashion. “I try not to think too much about what happened to me,” she explains. “I just want to live the best life possible and achieve my goals.”

Once they return to their communities, the children are forced to contend with the psychological trauma of being enslaved for the rest of their lives, impacting their ability to return home.

After surviving a year inside a sweatshop, Vinh was helped by Blue Dragon to return to his rural farming community in Hue province. With the help of a social worker, he decided to continue his education. Going back to school was difficult at first. As he was older, other students teased him for being behind. He eventually made friends and finished high school.

Vinh worked in a sweatshop for a year before being rescued. Today, his goal is to become an auto mechanic.

“I realised how valuable education is,” he says. “Before I went to work, I didn’t appreciate school enough.” Today, the 19-year-old is learning how to be a car mechanic at a vocational training programme in Hue.

Unlike most forced child workers, his family eventually received 1.3 million Vietnamese dong (€54) for his labour.

Blue Dragon founder Michael Brosowski hopes the end of child labour in Vietnam may be on the horizon. “More parents are becoming aware of the conditions in the factories,” he says. “They want a better life for their children and that doesn’t include working in sweatshops.”

Kait Bolongaro is a freelance journalist. She travelled to Vietnam with the support of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund for her project on forced child labour, which will be published by The Irish Times.