Addicts in Vietnam used as 'forced labor'
BY THOMAS FULLER
BANGKOK — The Vietnamese government calls it ''labor therapy,'' a program to keep drug addicts off the streets and move them into treatment centers where they process cashew nuts, sew garments, weave baskets — any work that might help them get back on their feet.
But a report released Wednesday by a U.S. human rights organization says labor therapy is nothing more than a brutal system of sweatshop servitude in the guise of a social program.
Drug addicts are paid little or nothing for their work and can be subject to beatings with wooden truncheons, shocks with electrical batons and solitary confinement, says the Human Rights Watch report, which is based on interviews with 34 former detainees. Some of the products made in rehab centers are destined for export to the United States and Europe.
''Forced labor and physical abuse are not an adjunct to drug dependency treatment in Vietnam. Rather, they are central to how the centers operate,'' says the report, ''The Rehab Archipelago.''
Vietnam, like many other countries in East Asia, handles people addicted to illegal drugs through a special administrative system that is separate from criminal courts. Drug addicts are sent, often by the police, to centers for rehabilitation rather than punishment. Or so the theory goes. Similar systems exist in China, Malaysia and Thailand, countries which coincidentally or not have teeming urban areas but relatively low levels of random violent crime.
The Vietnamese minister of labor, invalids and social affairs, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, who oversees the centers, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment about the Human Rights Watch report. But Vietnamese government documents have in recent years promoted the system as a way for drug addicts, many of them heroin users, to restore their dignity and learn the value of honest work.
The camps, which have their roots in a re-education system established by the victorious North after the war with the United States ended in 1975, have been judged a success by the government, and over the past decade the number of drug rehabilitation centers has more than doubled to 123. At this start of this year, the Ministry of Labor reported that the centers held a total of about 40,000 people. The government has extended the maximum length of time addicts can spend in the camps from one year to four.
Human Rights Watch alleges that the system has degenerated into a for-profit network of de facto factories. Rehabilitation centers are given tax exemptions for the goods they produce and are expected to be self-financing. The focus of the centers is making money, not treating drug addiction, the report says. Relapse rates, it notes, are often above 80 percent. The report quotes one former detainee saying that the only attempt at drug rehabilitation was marching and chanting slogans like ''Try your best to quit drugs!''
In the generally opaque world of Vietnamese manufacturing, with layers of contractors and subcontractors, some foreign companies have discovered that their products are being stitched by detainees in these centers.
One center produced mosquito nets for a Swiss company, Vestergaard Frandsen. Detainees in another center sewed jacket liners destined for Columbia Sportswear, a U.S. company. The involvement of a detention center in manufacturing the jacket liners was a ''surprise to us,'' Peter Bragdon, senior vice president of legal and corporate affairs at Columbia Sportswear, said by phone.
A contractor had subcontracted the work to the drug rehab center, Mr. Bragdon said. The company has terminated its business with the contractor and plans to give away the 847 pieces stitched by the detainees to charity. ''Involuntary labor of any kind is unacceptable to us,'' Mr. Bragdon said. ◼
Get the best global news and analysis direct to your device – download the IHT apps for free today!
For iPad: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/international-herald-tribune/id404757420?mt=8
For iPhone: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/international-herald-tribune/id404764212?mt=8