Tra Long, 13: “I often help my mom collecting scraps and bottles on the street."
Tra Long is among about 1 million reported child labourers in Viet Nam.[i] UNICEF works with partners bringing long-lasting change to their lives, where they can learn, play, laugh, dream and develop to their full potential.
“I often help my mom collect scraps and bottles on the street,” shares Tra Long, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, a major economic hub in the South of Viet Nam. “I want my mother to have a better life. I want her to no longer be sick.”
Tra Long, turning 13 this year, has just completed first grade because of unstable housing and the pandemic. He lives with his mom, My Dung, in a windowless tiny room that’s barely larger than their mattress. Last month, they almost got evicted because Dung didn’t pay rent on time.
“We start going out around 4, 5 pm, when the weather is cooler. Sometimes we leave home at 7 pm and collect bottles until Tra Long says he is sleepy,” says Dung.
Thanks to the advice and support from the UNICEF-supported Thao Dan social protection centre for the past few years, Tra Long has been able to go back to school and maintain his education. He is now enjoying learning new things every day at a nearby school.
In urban areas, the complex reality of child labour
With dimpled smiles and deep brown eyes, Tra Long grins talking about the Lego set his mother got for him while working as a bottle collector. After school, he accompanies her on the streets, helping to carry bags of bottles as his mom’s fingers have ached for almost 10 years. When walking with her, he holds her hand and doesn't leave her side.
“Both of them used to sleep on the bridge,” recalls Tuyet Mai, the social worker from the UNICEF-supported Thao Dan social protection centre. Thao Dao, which cares for, protects and supports street children in Ho Chi Minh City, has consistently supported them for a few years with livelihood expenses so that Tra Long could maintain his education.
“For many years, Thao Dan has received support from UNICEF, and we focus on case management. Meaning with cases like Tra Long, we don’t only provide a single service, but multiple coordinated services to support the child,” says Le Thi Ngan, Director of Thao Dan Social Protection Centre.
In this city, many children like Tra Long are working in the informal sector, selling lottery tickets and collecting scraps. Among them are migrant children, who have left or run away from home for a better future.
Growing up sooner than their age
A three-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, Dong Thap province is not new to the stark reality of children and elders left behind, while young people and adults migrate to cities to find work. Many children, especially girls, take up cooking, cleaning, babysitting as soon as they can. In the face of crises like COVID-19, financial difficulties easily drive them out of school and into work.
Unlike her peers, at 16 years old, Nhu Y lives on her own and makes ends meet. With parents parting ways since her birth, Nhu Y has never met her mother and barely seen her father, who lives far away. Her grandmother, who had raised her with unconditional love, suddenly passed away during Lunar New Year 2023.
“At the end of 7th grade, I quit school because my family had too many financial difficulties. We couldn’t afford education,” recounts Nhu Y, remembering the onset of the pandemic when her uncles lost their jobs in the city.
Even though she was excelling in school, Nhu Y decided to leave that chapter behind. She wanted to support her grandmother. Since then, Nhu Y has worked at three different places. Her first job was packaging rice cake; her second job was pumping gas, and now she is serving phở every evening at a nearby restaurant.
Going back to school to pursue her dream
The situation took a turn when Kieu Oanh, a UNICEF-supported commune child protection officer learned about the case, paid frequent visits, and shared with Nhu Y and her grandmother about how working at such a young age would negatively affect the girl. Kieu Oanh also connected the family with governmental scholarships and financial support.
“After a while, the family understood the importance of education and let her resume her studies,” recalls Kieu Oanh. “Thanks to the knowledge and skills that I gained from the UNICEF-supported training, I was able to timely identify Nhu Y’s case, approach, intervene, and support her, so that she can continue going to school.”
Having walked along with Nhu Y for the past two years, Kieu Oanh is part of the local Child Protection committee that UNICEF Viet Nam has helped establish and strengthen in all communes of Dong Thap to prevent and put an end to child labour. Now Nhu Y is happily attending school every day, pursuing her dream of becoming a police officer.
A future where children’s dreams come true
Despite significant achievements in Viet Nam, the realities of the abuse and violence that child labourers are subjected to escape neon lights and official statistics.
Working with partners from different sectors, UNICEF is supporting the Government of Viet Nam to create an environment where every child is free from violence and exploitation. UNICEF supports in developing and strengthening the child protection workforce so more officers like Kieu Oanh can be trained and supported while promoting the role of the education sector in preventing children from dropping out of school. Nhu Y and Tra Long are two of the millions of children UNICEF’s interventions have made an impact on.
“UNICEF promotes cooperation with businesses to further enhance corporate social responsibility in preventing child labor,” says Le Hong Loan, UNICEF Viet Nam’s Chief of Child Protection. “We also help strengthen the capacity of the government on child labour inspection, especially in the informal sector.”
UNICEF, along with partners, is working so that all children in Viet Nam are free from labour and can delight in a quality education. Only then could children’s dreams, including Nhu Y’s and Tra Long’s, come true.
[i] National Child Labour Survey 2018