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‘The beach is for tourists’: why Vietnamese workers can’t enjoy the sun

All work and no play for seasonal workers who struggle to stay above the poverty line.

Didem Tali

Duong is 24-years-old. He has been working as a receptionist at a budget hotel in a touristy coastal town of Vietnam for four years. His earnings mean he can be considered middle class, though his lifestyle is far removed from what the middle classes can expect in wealthier countries.

The Vietnamese state recently increased the monthly minimum salary from VND 1.9 million (US$89.3) to VND 2.7 million ($128). With occasional tips, Duong’s income is definitely over $2 a day – commonly accepted as demarcating the poverty line in developing countries. He owns an old motorcycle, a mobile phone, and he watches MTV Vietnam from time to time.

Duong initially came here from his village to work in a local fish factory. But he quickly learned English, got a job at the hospitality sector, and has become upwardly socially mobile.

His family back in the village are farmers. He is the eldest son; his four younger siblings still live in the village. He sends as much money as he can back home, and hopes that his siblings will be able to continue their education and have good lives. He hopes that they will do even better than him and is determined to support them.

The middle and affluent class in Vietnam will double in size between 2014 and 2020, from 12 million to 33 million

A recent study conducted by Boston Consulting Group revealed that Vietnam has the fastest growing middle-class population in Southeast Asia; and the middle and affluent class in Vietnam will double in size between 2014 and 2020, from 12 million to 33 million. Therefore Duong, his colleagues and potentially his siblings represent the wet dreams of transnational companies: they are youthful, brand-aware members of a rising middle class who have modest, yet relatively steady incomes, and have aspirations that are influenced by Western media. It is through people like him that transnational companies are to penetrate into new markets and maximize their revenues.

But people like Duong, who have barely made it to the middle class, face an ongoing struggle to stay where they are and not fall behind.

‘In many of the developing countries when you are merely middle class you have a problem,’ writes Sina Odugbemi on a World Bank blog. He argues that people who fall into this category have to provide themselves with things that would normally be expected from local governments; basics such as education, healthcare, and security. The ‘situation of the middle class in developing countries is not robust, and it won’t take a lot for them to fall back into poverty.’

Especially in a volatile industry like hospitality, which hires people when there’s a rush and fires them during the low season, people like Duong have to work unenviable hours to keep their jobs and accumulate funds to get through the low season – as their families depend on money being sent home all year round.

Thanh, a friend of Duong, works as a guide on a tourist boat by day and as an animator in hotels by night. ‘I didn’t have a single day off in the last three months or maybe more,’ he says. Thanh suffers from panic attacks and severe anxiety, and tries to deal with them with herbal remedies. One day, when he felt like ‘his heart was going to come out of his mouth’, he went to a doctor, and the doctor told him it was just anxiety. Thanh doesn’t know when he will take his next day off yet – probably not during the high season.

He will continue to work as long and as hard as he can, because he knows that when the stormy season comes there won’t be boat tours and demand for hotel animators will drop.

During the four years that Duong has been working at the hotel, he has never been to the beach that is right in front of him

Duong and Thanh sometimes put in 20 hour shifts when thousands of people flow to the coastal town to relax and de-stress during the high seasons each year. Duong sleeps on a mattress in the reception area most evenings, including on special days and holidays. ‘I don’t have a choice,’ he says.

As revealed by countless reports, the low middle class of the developing world now comprise the biggest income group in the world, and will remain the biggest driver of the global economy. But a recent analysis conducted by the Financial Times found that economic slowdown puts a billion middle-class people in the developing world at risk of experiencing downward class mobility, thus making calling into question the growth that enabled Duong’s class jump.

Sadly Duong and Thanh joined the global middle class right before the economic party finished, and most likely a vague future of many more insane high seasons awaits them.

During the four years that Duong has been working at the hotel, he has never been to the beach that is right in front of him to enjoy the blessings of the tropical weather that attracts thousands of tourists every year. Not once.

