In 1995, Thuy was dismissed from her construction company, a state-owned enterprise she’d worked at for 13 years as a cook. When the 18-year old Thuy first joined the company, her job had been guaranteed until retirement under Vietnam’s socialist policy. But things changed in 1986, when the government initiated market reforms known as Doi Moi, or Renovation. Loss-making state enterprises began laying off hundreds of thousands of workers.
Two-thirds of these workers were women.
“They fired all the women, because women couldn’t travel far for construction projects, while the number of projects was falling,” Thuy tells New Naratif of her old company.
Vietnam’s privatisation drive and gradual increase in openness to international trade have elevated one of world’s poorest countries to middle income status in just a quarter of a century. There’s no doubt that living standards have greatly improved for the vast majority of the population, including women.
But rising income figures paint an incomplete picture of Vietnam’s success story. As the late Vietnam scholar Melanie Beresford warned in her 2008 research paper, “it is in the areas of choice and control that Doi Moi has been a major backward step for women, especially rural women.”
“The possibilities that were opened up for [women] by the socialist system have disappeared as market reforms compelled their retreat into the household.”
How well is Vietnam doing on gender equality?
“Vietnam’s been doing well on gender equality,” a government official tasked with monitoring the country’s progress on UN sustainable development goals tells New Naratif, speaking on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorised to speak to the media. They were even surprised that there was any question over Vietnam’s performance in this area.
It certainly looks good on paper. Target wise, Vietnam stood out in 2013 by achieving its gender Millennium Development Goals (MDG) two years ahead of the deadline. Vietnam has long been praised for having one of the world’s highest female labour force participation rates, currently at around 73%. The country has also succeeded in closing the education gap between men and women. And according to Vietnam’s MDG report, it’s been successful in narrowing the pay gap too: between 2009 and 2014, the ratio of male-to-female average wage per hour in the non-agricultural sector fell from 114.8% to 106.7%.
But a closer examination unearths a gloomier picture. While a high female labour participation rate is usually seen as a sign of progress that liberates women from the confines of the home, this is an insufficient metric in a country like Vietnam, where it’s long been normal for women to work.
“The possibilities that were opened up for [women] by the socialist system have disappeared as market reforms compelled their retreat into the household.”
Since 1990, the female labour force participation rate has consistently been over 70%. During the wars against the United States and France, women kept Vietnam’s economy together and even fought alongside men on the frontline. Before that, farming and small trading were primarily the domain of women. They still are today.
The high labour participation rate masks the issue that, like in many other societies, the burden of unpaid housework and care-giving is still disproportionately shouldered by women. This has been exacerbated since the 1990s by government policies that, in the name of making it easier to do business in the country, cut back on childcare subsidies and made healthcare and education more expensive, all the while running campaigns calling for women to excel both at work and at home. No such propaganda messages have been directed at men.
According to an ActionAid report from 2016, Vietnamese women spend, on average, 14 hours more on housework, childcare and eldercare per week than men. And while official reporting says that the pay gap has narrowed, UN Women found that, when considering the annual earnings (as opposed to hourly rates) of both wage workers and the self-employed, the pay gap has actually widened. In 2004, women earned 13% less than men; in 2012, the difference jumped to 20%.
In accounting for this difference, UN Women attributes the widening gap to the fact that women tend to undertake fewer hours of paid work than men, given the responsibilities they’re expected to shoulder at home. Women workers also tend to cluster in sectors and occupations that pay lower salaries.
The gender bias
Before Doi Moi, female construction workers had no problem travelling to other provinces alongside their male colleagues, where they would carry heavy bags of cement, one in each hand, up stairs. Yet Thuy says that the justification her company used to dismiss her—that women can’t travel as far—“made sense” to her.
For centuries, Vietnam’s been heavily influenced by Confucian teachings which dictate that the man is the head of the family and in charge of doing viec lon (which literally translates to “big jobs”), and building, strengthening and protecting the community and the country. The wife’s responsibility, then, is to take care of family affairs, raise children, manage the house, and provide for everyday needs through work like farming and small-scale trade.
In modern Vietnam, these norms translate to the view that leadership roles and jobs that require technical skills, are dangerous, or require physical strength are only suitable for men. Women are seen as more suited to lighter, non-technical jobs that require dexterity, or are basically extensions of their traditional roles as homemaker. The unspoken fact underlying this world view is that the former category of employment, seen as the domain of men, tends to be better paid.
It’s possible that Thuy’s boss might have meant well when he decided to let all the women go. But for Thuy, the loss of her job meant the end of secure employment and the beginning of a life that she describes as being like “a boat without a port”.
“Vietnam’s approach when writing the law is to view women as the weaker sex, who are biologically inadequate and so they need protection.”
Gender biases don’t just influence how individuals in positions of power push women into precarious work, limiting their options to “feminine jobs”. They also shape policies that are supposed to protect women, but end up limiting their options even further.
