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VIETNAM: Prosperity Tough on Trash Collectors

Helen Clark

HANOI, Nov 2 2008 (IPS) - As the expendable income of households in Hanoi increases, so does the amount of refuse generated. This is taking a toll on the city’s predominantly female force of garbage collectors, as well as the environment.

Garbage trolleys in Hanoi. Credit: Helen Clark/IPS

Garbage trolleys in Hanoi. Credit: Helen Clark/IPS

A green truck idles on a street beside one of Hanoi’s largest beer halls, Hoa Vien, popular with the capital’s movers and shakers. In the twilight, women in khaki overalls and blue helmets push heavy trolleys, piled high with refuse, into a line behind it.

"I don’t get days off," Tram, 33, tells IPS. "Any celebration, I work more because there’s more garbage to collect. It’s always busy; I don’t even get Tet off." Tet is Lunar New Year and the most important holiday in the Vietnamese calendar.

Tram has been collecting the city’s garbage for 14 years, and says things have become harder in recent years. There is far more to pick up, whilst wages have remained the same – between 1.5 million VND – 1.9 million VND (90 – 115 US dollars) each month.

Factory workers across the country have been striking this year over lower wages than this, and most of the women interviewed by IPS confessed to having trouble making ends meet.

"I think garbage from rich families is the problem. Living standards have gone up. It’s more difficult for us now and there’s no solution, so I may as well remain cheerful," says Hang, 42, a perennially smiling woman who sees her job as a necessity; without her Hanoi would be drowning in garbage. "But I worry they’ll replace me with a machine one day."

"It’s very difficult and it’s getting harder. The garbage increases, but our salary is basically reduced," says Binh, 37, as she enjoys a break at a street side tea stand with a glass of tra da (iced green tea) costing 2,000VND (12 US cents). She’s referring to the country’s high inflation, which though slowing down, topped 27 per cent earlier this year.

"I do buy less. I need to manage tuition fees for my children and food and bills. I cook for my family every day," explains Hang, her sunny expression darkening for a moment.

In general husbands do not help at home in Vietnam; housework, cooking and caring for children is seen as ‘women’s work’. Garbage collecting is the same.

"This job is suitable for women. If a man does this, it’s very unfortunate for him. It means he has no other options. Men do more serious work; they want to earn more money,’’ Binh says.

The work is hard. The trolleys are often piled so high that makeshift sides have to be constructed to hold overflowing detritus. According to a collector who works for Urenco, a garbage contractor, Hanoi generates 2,000 tonnes of garbage daily.

Garbage is generally thrown into the street, although households are supposed to take out their garbage only when collectors arrive, but the rule is rarely followed. There are few garbage bins and litter such as plastic bags or cigarette butts are simply dropped into the gutters.

Everything is picked up laboriously by hand before the streets are swept. "You get sick with the fumes from the traffic. In general the problems are with the nose and throat. My lungs too," sighs Hang, who’s still eager to hold onto her job for the retirement package (a common sentiment voiced among workers) and the stable, if low, income.

The greater amount of garbage is taking a toll not only on the workers but also on the environment. In Ho Chi Minh City three dumps have been closed as they are stretched beyond capacity.

Vietnam not only lacks effective waste treatment facilities but also sufficient landfill space. Most solid and liquid wastes, domestic or industrial are discharged directly into the environment untreated. Hazardous material in the landfills have raised concerns that they may leach into underground water sources and contaminate them severely. Much recycling in Hanoi is of a casual nature. Freelance garbage collectors, often women too poor to afford a motorbike, pedal about the city on rickety bicycles collecting plastic bottles and cardboard. Discarded plastic bottles are often used to store ruou – homemade rice wine.

‘Ba Be’ (‘grandma’) hangs at the edges of Tram’s garbage trolley queue. She collects a few pieces of cardboard to sell. "I’ll eat when I have enough to sell, which should be around 10 pm (three hours away). No one really wants to buy this," she tells IPS. She sleeps on the pavement most nights.

The nation’s throw-it-where-you-like-it rubbish disposal method has had unfortunate effects outside the city centres. Even many tourist areas are awash with rubbish.

"The common opinion is there’s rubbish everywhere. Everywhere they (tourists) go, there’s rubbish," Wayne Lewis, operations manager of Em magazine, a local environmental publication, tells IPS. This is a common complaint among tourists and some in the industry suggest it is one of the things responsible for the low return rate among visitors to Vietnam.

Binh finishes her tea, before standing up to leave. "Everyone looks down on this job, you know. But I don’t care anymore. I just wish it wasn’t so much work."

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