Saigon's copper scavengers

By Thanh Nguyen   December 4, 2016 | 05:00 am PT
A small glimpse into the life of people who make ends meet by scavenging electronics in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City.

At the end of an alley off of Go Vap District's Le Duc Tho Street dozens of poor families eke out a meager existence. Most of the households migrated south in the hopes of a better life during the 1990s. They hail from provinces like Vinh Phuc, Nam Dinh and Hai Phong.


The neighborhood's main business involves scavenging copper from appliances and wiring. Nguyen Thi Nguyet, 60, has worked the job for years. "It's quite a tough job," Nguyet said. "We typically begin at 4a.m. and finish at 8p.m.; we only earn VND100,000 to VND200,000 ($4.4-8.8) per day. Some days we don't find anything to sell."


Nguyet did construction work before she began scavenging for copper. She shows up no matter what the weather.


"Scrap metal prices are very cheap these days," Nguyet said.


The scavengers in this small Go Vap village say that stripping electrical cables for copper wiring requires a nimble dexterity that few men possess.


Hoa says one woman can harvest about 30kg of copper wire per day.


Hoa wears gloves to protect her hands from minor cuts and scrapes.


Copper wire prices range from VND12,000-16,000 per kg and from VND7,000-9,000 for each kilo of electrical wiring insulation. The scavengers consider the work dangerous due to the high likelihood of exposure to toxic and corrosive substances.


While women tend to strip copper wiring, men tend to crack open old refrigerators, televisions and other appliances for copper tubing. Nguyen Van Duong, of Vinh Phuc Province, says he buys old refrigerators for between VND100,000 and VND1 million. "Depending on the condition, we may scrap, fix or resell them at the electronic market," Duong said.


Duong said his work requires a hammer, shovel and pair of pliers. "Compared to stripping wires, dismantling appliances brings a higher income, between VND5-6 million per month, but it's very labor-intensive and we end up having to pay to dispose of the waste. Basically, it's barely enough to cover monthly expenses."


Duong gathers copper wiring he will sell at Nhat Tao market in District 10.


At noon, the copper scavengers in the Le Duc Tho Street slum enjoy a relaxing moment.

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