Fac­tory own­ers will of­ten go to in­cred­i­ble lengths to pre­vent the chil­dren from be­ing res­cued. They can be ag­gres­sive and refuse to hand over the mi­nors for whom they paid hefty sums to traf­fick­ers.

Au­thor­i­ties strug­gle to elim­i­nate child labour de­spite eco­nomic growth

The Irish Times - - Home News - Kait Bo­lon­garo,

A fe­male singer belts out a Viet­namese love song on the ra­dio as a tear rolls down Tran Bao Ngoc’s cheek. Her voice falls to lit­tle more than a hush.

“I was lied to about my job. I wanted to leave but at some point, I re­alised I wasn’t al­lowed to go. No­body had to tell me but I knew I was trapped,” says the 22-year-old. “I didn’t know where I was or how to go home.”

Tran, whose name has been changed to pro­tect her pri­vacy, is from a fish­ing fam­ily in a re­mote part of Hue province in cen­tral Viet­nam. She was 12 when two traf­fick­ers from her re­gion pos­ing as a cou­ple of­fered her a job as an as­sis­tant in a cloth­ing shop in Ho Chi Minh City for a salary of 3 mil­lion Viet­namese dong (now ¤112) per year.

“My fam­ily couldn’t af­ford my school fees and I wanted to help them,” she ex­plains. “This seemed like a good op­por­tu­nity.”

In­stead, Tran was traf­ficked to a gar­ment fac­tory on the city’s out­skirts, where she was forced to work from 7am to mid­night with only short breaks. She slept in a small room with a dozen other girls and women and sub­sisted off plates of rice and the oc­ca­sional fish.

“I was ex­hausted from the long hours,” she said. “My boss would shout at me when I didn’t sew fast enough but I didn’t have the en­ergy.”

Res­cued

Tran was res­cued six months later with other chil­dren from her vil­lage in a raid by the Blue Dragon Chil­dren’s Foun­da­tion, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion work­ing to re­ha­bil­i­tate traf­fick­ing vic­tims. She was never paid for her work.

Her story is sim­i­lar to that of thou­sands of chil­dren across Viet­nam. Lured with the prom­ise of em­ploy­ment in cities like Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, mi­nors as young as 11 are en­slaved, work­ing long hours with lit­tle or no pay.

Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­gan­i­sa­tion, an es­ti­mated 1.75 mil­lion Viet­namese chil­dren were em­ployed in 2012, the equiv­a­lent of one in 10 chil­dren. About one-third of the child labour­ers are forced to work more than 42 hours each week and don’t at­tend school.

Viet­nam, mean­while, has en­joyed one of the fastest GDP per capita growth rates in the past three decades, and the World Bank her­alded the coun­try as a de­vel­op­ment suc­cess story. With treaties such as the EU-Viet­nam Free Trade Agree­ment and the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, the Viet­namese gov­ern­ment is ac­tively pur­su­ing in­ter­na­tional ac­cords to spur the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment for­ward. But at what cost to its peo­ple?

Nguyen Van Thanh, whose name has been changed to pro­tect his pri­vacy, grew up next to one of the lakes that dot Hue’s coun­try­side. The son of a fish­er­man, he is the youngest of eight sib­lings.

“I loved to go fish­ing and play football with my friends. I scored a lot of goals,” re­mem­bers the 20-year-old, sip­ping an iced cof­fee. “Those were good times.”

A neigh­bour of­fered Nguyen and his brother work at a fac­tory in Ho Chi Minh City for 700,000 Viet­namese dong (¤26.20) per month. He and his brother took a bus on the day-long jour­ney south.

When the broth­ers ar­rived, they im­me­di­ately be­gan ar­rang­ing clothes in plas­tic cov­ers for 17 hours each day. They made their beds un­der the sewing ma­chines that lined the fac­tory. Work­ers were given only short breaks to eat mod­est meals of tofu, meat and rice be­fore re­join­ing the as­sem­bly line.

“The work was very hard and my boss wasn’t a nice man, but I wasn’t an­gry at my par­ents be­cause I knew they were poor,” he says.

Nguyen was res­cued a year later by Blue Dragon, though his 18-year-old brother de­cided to stay be­hind in the fac­tory. His fam­ily only re­ceived part of his salary.

Ac­cord­ing to Michael Brosowski, founder of Blue Dragon, traf­fick­ers tar­get chil­dren who come from ru­ral and re­mote prov­inces, such as Thura Thien-Hue or Dien Bien, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to es­cape. Re­cruiters are usu­ally from the same re­gion as their vic­tims, so they are able to gain their par­ents’ trust. It is also a com­mon strat­egy to use women, who are con­sid­ered less threat­en­ing than men, and to prom­ise an ed­u­ca­tion for mi­nors.

“The par­ents find them­selves in des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions, some­times with food short­ages and here are th­ese traf­fick­ers of­fer­ing hope so they send th­ese kids to work,” Brosowski ex­plains from his of­fice in Hanoi.

Brosowski says the chil­dren al­most al­ways come from un­der­priv­i­leged back­grounds with il­lit­er­ate par­ents strug­gling to make ends meet. Mem­bers of mi­nor­ity groups are also com­mon vic­tims and are treated par­tic­u­larly badly due to dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“The traf­fick­ers know that if the kids es­cape from the fac­tory, go­ing back home is just about im­pos­si­ble be­cause they are from far away. It is also par­tic­u­larly cruel when the kids are from eth­nic mi­nor­ity back­grounds and can’t speak flu­ent Viet­namese,” he says.

