News - July 4, 2018 | 10:16 pm PT

In Saigon, a vital job that stinks to high heaven

Sewage workers in Ho Chi Minh City risk their health and lives every day, and they want residents to stop trashing.

Every day, sanitation workers from the HCMC Urban Drainage Company take turns to clean the city and unblock the sewers to prevent flooding of city streets.

"The shifts last from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., but on stormy days, we start earlier and leave later to ensure that drains aren’t blocked by garbage," said Hoang Ngoc Toan, a sanitation worker on Nguyen Thai Hoc – Tran Hung Dao intersection in District 1.

"I think this is the dirtiest job of all, but the career chose me. My mom did the same job," said Ngo Chi Hung (pictured), a sanitation worker for 24 years, as he got ready to go down into the drains.

Hung said the job gives him a stable income of VND9 million ($400) a month.

Before entering the drains, the workers measure the concentration of toxic gas in the sewer.

"If the concentration exceeds the allowable level, the meter will ring. I have to open the drain lid and wait for the gases to go away. If you go down without measuring the toxic level, you can die of gas poisoning," Hung said.

The team is equipped with gloves, headlamps and a metal ladder to go down manholes as deep as 2.2 meters.

In the sewer, the water is 1.2 meters and full of floating garbage including plastic bags, boxes, bottles, dead animals, coakcroaches and mice. Hidden in the mud beneath are broken glasses, needles, knives, scissors, etc. “Getting cut is so common to us”, said Hung.

The workers collect garbage from the smelly sewage and put it into baskets. This task is scheduled for once a month, but it becomes regular during rainy seasons, to prevent blockages and minimize street flooding.

"The hardest part is to come down the drains full of rubbish after the rain, but we have to deal with it...," a worker said.

"I’m very scared to touch capless needle. Once we found a whole bag of used needles," said Thuong, another worker in the team.

But the worst nightmare for the workers, Thuong said, was chemicals production in areas like Kim Bien, the city's largest chemical wholesale market in District 5. "Drains in this area are so scary. Chemicals touch our skin, causing blisters and making it madly itchy."

It takes less than two minutes for Thuong to fill a bucket.

Thuong pushes a bucket full of garbage as it is pulled out of a sewer.

"From every drain, we use five to six garbage trucks, each with a capacity of about three tons. I just want people to stop throwing things in the drains, then we would struggle less," Thuong said.

The workers usually take a short break every one hour, but during days of high tides, they have to work non-stop.

The workers clean themselves at a street corner.
“We bring an extra set of clothes every day. It would get unbearably itchy if we didn’t wash ourselves,” Thuong said.

HCMC, Vietnam's largest city with around 13 million people, discharges 8,300 tons of household waste every day, according to figures released in August last year. The city has few effective solutions to treat or recycle them.

Thanh Nguyen