by Juliana Buitenhuis
As we walked towards the People’s Aid Coordinating Committee, or PACCOM, in the French Quarter of Hanoi words blasted from loud-speakers - propagating governmental solutions on everything from personal hygiene to Communist fundamentals. Deciphering where the rights and social interests of individuals end and where ‘The Party’s collective ideals begin can be a daunting task.
In October, I was fortunate enough to travel to Vietnam with the World Organizer’s Forum led by Wade Rathke, founder of Acorn International. A group of ten of us, comprised of organizers, advocates, and activists, met with labour offices, government agencies, and NGO's in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. PACCOM explained that in the Civil Society that is Vietnam, all agencies - foreign or domestic, must align with the government and the government must maintain an influence in society.
So how do marginalized people gain a voice in a Communist country where the government is on loud-speakers and elections consist of checking the name of carefully selected candidates? In Vietnam, power, influence, control, and funding for social programming appears to be disproportionately centralized to the urban centers of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The people of Vietnam who live outside these urban centres (referred to as living in the Provinces) are subject to the constant threats of natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, famines, lack of access to health care, and high rates of child human trafficking. Poor families are lured to traffic their children to China and Thailand for cheap labour or the sex-trade. On top of these barriers, it is also the rural areas that continue to be the most predominantly affected by the contamination of soil and water due to Agent Orange - something I saw first hand when I visited a hospital for children affected by the chemical warfare. There were several rooms over capacity with children with deformities, weeping skin, cognitive impairments, and visible pain. Were were told that parents drop there children off at the doors of these hospitals, never to return.
Another issue that faces many Vietnamese people is accessing health-care. The Department of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs (a faction of the Government/Party)stated that around 60 percent of residents of Ho Chi Minh City purchase heath benefit cards. The issue is not really the cost of the card, but is in fact the conditions of attaining this card. To get a health card, not only do you have to pay for it, you have to have a residency card. As there are very few jobs in the Provinces, people come from rural areas to find work in cities. For these migrant workers to obtain residency cards, they must have a stable, registered job or own a home. In Ho Chi Minh City, there are over 1 000 000 men, women, and children without a residency card, and thus they pay high rates for service each time they visit a doctor or hospital. Even if someone has a health card, often to see a doctor he or she must line up at 4am as the medical system is poorly funded with doctors making about 100USD/month in public hospitals. A poor family will probably make 12 000 000 Dong or $615.00 USD per year, while upper government officials are making over 1 000 000 USD per year.
Vietnam exemplifies the growing pains of a country who’s GDP growth is second only to China. Vietnam has recently been deemed a middle income country, finally gaining economic ground after the United States lifted its’ trade embargo in 1994. As mega-consumers in North America, we need to continue to push foreign companies to pay respectful wages and provide ‘livable’ living conditions and social systems for those in the industrialized zones. We cannot control the working standards in foreign countries, but we can certainly put pressure on American companies with factories in Vietnam to support the people of Vietnam so they may live with dignity and in health.