Thuong is one of thousands of sanitation workers in Saigon whose daily job is to go down into noxious, toxic sewers and clean up the trash that an unfeeling population dumps there.
Without people like him, every time it pours, rainwater would overload the city’s sewage systems and send waste of all kinds back to the surface.
“What scares me the most are syringes without caps. Even though it hurts to touch them, I still have to collect them all,” said Thuong, as he stood in waist-deep filth, holding up small plastic syringe, its needle still tinged with crimson traces of blood.
At 54, Thuong has spent 22 years in the job. His face weary, his hair unkempt, he let out a sigh.
“Everyone wants an easy job. But if they all do, who’s going to take care of the trash?”
As I type out these words, I shudder to recall the pungent stench shoving its way into my nose as I made my way down to a sewer in the city a few days before. It was a hot summer day in early July, and I was doing a photo feature on the sanitation workers of the HCMC Urban Drainage Company.
It was almost high noon and the sunlight scorched the sidewalks beneath my feet. But in a far corner of Nguyen Thai Hoc – Tran Hung Dao Street in District 1, a group of men, wearing protective suits, started to walk toward a manhole with flashlights and plastic buckets in hand. They went down into the drain, gathered trash floating in the thick black sewage water they waded through, using flashlights fixed on their heads to find their way through the narrow, labyrinthine canals.
Thuong’s colleague Hung, on the job for 24 years, had just made his debut on television. The media was doing a piece on their daily lives as sanitation workers. In front of the cameras, an anxious Hung stuttered as the words stumbled out of his mouth.
“There have been times when companies poured chemicals directly down the drain, burning our skins. There have been times when we accidentally stepped on syringes and metal objects, sharp enough to puncture our boots. There have been times when I was trying to get the trash onto the surface, and a stream of sewage fell directly onto my head without any warning,” he said.
Hung told me that he had already prepared for the interview the night before, but his nervousness still got in the way. But again, he did not have much to say about his job, it was simply a part of his life.
The full protective suit they had on the day of shooting was only “for show.”
In reality, they don’t even wear rubber pants or gloves or masks inside the sewers because they “take too much space” or are simply “too hot.” The occupational hazards are obvious. It is not uncommon that the inhalation of toxic gases send people to hospitals, and it is not uncommon that people have their sense of smell killed from time to time because of the sheer intensity of stench in the sewers.
Earlier this month, in a conversation with the city’s sanitation workers, the head of office of the HCMC People’s Council, Nguyen Thi Quyet Tam, apologized to the workers on behalf of the city for the dangers and harsh working conditions they have to face every day. She also said the city hasn’t done enough to keep the trash out of the streets.
After my photo feature was published, hundreds of people have chimed in, saying the city’s apology is meaningless.
They have said that the punishment for littering remains too lenient and that the problem is not going away any time soon, whether it is the workers’ less-than-ideal working environment, or the city’s plan to curb flooding.
But even if there were tougher punishments, or the workers were paid more, I don’t think it’s going to work. Because in many developed countries, labor jobs like this are being automated, robotized, rather.
We don’t have that.
In recent years, Hanoi and HCMC have struck multiple million-dollar deals with foreign partners to develop the so-called “smart cities.” How exactly are they “smart?” I thought being “smart” means applying technological innovations in urban planning and environmental protection, or, at the very least, trying to solve problems in “smart” ways? I simply don’t see it happening.
Thuong said he has no day off. On days when he doesn’t have to collect trash, he has to sit by a pumping station, from before dawn to 8 p.m. What's for? To literally watch the sky and look out for rain; and if it does rain, down the gutters he goes to unclog the drains.
On the surface of a hustling and bustling city like Saigon, topics like the much-discussed Fourth Industrial Revolution never fail to make headlines. But down below, our sanitation workers still have to bear the unbearable stench and pick up trash from dirty sewers.
Nothing is going to change for many years, I fear.
The workers are not going to have much relief from their drudgery, except, perhaps, more apologies.
*Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.
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