The term ‘third world’ has been disappearing gradually from the academic and political lexicon. The term used to denote those countries around the world which were in the bottom tier of GDP, per capita income, infrastructure, and development. Nowadays, the term has been replaced with ‘developing country.’ It’s an interesting choice of words. It implies, of course, that every country in the world now is developing, or wants to develop, in the model of the modern, industrialized countries. It’s either ‘industrialize quickly and catch up’ or perish into obscurity and irrelevance. Or so the thinking goes amongst the elected leaders of such countries.
This desire to develop and rapidly industrialize among former third-world countries has numerous effects and repercussions, almost of them negative. Sure, numbers such as the GDP, which economists and politicians always love to point to, show a spike, though this is usually short term. Overly expensive mega projects often spring up, putting struggling governments into debt. Skyscrapers and office buildings sprout in the big cities and new highways and dams are constructed as well.
For the population of developing countries, outside of a tiny percentage at the top of the political and social hierarchy who work the system to their benefit, this process of rapid development is a disaster. Rivers, canals, lakes, waterways, coastline, water tables, topsoil, forests, and the air are sacrificed in the rush to build factories and power stations. This damage is often irreparable. Humans who are enticed to work in the new industries of factory work and construction are treated like slaves, as disposable as tissue paper.
Viet Nam is a perfect example. Its cities are booming, particularly Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Office and apartment buildings are going up everywhere. Construction cranes are a ubiquitous sight. Almost every street within the city limits has at least one building being constructed, renovated or demolished to make way for a new one.
If there’s one word that I associate with development, it’s ‘concrete.’ Construction sites everywhere have either the portable concrete mixing machines or the large trucks at the bigger sites. And to make concrete you must have cement. And to make cement you must havoc cement factories. For those unfortunate villagers who live on the fringes of cities where most cement factories are located, life is hell. For 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, they must put up with choking dust and pollution being emitted from these factories, which must continually make cement to feed the voracious appetite of the booming economy.
Hundreds of thousands of young men work in the construction industry here, the vast majority of them first generation city dwellers who grew up poor farmers. They are ruthlessly exploited by the construction contractors and sub-contractors. Outside of a few large foreign firms which actually enforce some basic safety regulations, most workers work and live day to day with no safety net whatsoever. Hardhats are nowhere to be seen. Workers spend their days toiling in the hot sun with cheap plastic flip-flops or bare feet. They are often shirtless and wear shorts. When they work indoors where dust, chemicals and paint are omnipresent, they wear a cheap throwaway mask, if anything.
I pass by dozens of construction sites daily, and I see workers doing backbreaking work with no thought given to their welfare. They are often splattered from head to toe with paint and dust. Most have nowhere to live and throw a hammock up on the site to sleep overnight. Their wage of $5 USD a day affords them nothing more than a couple bowels of noodles and pork. If an accident happens onsite, they are on their own. Their employer is not responsible for injury.
Most have received no training for their jobs, and just learn by watching others and practicing each day. Hence, shoddy work is the norm, not the exception. I have seen a number of paint jobs where workers left the house or building with numerous globs and specks of paint on the furniture and appliances. Substandard work is accepted.
Dirt poor farmers fleeing their miserable existence in the countryside to move to the city in hopes of finding a better life is not a new story. Nevertheless, I still marvel at the pull that cities, and ideas like ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’ exert on the human mind. To merely trade in one form of backbreaking toil for another hardly seems like a step up to me. Furthermore, these itinerant workers are cut off from their families and communities, the very social networks that are so crucial for human happiness and fulfillment.
These young men will work in construction for perhaps ten or twenty years at most. Working past 40 simply will not be physically possible for most. They will likely have a lifetime of back problems to look forward to after they quit. Many will die of cancer before they hit 60, due to the enormous amounts of dust and chemicals which they inhale daily, poor diets and the two packs of cigarettes per day which they all smoke.
A local glossy magazine which is marketed to tourists and expatriates is sitting on my desk. It features a profile of a 40-year-old construction worker. ‘Quang’ shares some information and thoughts about his life working construction jobs around Hanoi. After stating that he earns 100,000 VND (US $5) a day, he says matter-of-factly, “That kind of money just isn’t enough.” No kidding. What’s interesting to me is how that quotation just sort of hangs there, with no follow up question and no elaboration. If it’s not enough, why does he continue? Does he have any thoughts about who, or what, is exploiting him? Has he ever thought of complaining , or asking for a raise? Going on strike is unknown in Viet Nam and workers here have no ‘worker consciousness’ whatsoever. People accept their lot without question.
It’s a tragedy and it doesn’t have to happen. Yet it does, and not just here in Ho Chi Minh City, but also in Lima, Sao Paulo, Phnom Penh, Dubai, Quito, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and dozens of other developing cities all around the world.
Humanity has drunk the kool-aid of ‘progress’ and the headlong rush into the future ensues. The few remaining hunter and gatherer tribes are being uprooted along with nomadic and traditionally pastoral peoples. We’re all going to be yuppies now, living in high-rises with beautiful children and driving brand new shiny cars. Except that we’re not, of course. The split between marketing and reality is as stark as ever. Every time a new apartment high rise is completed, giant billboards show a plastic looking couple sitting in their spotless (and soulless) living room with their oh-so-happy children.
Earth used to be comprised of thousands and thousands of ethnic groups, each living in its own unique style, with their own dress, customs, religions, social structures and habits. Now, ‘globalization’ is the meme that is shoved down our throats, and everyone wears the same clothes bought from the same multinational corporations, talks the same, looks the same, and acts the same. People willingly give up their traditional lives to move to cities and join the madness, thinking that they can purchase some toys, and with them, some happiness. It doesn’t happen and they end up sick and disillusioned.