by Thu Hien
HA NOI — A downturn in traditional handicrafts has driven tens of thousands of people with skilled rural trades into the ranks of the unemployed.
|A worker in Thach That District's Binh Yen Commune cuts laterite bricks. Traditional handicrafs are on the downturn, putting thousands of local people out of work. — VNA/VNS Photo Tuan Hai
But these once busy workers face more difficulties than people in cities or even farmers. Losing their jobs in handicraft villages has not only left many idle, but led others to become addicted to alcohol and illegal drugs.
This is because most village trades people have no land for agricultural production and no useful skills or qualifications to look for jobs in city factories.
Laterite bricks hide a workshop named Muoi Toan Laterite Sculpture from sight, leading people to assume it must be busy (Laterite is a dense clay highly rich in aluminium and iron. It is used for building traditional homes and garden walls.)
However, inside, only three workers sit in a corner cropping laterite bricks. The dry, rasping sound of knives hitting hard baked clay can be heard on a hot summer's day.
Tomorrow, the workshop will be even quieter as one of the three workers will be sacked when the owner is unable to pay his salary.
Nguyen Van Muoi, the owner of the workshop, points to the piles of bricks and says: "They have been there for five months. We mined and processed the laterite bricks for a project in southern Tra Vinh Province. However, due to the economic downturn, the customer has failed to pay. And, we have to stop!."
That was the only contract, worth VND100 million (US$4,760), Muoi's company has signed so far this year. By the same time last year, he had earned more than VND900 million ($42,860) and his 15 workers monthly earned VND6 million ($285) each.
Like other 200 laterite handicraft households in Ha Noi's Binh Yen Commune in Thach That District, the workshop uses laterite to build houses and make tables, desks, lamps, cupboards and ornamental items.
Laterite sculpture has been a tradition in the commune for years. Nevertheless, since the beginning of this year, many workshops have closed down.
Looking around his workshop, cleaned of the thick yellow dust layers of laterite covering and with all the tools arranged orderly on the shelves, Muoi pauses and lets out a sigh. His eyes fade into the distance.
Like the laterite villages, Van Ha wood carving village in Ha Noi's Dong Anh District, is also stagnating. The total number of workers is down from 30 last year to 15 today.
Do Van Dinh, the owner of a furniture workshop, says he can only sell one to three tables and desks a month worth VND6 million ($285) each. Stockpiled goods are valued at about VND800 million ($38,095).
"The commune has more than 1,800 households doing this traditional handicraft work so it faces a lot of difficulties when contracts, mainly from China and Taiwan, are delayed," Dinh said.
Luu Duy Dan, chairman of the Viet Nam Handicraft Villages Association, says 70 per cent of 3,355 handicraft villages nation-wide are suffering a downturn.
Dao Van Dai, deputy chairman of Van Ha Commune's People's Committee, says the workshops borrow an average bank loan of VND500 million ($23,800) over six months to buy their production materials.
However, lots of stock is unpaid for, creating a dilemma when the loan is due.
Dan says: "People from all walks of life are able to participate in the production of handicrafts. They get enough money to lead their daily lives and don't have to leave for cities to look for jobs. It is the traditional handicraft villages and their unwritten rules that maintain social order and culture in the countryside."
Muoi, the owner of the laterite workshop, says the failure to find another job coupled with the financial burden of raising a family has turned one of his former workers into an alcoholic. His wife is now taking legal procedures to divorce him. Their house is up for sale.
"He used to be a hard-working and clever sculptor," says Muoi.
Dan says it is crucial for Viet Nam to find solutions to recover business in handicraft villages. However, he adds that no relevant agencies want to take responsibility for giving assistance.
Some handicraft villages paddle their own canoes by focusing on the development of the domestic market. They provide handicraft products for daily use at reasonable prices, instead of looking for overseas markets or producing luxurious goods.
Dan says that to promote domestic demand, festivals and exhibitions will be held in big cities and more tourism linked to handicraft villages.
Meanwhile, Nguyen Thanh Dung, an official from the Department of Processing and Trade for Agro-Forestry-Fisheries Products says the Government is implementing a project worth VND180 billion ($8.58 million) to assist handicraft villages to sell their products, especially during this difficult period.
He says the ministry has worked out a strategy for handicraft villages to take advantage of their own strengths.
Muoi says he will take responsibility for his own workshop. He wants to create more products from laterite and to design houses made from the highly insulating brick.
"People are developing a trend to live with nature, so laterite has become a popular construction material," he says.
He is now advertising in the southern market. "The economic downturn can't stop me," Muoi says. "Laterite is not only a traditional job, but my destiny." — VNS