By Lien Hoang on October 2, 2013 —
“”It’s basic police work,” said Michael Brosowski describing his activities with the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, a nongovernmental agency that rescues children working in sweatshops in Vietnam. When it learns about a case of child labour, workers for the agency scout out suspected factories, snoop around posing as, say, electricians, and keep getaway cars on hand.
At least they used to. Groups like Blue Dragon once did all the legwork involved in investigating cases of child labour; the police would help when it came time to rescue the children. Then, as the police realised that the children, though paid, were often working under duress, they started leading these operations.
But enforcement still stops short, at the investigation and rescue stage, without criminal prosecution. Even though Vietnamese law calls for prison time for people who “exchange or appropriate children,” the penalties for employing children are mostly administrative. Offending factory owners usually just get fined, perhaps as little as US$250. Manufacturing halts for a few days or simply is relocated.
Unicef reports that 16 per cent of Vietnamese children between the ages of 5 to 14 are working. One of the agency’s reports notes that “the group of children who have to earn their own living and children who are employed by others is growing at a neck-breaking speed.” This is happening even as child labour is declining worldwide, according to the International Labor Organisation.
American labour unions recently pressured US President Barack Obama to hold off on a massive free-trade deal among 12 countries, including Vietnam. Chief among their complaints was child labour in Vietnam, a top exporter of garments.
Many Vietnamese children who end up working in factories come from poor families and are recruited in the countryside with the promise of reasonable pay. Then they are locked up in factories outside cities far from their homes and prohibited from communicating with their families.
Article 120 of Vietnam’s criminal code bans the trafficking of children for a “despicable motivation”. And a new law to combat human trafficking clarifies that the crime isn’t just about illegal cross-border activities; it also happens in Vietnam proper. All this should encourage, or at least allow, Vietnamese law enforcement officials to go after Vietnamese factory owners, but much of the police still view trafficking as a crime committed by foreigners exploiting locals, like the smugglers who sell Vietnamese girls into the sex trade in China.
Since forced labour and trafficking reflect systemic problems driven by poverty, it would be unfair to make unscrupulous factory owners the sole scapegoats for Vietnam’s economic and social ills. But if the country is ready to give the death sentence to drug dealers or arrest traders in rhinoceros horn, it shouldn’t just give a slap on the wrist to those who employ children, especially children who have been trafficked.”
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