by Tran Quynh Hoa
HA NOI — Already looking older than his 42 years, Nguyen Van Quy has unsettled his younger colleagues by coughing ceaselessly throughout the day. Quy, a scrap metal recycler at a small private workshop on Ha Noi's La Thanh Street, says he is fed up with medicine.
|Ha Tu Coal Company in northern province Quang Ninh Province plants trees on its landfill site to improve the surrounding environment. Green growth will help reduce occupational diseases. — VNA/VNS Photo Nguyen Dan
"Doctors say I have a lung problem related to dust. I'm not sure what it is but I'm not taking medicine anymore since it is expensive and the cough just comes back anyway," says the man from Phu Tho Province, some 90km northwest of Ha Noi.
Having handled scrap iron every day for the last 15 years, Quy only wears dirty gloves and occasionally a rudimentary welding mask to protect himself at work.
"There might be a link between this job and my health problem but all manual work has its costs," he says. The dark small man with several tattoos on his arms takes a slow puff of pipe tobacco, taking advantage of a moment when his cough subsided. "I have no choice. This job treats me pretty okay and my family back home also lives on it."
Earning more than VND3 million (more than US$140) a month, Quy does not want to spend much on medicine so that he can afford his two children's schooling.
The global industry of scrap metal recycling has been connected to employee's illness, including heavy metal poisoning, repeated trauma disorders and skin and respiratory diseases, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
In Viet Nam, scrap metal recycling is only one of many jobs that put workers at risk of contracting diseases.
Nearly 27,300 workers suffering from occupational diseases were reported in the country by the end of 2011, the latest statistics from the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA) have shown.
Some 5.9 per cent of more than 60,500 workers who had health checks paid for by social insurance last year were also found to be ill with problems relating to their professions.
"Despite the Government's efforts to minimise work-related diseases and accidents, the problem is getting worse with more than 1,000 new cases reported every year," said MoLISA's Work Safety Department vice director Do Thi Thuy Nguyet at the World Day for Safety and Health at Work (April 28) conference held yesterday in Ha Noi.
MoLISA also recorded 574 deaths in nearly 6,000 work-related accidents last year, up by 15 per cent from 2010.
"But the reality is far worse since usually less than 10 per cent of enterprises hand in their reports on work accidents and diseases," said Nguyen Van Mau, deputy inspector general of the Ha Noi Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs.
The MoLISA report indicates some 11 per cent of 30,000 factories inspected last year had working environments that were polluted with dust and electromagnetic radiation.
According to medical experts, many people will not develop symptoms of work-related diseases for a long time. For instance, it can take 3-5 years to exhibit hearing loss and 10 years for eye illnesses or loss of vision.
Respiratory doctor Phan Thi Hanh from the Ha Noi-based E Hospital said she had seen many workers with pleural calcification or silicosis – a form of lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust – and most of them came to her only after the disease was at an advanced stage.
"It takes at least 10 years to see clear signs of illness, so they usually come to me when they are at a late period," she said. "If only they had periodical health checks…"
Many of her patients, who mostly work at cement, concrete mixing and heavy metal factories or construction sites, end up with lung cancer.
In the context of this gloomy picture, Bui Xuan Tu says he feels lucky that the plastic pressing factory where he has worked for four years organises a "careful medical examination" every year for employees and is "always willing to improve work environment".
Despite the credit crunch, his employer Panasonic Viet Nam has spent VND6 billion ($285,700) this year – or one-fifth of its total yearly investment in equipment – installing deodorisers, air conditioners and noise protection machinery to ensure workers' health, according to the company's assistant administrative manager Hoang Van Hoan.
Unlike big Japanese companies that were leaders in occupational safety, many enterprises in harmful industries did not organise periodic health checks for their workers or pay them extra for dangerous jobs, said Ngo Chi Hung, vice chairman of the Ha Noi Industrial and Export Processing Zones Authority.
Official Nguyet also said occupational health and safety was far worse in small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which accounted for 95 per cent of businesses in Viet Nam.
"Mining and construction have significantly developed in the country, increasing the threats for health and safety at work," she said.
There was also a lack of management over the development of craft villages and family businesses, she added. And scrap metal recycler Quy – a worker in one such "informal sector"– is a grim piece of evidence. Not as lucky as Panasonic worker Tu, Quy did not even have a work contract or any insurance, not to mention other health and safety benefits.
The National Targeted Programme on Occupational Safety and Health 2011-15 set the ambitious goal of reducing the number of people diagnosed with work-related diseases by 10 per cent and the number of occupational deaths by 5 per cent each year. The programme also aimed to make 30 per cent of SMEs in dangerous industries adopt effective work safety models and to insist that all employees in work-related accidents or with occupational health problems be treated free of charge.
According to Nguyet, the theme of this year's work safety day "Promoting Safety and Health in a Green Economy" is a new trend in the world to achieve a more sustainable economy.
"To develop a green economy, we need improved work environments that ensure the safety and health of workers," she said.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung two weeks ago approved Viet Nam's Green Growth Strategy to create a more sustainable economy and society that preserves the environment for future generations and that is more equitable for all people.
This model is also expected to benefit occupational safety and health issues in the country.
"New green business opportunities are a sustainable and long- term source for economic growth and decent work," said ILO country director Gyorgy Sziraczki.
"Production facilities can become more productive and competitive; investments can be directed to skilled staff instead of raw materials; new industries with quality employment opportunities will emerge, and jobs in many existing industries will become better for the environment and for workers themselves."
Many workers are waiting to see if and how the policy will become a reality.
In the mean time, Quy just finished his pipe tobacco. Coughs continued as he put on his gloves again and got back to work. "Everyone has his own fate. If I cannot pay more for my health, why should I bother with it?" he said. — VNS