Fire in the matchbox

Fire in the matchbox

Ngoc felt a chill down her spine when she saw the news about two children who died in a locked house.

She said, at that time, she was taking a break during her shift. She immediately thought of her two children at home, also locked in their rented room. She quickly dialed their number and breathed a sigh of relief when she heard “hello mom” from the other end. Ngoc reminded her older daughter not to turn on the stove to fry more eggs, and only eat the rice that she had prepared in advance. Every morning before going to work, Ngoc reminded herself to turn off the gas valve, but she was always afraid that she might forget.

Ngoc, originally from Bac Ninh, moved to Ho Chi Minh City to work as a seamstress and married a mechanic from Tien Giang. They rented a room of about 10 square meters in a residential area near Thu Duc City with nearly 50 rooms. In the morning, her husband took their children to school. At noon, he picked them up and brought them back to their rented room. The two children were locked in the house until their parents finished work.

The rent for this “matchbox” room is 1.5 million VND per month. If you include electricity and water, the total cost is over 2 million VND, accounting for nearly 15% of the couple’s income.

Ngoc’s family’s choice is typical of migrant workers who come to the city to work, creating pressure on infrastructure and social services in rapidly developing cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Among these pressures, ensuring housing for residents is one of the most difficult problems to solve.

Hanoi currently has 10 industrial parks – export processing zones and high-tech zones, with more than 660 enterprises and about 165,000 workers. 80% (132,000 people) are migrants from other provinces, according to data presented at a dialogue between workers and Hanoi Chairman Tran Sy Thanh in May.

Ho Chi Minh City has 17 export processing zones and industrial parks with 1,062 enterprises and a total of 285,000 workers, 65% of whom are migrants (more than 185,000 people), according to HoREA.

The above statistics also show that 80% of migrant workers in Hanoi and 90% of migrant workers in Ho Chi Minh City have to rent rooms in residential areas because there is a shortage of social housing and it is difficult to access. The average room size is about 12 square meters, which does not meet basic living conditions.

A survey conducted by the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Construction at the beginning of 2022 showed that nearly 36% of independent rental buildings under five stories do not have design documents or fire-fighting equipment, equivalent to 12,325 buildings. This rate for single-family homes divided into rooms under five stories is 32%, equivalent to 8,215 buildings.

I sat in Ngoc’s “matchbox” room, watching her two children glued to the TV. Around them were piles of clothes, books, styrofoam boxes full of things, plastic bags full of miscellaneous items. Two motorcycles had to be brought into the house at night, blocking the entire walkway. Still haunted by the death of two children her own children’s age in Ho Chi Minh City, Ngoc was shocked when she heard about a ten-story rental building in Hanoi catching fire and killing 56 people.

Sweat poured off her body as if she had taken a bath. She was cooking while wiping her teary eyes “the house has eaten already; I am cooking for your lunch tomorrow”. Ngoc was scared but hadn’t found any other way yet.

Ten years ago when I participated in the Vietnam-China Youth Festival 2013, I also sat in a worker’s room in Ngoc Lam city, Guangxi province, China. The room was located in a high-rise building designed like mid-range apartments in Vietnam. The landlord told us they came here to work and only needed to bring personal belongings. The accommodation was fully equipped with air conditioning, washing machine and kitchen. There was transportation provided from the accommodation to the factory.

Ngoc Lam – known for its machinery manufacturing industry serving agriculture; electronics; leather shoes; clothing – attracts many migrant workers. Representatives from China explained that ensuring housing support for workers is part of corporate welfare policies.

Based on the high influx of immigrant labor, standard industrial zones in China have minimum requirements for infrastructure: canteens, employee housing, sports areas, medical rooms, etc. Enterprises are obliged to contribute to the housing reserve fund, and if not implemented, workers have the right to sue.

Industrial zones in Vietnam have many similarities with China in terms of immigrant labor. However, ensuring accommodation with minimum conditions for workers has not yet become a mandatory responsibility or at least has not formed as a part of the cultural institution of enterprises.

Ho Chi Minh City, after more than 30 years, has developed 18 concentrated industrial zones with nearly 1,700 enterprises, employing at least 320,000 workers but only has 16 dormitories for workers, accommodating nearly 22,000 people. Hanoi only has three industrial zones: Thach That – Quoc Oai, Thang Long (Dong Anh), Phu Nghia (Chuong My) with housing projects meeting nearly 20% of workers’ needs.

According to current regulations, the housing support regime for workers is not a mandatory expense for enterprises operating in Vietnam. If the enterprise has this policy, the cost will be classified into the non-taxable allowance outside the salary and does not have to calculate social insurance payment.

The couple Mr. and Mrs. Ngoc, two long-time workers, receive a total housing allowance of 350,000 VND – an amount not enough to pay for electricity and water bills.

The social housing policy is slow to implement and faces many difficulties; it’s hard to reach immigrants; enterprises and industrial zones are not bound by responsibilities for workers’ living conditions. The problem of settling down for workers suddenly falls into the hands of private individuals, mainly households. These business individuals will reduce costs, optimize benefits, maximize the use of space to build as many rooms as possible, causing potential hidden dangers, among which fire and explosion are the most imminent risks.

Every time a fire occurs, I encounter old reasons or solutions that have been mentioned many times. If the fire starts from charging batteries, advice on using electronic devices will be given; if the cause is from welding sparks, the public will approach lessons about flammability in flammable materials; if it is a fire from cigarette butts, criticisms about consciousness can potentially mislead that without smokers, fires will never occur…

Those lessons and experiences are all important and worth learning from. But to significantly limit fires, especially disasters causing large human losses, we need to look forward to fundamental policy changes aimed at eliminating “matchboxes”, ensuring safe accommodation for workers.

In your opinion, should mini-apartments continue to exist?
Yes. It solves affordable housing needs in urban areas.
No. It carries many risks (legal safety, fire safety, drainage) and breaks planning.

Lê Tuyết

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Fire in the matchbox.

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