The following article has been specially translated for In Defence of Marxism from the Vietnamese newspaper Lao Dong ("Labour") . It gives a remarkable picture of conditions in the Vietnamese textile industry.
At the beginning of 2000, the Ministry of Industry issued an upbeat prediction on the bright future of the textile-garment industry: domestic demand for cloth and silk in 2000 is estimated at 1,190 million metres. Vietnamese textile products are currently available in over 40 countries. According to the estimates of the General Textile-Garment Company, by the year 2010, export turnover will reach 11,000 million US dollars, on top of the national consumption in a market of over 90 million people. The textile-garment industry has a big market to develop, but the health of over 500,000 workers stands in inverse proportion to this cheerful assessment.
According to the development orientation of the General Textile-Garment Company, by 2010 output must be doubled and quality must be gradually upgraded, since the garment industry must meet international customers' demands. As a result, the General Textile-Garment Company insists on the "human factor": not only training the workforce to catch up with developments in science and technology, but also not forgetting to take care of their health. However, over 500,000 labourers who work in this industry are working in conditions and environments that can affect their "most valuable asset" - health. Especially as in this industry over 80 per cent of workers are female, and their health is the decisive factor in determining the future of the next generations.
At present, in Vietnam there are 18 garment companies and 22 textile factories belonging to the General Textile-Garment Company, with over 500,000 workers. The textile sector occupies an important position among other industries, due to its low initial investment, its quick turnover, and the high value of its exports. Though the working environment of textile-garment workers is not as hard as that of other industries, the intensification of labour and the pace of work are very high. As a result, workers in this industry come fourth in the ranking of toil-levels.
Surveys conducted by the Institute of Labour Protection in some well-known textile-garment companies (Viet Thang Textiles, 8/3 Garments, Phong Phu Textiles, Viet Tien Garments, 10 Garments, Duong Long Garments, etc) are revealing. Although they are big companies, the factory buildings are very long and with low ceilings. In summer, the temperature inside the workplace is three to five degrees Celsius higher than that of the outside. Maximum temperatures are all over allowed standards. Air temperature is between 0.5-fold and 3-fold above permitted limits.
Stepping through some of these workplaces where workers have to work for long hours - often over eight hours a day - one is suffocated because of the lack of fresh air. In nearly every factory there is no general ventilation, but only local fan systems. In addition to this, there is the heat from the lighting systems and the stench of chemicals and other materials, which means that workers have to labour in conditions of heat and suffocating mugginess. There are hardly any air conditioning systems, for example, in the ironing workshop of the Garment 5 or 10 Garment companies.
According to the complaints of the textile-garment workers, noise has greatly affected their nervous system. After a period of researches, investigations and experiments, the Japanese Institute of Industrial Health and the Vietnamese Institute of Labour Protection warned the workers of the Vietnamese textile-garment industry:
"The noise from working machines not only affects the sense of hearing, but also lessens the workers' ability to concentrate on their jobs and makes them fall prey to stress and discomfort. Noise also gives rise to many other diseases: cortisol and catecholomine have been found in the urine of those workers who endure constant pressure from noise... These two chemical elements are causes of stress. The chairwoman of a trade union in one company revealed: "Many women are very tense, making their family life stressful. In spite of that, we can do nothing."
Periodical health examinations in textile-garment companies (every three years) show that the number of workers who are at health level one is reduced every year. The main diseases they suffer from (according to the Vietnamese Institute of Labour Protection's issue of late 1999) are: humpback (5.5%), twisted backbone (37.6%), eye problems (55.6%), otolaryntology (31.1%), dermatitis, nervous problems, gynaecological difficulties, etc. Particularly, there is the phenomenon of a loss of eyesight in proportion to the duration of the hours of work. Approximately ten percent of these workers have eyesight in both eyes of under 10/10. According to the research conducted by the Japanese Institute of Industrial Health, industrial noise can easily give rise to high blood pressure, heart trouble, and even stomach cancer. Interviews with workers reveal that 100 percent of workers have a headache after their shift.
In addition to the factors directly affecting garment workers' health, proven by the results of investigations by official institutions, there are other peculiarities of this industry which must be considered, including the burden of physical labour and nervous labour. "They have to work in awkward positions, with no chance of varying these postures, while carrying out monotonous operations," an expert of Institute of Labour Protection points out.
Workers in this industry can only work up to age of forty. Many who receive so-called golden handshakes spent their time "trying to get this title in time to get into a sanatorium."
Though many measures to improve working conditions for textile-garment workers have been approved, such as the introduction of anti-noise equipment (sound faders, earplugs) or the reassessment of working positions and the changing of production areas, those solutions still remain on paper instead of being applied in practice. The contradiction between "market joy" and "health sorrow" is still a yawning gulf in the textile-garment industry.