One example is the requirement for women to retire at 60, two years earlier than men, as per the new Labour Code passed last November. This limits women’s chances of promotion, especially when one considers the time they might have already spent out of work due to childbirth and motherhood.
“Vietnam’s approach when writing the law is to view women as the weaker sex, who are biologically inadequate and so they need protection,” Pham Thi Minh Hang, deputy director of Research Centre for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CGFED), tells New Naratif.
“They [politicians] end up making the decisions on behalf of women, women don’t get to choose. This protective approach goes against the human rights based approach.”
There are currently 7.8 million Vietnamese women in the informal sector like Thuy, according to a report by local NGO CDI. This sector accounts for between 15% to 27% of Vietnam’s GDP, but its workers don’t receive the social protection that workers in the formal sector do.
Things worsened for Thuy after her husband’s death in 2000. Ironically, Thuy’s efforts to find work after losing her job ended up taking her further away from her only son than any local construction project could ever do: she’s since worked on the Vietnamese-Chinese border, down in southern Vietnam, and even in Russia.
That last foray proved a disaster. Thuy, following the advice of a friend who’d made a fortune in Russia, had gone in 2008 with the intention of overstaying her tourist visa. She returned a year-and-a-half later, heavily indebted after all her investments were lost in a fire that had burned down the market in Moscow where she’d set up shop alongside other Vietnamese migrants. She’d even lost the family home in Vietnam because she needed to pay off her debts.
“All my life, I haven’t got a single dong from my husband or son, and I’m tired,” Thuy sighs as she sits at her son’s karaoke bar getting ready for the grand opening the following day. She’d been doing odd jobs in Hanoi, but decided to return to Pha Lai about two hours outside of the capital to keep an eye on her 28-year-old son. He’d borrowed money to open the bar with some friends; it’s furnished with what looks like discarded chairs and sofas, but there’d been neither plan nor permit for the enterprise until Thuy stepped in. Thuy, worried that the project would be a disaster in the making, has become the de facto manager.
She’s worked as a cook, a domestic worker, transported goods, sold pork and clothes in the market—whatever opportunity relatives, friends, or, more recently, YouTube and Google have recommended. Looking back at her life, she tells New Naratif that she’s hated all her jobs. “But without a degree, what choice did I have?”
Thuy says she hated cooking the most. “It makes you feel like a servant, as if you’re the daughter-in-law of 100 families,” she says, going on to cite a Vietnamese proverb that says “you don’t get to choose your career, it chooses you.”
From fields to factories
Paddy fields are becoming a thing of the past. Like everywhere else in Vietnam, farming can no longer sustain a family. It’s become the work of old people, while the young leave the fields for jobs in cities, factories, or even overseas.
“If I were young now, I’d find a company to work for, I won’t have to think much,” Thuy says, referring to factories that have sprung up in provinces around Hanoi since the 2000s, a decade that started with a bilateral trade agreement with the US, and saw Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2007.
She’s happy with how it’s turned out for her niece, who works in Que Vo, a rural village-turned-industrial zone in Bac Ninh, a province known as one of the country’s foreign direct investment magnets.
The province, just an hour drive from Hanoi, is dotted with modern, sleek and clean industrial parks, as well as run-down, rusty workshops that emit black smoke visible to drivers from afar. Their outputs make their way into products used by people all over the world, from fast fashion brands to phones made by Samsung, Vietnam’s largest foreign investor.
“The job offers stability. She joined [the factory] before giving birth, and now she’s enjoying the benefits of maternity leave,” Thuy says. “Working for companies, doing harmless work gives parents some peace of mind, it’s just working for a regular paycheque”—a luxury that Thuy hasn’t enjoyed since losing her construction job.
In 2017, the top four of Vietnam’s exports in terms of value were phones, at US$45.1 billion; textiles and electronics tied at US$25.9 billion; and footwear at US$14.6 billion. These industries employ millions of workers for their assembly lines, and 70–90% of them are women, a trend scholars refer to as the “feminisation of work”.
One common narrative is that factories prefer women because they’re perceived as more diligent and gentle, and thus more suitable for assembly work involving tiny parts. But a labour expert who trains and advises factory workers on their rights and benefits is convinced that the real reason employers prefer hiring women is because Vietnamese culture has socialised them to be more submissive than men, and therefore more likely to accept rigid, monotonous work with little opposition.
But there are moments when this perception is challenged. In a country with no independent trade unions, hundreds of wildcat strikes occur in Vietnam every year. In 2011, when there was a spike in worker unrest, there were 978 strikes.
Despite being part of billion-dollar value chains, the workers’ share of the spoils has been nothing but dismal. In the garment sector, for instance, worker wages account for just 2% of the wholesale price of a T-shirt, while the brands enjoy a 16% profit.
In fact, Thuy’s niece may be one of the lucky ones. There’s widespread evidence that assembly line factory workers are underpaid, overworked and stuck in what Vietnam labour scholars Angie Ngoc Tran and Irene Norlund call a “vicious cycle of underdevelopment and poverty”.