‘But the beach is for tourists,’ he says and smiles. ‘I don’t have time to relax.’

Some names have been changed.

Ending the book hunger

End book hunger

© Didem Tali

‘Make love with books, be happy forever’ says a sign on the exterior wall of a school in the Mbale district of rural Uganda. Yet as I walk into the school building and wander around the classrooms, I see no books.

‘Last year, I won a reading competition and my teacher gave me a bible. But I have no other book to read or study at home,’ says Peter, an 11-year-old pupil. One of the biggest difficulties experienced in rural education is the lack of educational material and books. If children are lucky enough to complete their schooling, this happens without proper access to books which could help them to enlarge their horizons.

According to Margaret Ekwang, School Inspector for the Masindi district of Uganda, lack of educational material, and especially books, in rural schools is a pressing issue: ‘Children have to depend largely on the notes of their class teachers, which is seriously limiting for their academic excellence. Lack of educational material also means children cannot be exposed to self-teaching through reading. These can sometimes be reasons for pupils to drop out of school.’

The second of the Millennium Development Goals is to ‘ensure that children everywhere will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling’. However, nothing about the efficiency or quality of the education is mentioned in this goal. Especially in remote areas, it is possible for a student to complete her schooling without having read a single book.  Although there are a number of NGOs that give book aid to developing countries, these efforts remain insufficient for rural schools.

Books are one of the cheapest and most effective ways of stimulation for children. They can make an invaluable contribution to a child’s intellectual development, which can result in improved school performances and better opportunities for the future, thus contributing to the country’s economic advancement. Yet most rural children have severely limited access to books. But thanks technological advances in the form of e-reading devices, it doesn’t have to stay this way

E-readers could tackle the book hunger experienced in rural areas of developing countries.  Other means of technology, such as computers, can be challenging to use, due to issues such as lack of technological infrastructure, energy problems and literacy. However, e-readers fit to the needs of rural education almost as if they are specifically designed for it.

E-readers are cost and energy efficient. Most models’ batteries can last up to two months with a single charge. There are also versions which work with solar energy. An average computer would require not only constant energy, but also someone with moderate computer literacy to operate it. But e-readers don’t have such obstacles. Any child could start to use an e-reader within minutes, with no prior IT literacy. It is possible to fit literally thousands of books into an e-reader. With the combination of freely available children’s classics and perhaps copyright donations from individual authors and publishing houses, every child could own a large library.

Furthermore, every e-reader is a simple to use and efficient dictionary. It allows the reader to access the definition of any unknown word with a single touch. According to UNESCO, 476 million of the world’s illiterate people speak minority languages and live in countries where children are mostly not taught in their mother tongue. A significant proportion of school children around the world don’t take their education in their mother tongue. In multilingual countries like Uganda, it is not rare for children coming from two really close villages to speak different languages at home, and take their education in English. Many children who are not able to cope with this challenge drop out of school at early stages of their education. In a world in which it is difficult to ensure all children get educated in their mother tongue, an e-reader can significantly contribute to a pupil’s vocabulary and language skills. In the long run, this could pave the way for a decrease in dropout rates and improve the future employment opportunities of rural pupils.

‘If all the children had access to a library of 1,000 books, this would significantly accelerate the standards for our education. Academic competition would be higher, the poor reading culture would be minimized, and learning would be much more interesting for students. This way, retention and completion rate would be improved,’ adds Margaret Ekwang.

According to Dr Shakuntala Banaji, a scholar of pedagogy and communication at the London School of Economics, introducing e-readers to rural pupils’ lives is still a big technical and cultural challenge: ‘The books to be pre-uploaded to e-readers would need to be carefully chosen and customized according to local cultures. There would also be a pressing need for technology sponsors and content donors. However, if these challenges were overcome, children could greatly benefit.’

Although not easy, it is up to us to end the book hunger in the world, connect the disconnected, and enhance future opportunities for remote rural communities. If every child in the world can carry a library in his pocket, that would be a revolution.