Doubts remain on whether new legislation will be enforced
New laws bring some protection for Vietnam's maids
Phan Thu Trang starts work at 5am, cooks for 25 people and does not usually end her working day as a maid until 10pm.
The hours though are the least of her worries, she says, describing mistreatment at the hands of her employers in Ho Chi Minh City.
“They shout furiously at me saying ‘you stupid little bitch’ when they are dissatisfied with my work,” says Trang who comes from Nam Dinh province in the north near the capital Hanoi.
She earns three million dong (US$145) per month and like the hundreds of thousands of other domestic workers in Vietnam her labor contract is non-existent.
But after amending its labor code in June, Vietnamese domestic workers will for the first time be covered by a formal set of rules from May.
Although the number of domestic workers in Vietnam is not known, rising living standards have spurred demand for maids, gardeners and cooks, particularly in the country’s biggest cities.
Research conducted in 2011 by the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs with the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that 46 per cent of surveyed households in the capital Hanoi and southern commercial hub Ho Chi Minh City hired domestic workers, more than twice the rate before 2000.
Women made up more than 90 percent of these workers, the study showed, many of them migrants from other parts of the country.
A careers advisor in Ho Chi Minh City says she introduces between two and five candidates every month to households in Vietnam’s largest city. Mostly women, these domestic workers are often poorly educated and in a vulnerable position when it comes to negotiating working terms which are always worked out verbally and therefore never set in stone, adds the advisor.
Among the few exceptions are the women who train in domestic skills with Sister Le Thi Triu of the Daughters of Charity of Vincent de Paul Pascale, a social worker based in southern Ba Ria Vung Tau province near Ho Chi Minh City.
Since 2007, she has taught 350 women to use domestic appliances, cook and do other chores around the home. Many of these women have gone on to earn as much as seven million dong per month, as high as Vietnamese graduates after they finish university, and all according to a written contract.
“They are respected by their households and their salaries are raised by ten percent every year,” said 72-year-old Sister Triu.
According to the new labor code, these types of benefits should extend to the majority of Vietnamese domestic workers from May.
This new legislation states that contracts agreeing working hours, salaries, social and medical insurance and accommodation must be signed off in writing.
This includes requirements that employers respect the dignity of their household staff and allow them opportunities to pursue vocational skills. Those who take on domestic workers are also not allowed to keep their personal papers, a common practice in Vietnam.
“This is a breakthrough as it will help promote decent work, gender equality and protection for vulnerable workers,” the ILO said last month.
Praising progress on working rights, the ILO recommended that the government start gathering better information on domestic workers.
Lurid headlines have included the recent case of a 59-year-old woman in Hanoi who was badly beaten, forced to eat chilies and human excrement and had boiling water poured on her by her employers, but there is little in the way of data on the situation domestic workers face.
Another key concern is whether the new labor code will be strictly enforced in a country where the impact of legislation is often undermined by failure to hold people to account when laws are broken.
Pham Minh Hung, vice minister of labor, says the government is drafting instructions on how to enforce the new labor code before it takes effect in three months.
Even he admitted that “it is not easy to implement these clauses.”
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