by Phuoc Buu
HCM CITY — A bowl of rice, a fried egg, a few thin slices of pork, some French beans and a bowl of vegetable soup with very little vegetables in it – enough for a person on a diet, trying to lose weight.
But this sparse lunch was being served to hard working employees of a Korean-invested sewing company in Thuan An District, Binh Duong Province.
"We actually need double the given food," a female worker from Thanh Hoa Province who did not want to be named told Viet Nam News last Wednesday at lunch time.
Not a single worker said they had been served enough food or that the food was good. They were not enjoying their lunch, were hungry and had no choice but to eat, they said. They worked in the company's workshop from 7.30am to 6.30pm, with an hour off for lunch.
Suddenly, there was some shouting and commotion. Some workers left their lunch unfinished and walked away. One of them had found a live worm in the stir-fried French beans.
And this is one of the better meals served to workers, said Tran Thi Thuy, a student from HCM City's Food Technology University working for the company during her summer vacation.
"No good food here, certainly. But my aunt and cousins from Ha Tinh Province have told me that the food is better than what they have been given in other companies they have worked earlier."
Thuy, who was the only one who agreed to be named, said she believed poor quality food was given because the caterers wanted to make more profit. She asked that her identity and whereabouts are not revealed to the caterers.
A senior company official said the caterer is paid VND13,500 per lunch for one worker, adequate in comparison to average costs in Binh Duong, which are much less than in HCM City. But he was not sure that the food given matched the price.
Viet Nam News visited the factory shortly after the publication of a report by the National Nutrition Agency that said three of 10 workers at industrial parks in southern provinces were malnourished.
For one or two days after the report was announced, all companies in industrial parks in southern provinces of Binh Duong, Dong Nai and HCM City as well as their food caterers remained on alert for reporters, denying them formal access to workers and officials.
Bribery and stale food
The Viet Nam News investigation found that malnutrition among workers in southern industrial parks was not simply a failure of employers and caterers to provide quality food in sufficient quantities to workers, but also a story that involved poor working conditions, bribery and poor living conditions.
At the Korean-owned company, lunch was served in the hallway, between the workshop and the management offices. After lunch, 470 workers had a short rest in the hallway or the workshop, exposed to chemical substances from the fabric.
Going around industrial parks in Binh Duong, Dong Nai and HCM City at noon time, it could be seen that not many companies have separate dining halls. In HCM City's Vinh Loc Industrial Park, some workers brought their lunch into the open air, while others brought their lunch from home because they could not stand the food supplied by their employer.
Without naming names, workers spoke of food caterers bribing company staff to win lunch supply bids. Some said the staff received five or 10 per cent of the total value of the bid from the caterer. They said this was why less nutritious meals were supplied and food quality was not supervised very well.
Caterers often reduced the quantity of food or used low quality materials for food supplied to workers in order to maximise profits and/or compensate for the loss of five-10 per cent commission aka bribe paid to company staff.
The city's market management bureau recently seized several tonnes of rotten poultry and cattle meat that were being taken to caterers serving workers in industrial parks.
However, the reason for malnourished workers extended beyond poor meals served by employers at workplaces. Their diet at home, after they returned from the factories, and their living conditions also have important roles to play in the health of workers at industrial parks.
After a day of very hard, manual work, the workers need nutritious food supplements and good sleep. But most workers in southern industrial parks are migrants from northern and central provinces, or from rural districts in southern provinces.
The majority of them live in rented accommodation, which is typically not more than 40sq.m. Each ‘apartment' has an entresol, bathroom, a small kitchen and a common floor space where three or four workers live together and pay around VND800,000 a month.
Around the industrial parks in Thuan An, Binh Duong or HCM City Linh Trung and Tan Thuan, there are many mobile stands selling meat, vegetables and other food items to workers. The food is cheaper than in the market because it is usually stale fish and pork, or withered and faded vegetables.
Tired workers returning home prefer these mobile stands on the way rather than do their shopping at the market. Moreover, their income does not allow them to spend generously at local markets.
Then there are workers who are homesick. Many male workers tend to drink a lot, affecting their fitness. Meanwhile, the health and well being of many female workers is affected because of unsafe sex and abortions.
Addressing the issue of malnourished workers, therefore, would need a wider focus than better food and dining facilities at workplaces, experts said.
"Policies are needed to improve living standards as a whole in order to ensure that workers in industrial parks enjoy better health and feeling of well being", they said, adding that studies have shown this results in greater productivity, efficiency and quality in the long run. — VNS