By Adeline Zensius, International Labor Rights Forum
In detention centers all over Vietnam, some 40,000 men, women, and children who have been caught using drugs are held against their will, with no hearing or trial in a court of law, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch on September 7th. The 121-page report titled, “The Rehab Archipelago: Forced Labor and Other Abuses in Drug Detention Centers in Southern Vietnam” details the atrocities in Vietnam’s drug treatment centers. The report includes accounts from several former detainees who were forced to perform labor for little or no pay and were detained in the centers for 2 to 5 years, sometimes longer.
According to the report, detainees are forced work in harsh conditions for the purpose of what the Government of Vietnam calls “labor therapy.” One former detainee explained why he put up with forced labor: “If you refused to work they slapped you. If you still refused to work then they sent you to the punishment room. Everyone worked.”
As punishment for refusing to work, violating center rules, or simply not filling a daily quota, detainees are beaten with wooden truncheons or shocked with electrical batons, sometimes causing them to faint. Another form of punishment is confinement in disciplinary rooms, where detainees are allowed out of their room for only 30 minutes per day, if at all.
Vietnamese law supposedly prohibits maltreatment of workers and all forms of forced labor and has ratified ILO Convention 29, which prohibits “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” Vietnam ratified this convention in 2007 and has clearly violated its statutes by enforcing this type of labor.
The Vietnamese government partners with private companies to use the forced labor in detention centers for producing goods, in some cases for export. According to the Human Rights Watch report, Vietnamese law allows tax exemptions for companies who source products from these centers, making a contract with a detention center very attractive to companies.
The type of labor performed in the centers includes farming, sewing clothing and shopping bags, working in construction, and manufacturing products made from wood, plastic, bamboo, and rattan. However, the most common form of forced labor (found in 11 of the 16 centers in Ho Chi Minh City) is processing cashews, the second largest agricultural export to the United States.
Cashew processing in the detention centers has negative health effects, including skin rashes, other allergic reactions, and respiratory problems. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that cashew resins from the nuts made performing the labor very difficult. “I would sometimes inhale the dust from the skins and that would make me cough. If the fluid from the hard outer husk got on your hands it made a burn,” said one former detainee.
Detaining drug users against their will and forcing them to work for little or no pay has proven to be an ineffective form of drug rehabilitation. Human Rights Watch states that relapse rates in Vietnam have been reported at “between 80 and 97 percent” for those who have left the centers. In response to this, Vietnamese officials have simply lengthened periods of detention.
This system of state-sponsored forced labor has been a growing problem over the past decade. The number of drug detention centers in Vietnam has increased from 56 centers in 2000 to 123 in 2011, an increase of 220%. An estimated 309,000 people were detained in Vietnam’s drug detention centers from 2000 to 2010.
In its report, Human Rights Watch calls on the Government of Vietnam to permanently close its drug detention centers. The International Labor Rights Forum agrees that Vietnam must put an end to state-sponsored forced labor.