Un­paid

Le Vinh, whose name has been changed to pro­tect his pri­vacy, re­mem­bers his own res­cue from another gar­ment fac­tory in Ho Chi Minh City. The son of a rice farmer, the 19-year-old left his vil­lage with a friend at 14. Af­ter a year of un­paid work sewing clothes, a team of so­cial work­ers called him us­ing a col­league’s phone to in­form him of a sting op­er­a­tion to bring him and five other en­slaved chil­dren home.

“I was so happy when I left that fac­tory. It wasn’t a job – it was like I be­longed to my boss,” he says.

Non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Blue Dragon, and gov­ern­ment agen­cies, are work­ing to­gether to iden­tify fac­to­ries sus­pected of us­ing child labour. Plan­ning a res­cue takes months be­fore it is ex­e­cuted.

While Brosowski and his team nor­mally lead the search, it is the po­lice who now carry out the raid in­stead of Blue Dragon, forc­ing their way on to the prop­erty.

“It is a good sign for Viet­nam be­cause it shouldn’t be up to a for­eign non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion to do all of this. It shows the po­lice don’t ac­cept this crime [and are] putting their time and re­sources into solv­ing th­ese cases,” he says.

Brosowski is care­ful not to re­veal too many de­tails of a typ­i­cal mis­sion, but he says the team works dili­gently through dif­fer­ent meth­ods to iden­tify fac­to­ries where chil­dren are be­ing held. Po­ten­tial lo­ca­tions are scouted in ad­vance and fam­i­lies are no­ti­fied about the plan. If pos­si­ble, the res­cuers try to reach out to the chil­dren to tell them de­tails about the es­cape.

Fac­tory own­ers will of­ten go to in­cred­i­ble lengths to pre­vent the chil­dren from be­ing res­cued. They can be ag­gres­sive and refuse to hand over the mi­nors for whom they paid hefty sums to traf­fick­ers. Brosowski and the po­lice refuse to pay own­ers for the chil­dren.

De­spite progress be­ing made, fac­tory own­ers and traf­fick­ers aren’t be­ing pros­e­cuted, in spite of new laws in­tro­duced in 2012 and again in 2015 to in­crease the penal­ties for us­ing child labour, in­clud­ing an in­crease in the max­i­mum prison sen­tence from three to seven years.

“There hasn’t been a pros­e­cu­tion but I’d like there to be. I think it would get the mes­sage out that child traf­fick­ing and forced labour isn’t tol­er­ated any­more even if fac­to­ries are slowly aban­don­ing the prac­tice,” he says.

Once the ela­tion of be­ing home sub­sides, vic­tims have to con­tend with the psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma of be­ing en­slaved, im­pact­ing on their abil­ity to re­turn to their for­mer lives. Tran, Nguyen and Le all strug­gled to re­turn to school and re­join their com­mu­ni­ties once they were freed.

“My class­mates tor­mented me when I got home. I was the old­est stu­dent in grade 8 and my old friends told me I was stupid for fall­ing be­hind. I felt it was my fault for what had hap­pened to me and my grades were bad,” says Le.

He needed the help of a so­cial worker be­fore he was able to feel com­fort­able again in his com­mu­nity. By pro­vid­ing ba­sic ther­apy and life coach­ing, the care worker helped Le re­turn to some sem­blance of nor­mal. Now he is study­ing to be a me­chanic.

“I had to ac­cept my past and I learned that chil­dren are too young to work be­cause they need to go to school, spend time with their fam­ily and de­velop,” he ex­plains. “I only saw my fam­ily once in the year I was gone and we were all dif­fer­ent when I came home.”

Tran still bears the in­vis­i­ble scars of be­ing forced to work. She can’t dis­cuss her past with­out break­ing down in tears and she still has night­mares. She moved to Hue, the cap­i­tal of its name­sake province, for a fresh start.

“Here I can be who I want to be. I am an art stu­dent and my goal is to be­come a fa­mous fash­ion de­signer,” she ex­plains. “At home, I can’t es­cape my past.”

The young woman hopes other chil­dren in Viet­nam and else­where won’t be forced to work. In­stead, she works to pro­mote the im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion to lift them out of poverty.

“Be­fore go­ing to Ho Chi Minh City, I didn’t care about my fu­ture. Af­ter my res­cue, I re­alised that school was the only way I would be able to make a bet­ter life for my­self and my coun­try,” she says.

‘‘

The traf­fick­ers know that if the kids es­cape from the fac­tory, go­ing back home is just about im­pos­si­ble be­cause they are from far away

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ADRIEN LE COÄRER

Peo­ple liv­ing in Hue (above) en­joy a higher liv­ing stan­dard than peo­ple in the coun­try­side (left). From be­low cen­tre: Le Vinh left his vil­lage at 14 to work in a gar­ment fac­tory and had trou­ble read­just­ing to life af­ter his res­cue; Tran Bao Ngoc was traf­ficked at the age of 12 to work in a fac­tory in Ho Chi Minh City – she was never paid her salary; and Michael Brosowski, who founded the Blue Dragon Chil­dren’s Foun­da­tion in 2003.

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