Ms. Thuyen’s heart was burning. The school year had started, but she still hadn’t found a school for her two children, aged 10 and 11.
Four years ago, she and her husband left Bac Lieu, taking their two children, aged 6 and 7, to Binh Duong to work as factory workers. Their eldest daughter had just finished first grade, and they planned to leave her in their hometown to continue her education, but both sets of grandparents had passed away. If they left their daughter with acquaintances, they would have to send back 3-4 million VND each month. Besides the financial burden, the mother felt uneasy about leaving her daughter in someone else’s home.
“Binh Duong must have schools,” Ms. Thuyen discussed with her husband, not anticipating the difficulties ahead. In the first year, when they had settled down and found jobs, the new school year had already started two months ago. She promised her daughter that they would wait until next year.
During that waiting period, every day before going to the factory, she cooked rice in advance and told her children to “eat when the clock on the wall points to 11”. All day long, the two children stayed in their 10-square-meter rented room, keeping company with the TV and phone. She locked the door from outside and occasionally asked the dormitory manager to check on them.
Then Covid-19 struck. The couple encouraged each other to survive, prioritizing food over education. When the pandemic was over, there was no more reason to delay.
For nearly a month now, she has been visiting public schools near her dormitory area, but all of them are full and have no vacancies. Schools farther away are not feasible because they have to work overtime. If they choose to hire a shuttle service or pay extra for after-school care, it would cost about 5 million VND per month for one child’s education, while their combined salary is less than 10 million VND.
At its peak, Ms. Thuyen’s dormitory area had about 200 children under 15 who were not attending school. These children loitered in their rented rooms, waiting until they turned 16 to work illegally in factories without insurance or contracts.
There are many reasons why these children of factory workers do not go to school. Among them is the lack of schools in areas where industrial zones are concentrated – a longstanding frustration. The main reason cited is that when planning industrial zones, local authorities “forgot” about land for school development. Workers live in dormitories built by residents themselves; their children compete for places in public schools with local children.
According to a report on the development of education and training in the Southeast region from 2011-2022 by the Ministry of Education and Training, the population growth rate of the region – i.e., migrant workers, especially in large cities and industrial zones – has put considerable pressure on the education system. The ratio of students per school and per class in the region is the highest in the country; particularly, the ratio of students per secondary school is twice the national average.
The day before school started, Ms. Thuyen called me asking if I knew any charity classes near her dormitory area so she could send her child there to learn some literacy skills. She doesn’t hope for her child to become “someone important”, just wants them to be literate so that “when they become factory workers they can write job application letters”. For families like hers, charity classes seem like a last resort.
In urban areas and localities with concentrated industrial zones, charity classes have become a model to help “eradicate illiteracy” among poor migrant children who cannot afford schooling. Classes are held right in dormitory areas.
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