Market reforms since Doi Moi haven’t just resulted in higher costs of caregiving, health and education. They’ve also pushed minimum wages way below what would constitute a living wage.
“Over the years, for fear of losing foreign capital, the government has allowed [the minimum wage] to be cut, frozen and overtaken by inflation, with the result that by April 2013, the government’s own union was protesting that wages now covered only 50% of essential costs,” Angie Ngoc Tran wrote in her book Ties That Bind.
To this day, minimum wages fall short of a basic living wage. The national average minimum wage was 3.34 million dong (US$144) in 2018, just 37% of the Asia Floor Wage and 64% of the Global Living Wage Coalition benchmark. Even when factoring in working overtime—very common in garment and electronics factories—workers can barely make ends meet. The labour ministry’s own study shows that, in 2017, over 60% of electronics companies examined in Vietnam violated the law on overtime.
“I just try to do as much as I can,” Xuan, who works at an electronics factory in Bac Ninh, tells New Naratif. She’s currently experiencing a period of low demand, which means that she doesn’t always have steady work. She earns 6–7 million dong (US$259–302) every month—just above the Global Living Wage Coalition benchmark. To be able to save up, workers like her have to rely on overtime, which can raise her monthly pay cheque to 9 million dong (US$388)—but only if she works Saturdays and Sundays.
Xuan’s been feeling the brunt of overtime and night shifts particularly badly after giving birth to her son 10 years ago. The pressure of standing for prolonged periods and working nights forced her to give up a better-paid job at Samsung for her current company. She doesn’t have a contract with this new employer, she says, but at least it’s more relaxed.
Still, Xuan doubts she can go on much longer, because she still has to care for her children. Before her present job in Bac Ninh, Xuan and her husband had ventured even further from their hometown in north-central Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and even to Guangdong in China, working without papers at a factory that made shoes for “some Western-sounding brand”—she doesn’t remember the exact name.
There are very few opportunities for female workers in Vietnam to upskill and climb the income ladder, making their lives increasingly precarious as they age.
Her children had been left in the care of their grandparents, but Xuan thinks she’ll have to eventually take over care-giving duties as the elders begin feeling their age more acutely. She’s unsure about her future plans. She says she’s already forgotten how to farm, and assembling electronics doesn’t leave her with any transferable skills. “I don’t know the process that goes into making a phone, only its creator does.”
There are very few opportunities for female workers in Vietnam to upskill and climb the income ladder, making their lives increasingly precarious as they age. This contrasts starkly with men, who are not only more likely to receive vocational and technical training, but also account for the majority of managers in factories where opportunities for promotion are slim—85% of workers have never been promoted, according to the NGO Better Work.
Few see factories as offering any long-term security. Factory workers were one of the most vocal groups contesting Vietnam’s plan (now reality) to raise the retirement age to 60 for women and 62 for men—they said that it’s rare for anyone to make it past 40 in this industry before getting replaced by someone younger. More than 78% of factory workers in Vietnam are in the 18–35 age bracket, and the government itself has raised concerns, saying that “the trend of just hiring workers at a certain age and firing them after some time is currently a pressing issue.”
Like many of their compatriots, Xuan and Thuy have worked themselves to the bone in their low-income jobs. While female labour has pushed Vietnam into becoming one of the world’s leading garment and electronics exporters, these women often find that employers treat them as expendable units once it comes to the international cost-cutting race to the bottom.
In June, labour rights proponents celebrated a rare win. Vietnam’s lawmakers voted to ratify the ILO Convention 98 on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining—one of the conditions of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement signed in the same month. This convention includes protections for workers and unions from discrimination, and the promotion of voluntary collective bargaining. But is the future going to be any better?
“The path from ratification to implementation, it’s very far,” says Ngo Thi Thu Ha, deputy director of Center for Education Promotion and Empowerment of Women (CEPEW). “It depends on when the European Parliament ratifies the EVFTA. How it’s going to play out in Vietnamese law—it will take time, depending on how open our political apparatus is.”
Vietnam’s revised Labour Code in November has paved the way for workers to form or join organisations of their own choosing. But a new challenge is looming: automation. With machines set to replace workers on assembly lines, the lack of work might render improved rights to collective bargaining redundant.
“Without challenging the bigger systemic issues like export-oriented production, corporate capture and unjust trade and investment agreement, the race-to-the-bottom will still prevail, or even worsen,” warns Wardarina, a programme officer from the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development.
Meanwhile, workers like Thuy and Xuan continue to grapple with finding some semblance of stability in this volatile job market. Xuan is leaning towards working in Taiwan, where a cousin is now running a successful business selling SIM cards.
But Thuy’s experience has taught her to take a dim view on going abroad. As she puts it: “It’s like gambling with life.”
Additional reporting by Vo Kieu Bao Uyen.
Lam Le is a freelance journalist based in Hanoi, Vietnam. She previously worked for two years as editor at VnExpress International.