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Vietnam's poor women slave away in dead-end jobs

Millions of women are trapped in low-income jobs or face the risk of trafficking

Published: July 13, 2021 03:26 AM GMT

Updated: July 13, 2021 05:23 AM GMT

Vietnam's poor women slave away in dead-end jobs

A woman delivers ice to customers for a meager living in Thua Thien Hue province. (Photo: UCA News)

Mary Nguyen Thi Vy worked 10 hours a day for three years at a factory processing salangane nests in Vietnam's southern central province of Thua Thien Hue.

Vy, who is slight of build, cleaned raw nests by manually picking feathers from edible nests. The routine job cost her 5 million dong (US$217) and she had to gradually pay her agent 400,000 dong per month as she had no money to pay in one go.

Most of the 32 workers had to borrow money to pay agents for their jobs and use their wages to gradually repay loans each month.

“The factory owner only paid me 2.9 million dong per month, deducted my salary for days off and gave me no health insurance,” Vy said, adding that the employer offered her a free uniform.

She said the low salary level is acceptable for rural living for her and other unskilled manual workers who do not dare to demand a rise in salary since having regular jobs is their lifesaver.

The employer refused to increase wages as he knew that local workers are farmers who are in a tight corner harvesting poor crops and look for any manual labor to put food on the table.

I am still owed unpaid salary for three months and I don’t have a hope in hell of being paid

Vy, who lives with her husband’s blind grandmother in a squalid 30-square-meter house, said the factory was closed in early May when local authorities imposed social distancing rules to contain a new wave of the coronavirus.

“I am still owed unpaid salary for three months and I don’t have a hope in hell of being paid,” said Vy, who suffers a bad back and poor sight due to sitting working hard for a long time.

The mother of one said her husband died in a road accident two years ago, leaving her the sole breadwinner in her household.

Vy said female workers like her toil at factories for paltry salaries to support their families and most of them could not afford to cover their health and other needs.

Her cousin borrowed 25 million dong from her employer to hold her daughter’s wedding party four years ago, and she repaid 10 million dong after the wedding. However, she has not paid off all the debt yet as she could not save much from her low salary.

Vy said other people have to seek menial work in other places in Vietnam and neighboring Laos. Many are forced to work as sex workers, do slave labor and suffer poor health.

Vietnam had a medium prevalence of forced labor (4.5 per 1,000 people), standing at 18 out of 28 countries in Asia-Pacific in the Global Slavery Index 2018, which put the absolute number of victims at 421,000 out of its total population of 93.5 million.

A local recruitment agency reported in 2019 that there were nearly 1.2 million female workers out of three million unskilled workers at 300 industrial and export processing zones across the country. Women had less access to employment opportunities than men and were mostly recruited in low-salary sectors such as footwear, textiles, food processing, ceramics and glassware.

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The agency said female workers’ salaries were 64 percent lower than men’s salaries in manual labor. Almost 60 percent of female workers took risks in informal or vulnerable work, much higher than nearly 32 percent of men.

Most female workers were young, received low salaries, suffered a lack of basic commodities and had little access to entertainment, it said. Those who were pregnant and cared for their babies succumbed to utter weariness and never considered sociable and spiritual needs.

It cited the example of Tran Thi Huong and her husband, who both work in an industrial zone in Hanoi and had to send their child to her parents.

“We never dream of entertainment or being sociable on the weekend and public holidays. We rarely visit our parents and child in our village because traveling home is expensive. We fear that our child will no longer remember us in the future,” Huong said.

Many of them have unhappy and broken marriages and are physically or sexually assaulted by their spouses. Some are killed

Salary levels of female workers in the informal and private sectors are much lower than the 2020 per capita income of $2,779, equivalent to 64 million dong, according to official statistics.

Among 1.3 million workers who lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic last year, 52 percent were women. Workers earned an average monthly income of 5.5 million dong.

Wishing for a better life is one of main reasons so many young Vietnamese women, via marriage brokers and bureaus, marry men from China, South Korea, Taiwan and other countries.

In 2018 alone, 6,338 Vietnamese women, accounting for 28 percent of all marriages between a foreigner and a Korean, married Korean men in rural areas, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service. That same year, there were 3,671 and 1,560 from China and Thailand respectively.

Many of them have unhappy and broken marriages and are physically or sexually assaulted by their spouses. Some are killed. Others suffer from domestic violence, depression, verbal abuse and communication problems, leading them to commit suicide.

In January, a 26-year-old Vietnamese mother was sentenced to three years in prison by a South Korean court for murdering her 13-day-old baby, the Korea Times reported. She had jumped from the eighth floor of an apartment building in South Gyeongsang province with her newborn baby, resulting in the baby's death.

The young woman, who sustained head and leg injuries which may lead to permanent disability, had her sentence reduced because she had been suffering from severe depression as she had no one to rely on except her husband, and she lost control when committing the crime. The minimum prison term for murder is five years.

The Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs reported that 3,476 victims of human trafficking were reported between 2016 and June 2019. Most victims were women and children from poor families in remote and rural areas, and were trafficked to China where they were forced to marry local men or sold into prostitution and slavery.

The 39 Vietnamese migrants whose bodies were discovered in a lorry in England in 2019. (Photo: Essex Police)

Seeking better jobs abroad

Illegal emigration to seek work in Europe has become most distraught and excruciating. In 2019, UK police found the bodies of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a refrigerated trailer in Essex, near London. The victims, 31 men and eight women, were between the ages of 15 and 44 and from Hai Phong, Ha Tinh, Hai Duong, Nghe An, Quang Binh and Thua Thien Hue provinces. They were believed to have paid traffickers for their transit to England.

In 2019, the country sent 147,000 workers, including 49,000 women, to work abroad.

Emeritus Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop of Ha Tinh, which covers Quang Binh and Ha Tinh among the provinces that have lots of migrant workers, said it is sad that more and more youths have to drop out of school and seek jobs in foreign countries to support their families.

Bishop Hop, former head of the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, asked what those youths would do for the nation and Church in the new age of the fourth industrial revolution that focuses on creation, professional skills, digitalization and technologies rather than manual labor.

He said the Church needs a young generation who are engrossed in studies, work for the common good and thirst for a better life, not work for daily food. He called on local Catholics to take practical initiatives to support and train young people to achieve those useful purposes.

I work at full stretch all day in the scorching heat and earn only 40,000 dong a day
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Since 2015, Caritas Vietnam has held courses raising public awareness about human trafficking in many dioceses as a way to reduce trafficking. Caritas workers in Phu Cuong Diocese, which is home to industrial zones attracting migrant workers across the country, launched a campaign on emigrating legally and securing safe livelihoods in 21 parishes.

Some 14,000 people have attended courses on knowledge and skills so that they can protect themselves when emigrating to new environments. Children and women are taught about reproductive health, forms of sexual abuse, human rights and risks of abduction and trafficking.

To prevent poor people from leaving home and seeking jobs in other places, Caritas Vietnam also helps repair and build hundreds of houses, and provides seeds and young animals to people who lost their belongings during the floods last year in central provinces.

Vy said she now rides an old bike to collect used items from garbage dumps, construction sites, cemeteries and restaurants to support her family while her son is in her parents’ care.

“I work at full stretch all day in the scorching heat and earn only 40,000 dong a day,” she said, wiping the sweat from her forehead. Her family has only two meals per day and she sometimes passes out from hunger and the heat.

She said she has no money to buy milk for her son and get medical treatment for her illnesses. Her three-year-old son suffers malnutrition, weighing only 11 kilograms.

“I have no choice but to continue this dead-end job,” she said.

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