Will Vietnamese workers have a place in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

By Duc Hoang, Hoang Phuong   May 25, 2017 | 04:45 pm GMT+7
Will Vietnamese workers have a place in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
At a garment factory in northern Vietnam. Photo courtesy of the International Labor Organization
Most of them cannot afford to prepare themselves for the wave of automation, or even worry about it.

Quyen wakes up every day with the same routine: working until 6 p.m., rushing to her room to cook a quick meal with some vegetables and 150 grams of meat for both dinner and breakfast the next morning, and heading back to the factory to work overtime.

Despite holding a teaching degree, the young woman from the northern province of Yen Bai chose factory life at the Bac Thang Long Industrial Zone in Hanoi as she could not afford the VND300 million ($13,200) needed to bribe herself into a school job back home.

She still owes more than VND30 million of a social loan borrowed to pay for her college tuition. She hopes the factory job will help clear that debt. Vietnam's average annual income was around $2,200 last year.

Many of Quyen’s co-workers are also college or university graduates, trained to use their academic knowledge to help the economy.

But the only doors they found open to them led to manual jobs, many of which will be redundant when machines take over.

The world is standing on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term introduced by Germany around two years ago to project a new period of fundamental changes to global production with a wave of new technology.

A study by the International Labor Organization late last year found that 86 percent of workers in Vietnam's garments sector face increased automation, while about 75 percent of workers in the electronics sector could be replaced by robots in the coming decades.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc issued a directive earlier this month laying out plans for the country to prepare for the revolution. It asked the labor ministry to revise training and education for workers to focus on mastering and making use of advanced, innovative technology, and to combat any negative effects the revolution may have on the labor market.

That is the plan, but right now non-government organizations specializing in labor find it “very hard” to make Vietnamese workers enrol on training courses, even when the classes are free.

Factory owners want their workers to simply sleep and recharge for the next working day, they said.

The workers themselves believe their future is not going anywhere.

To many of them, worrying about technological advances is a luxury they cannot afford, especially when they don't have the money to pay for TV or the internet, and when all their meals consist of instant noodles and water spinach, one of the cheapest vegetables in Vietnam.

That’s how Lam and her husband, both workers at Bac Thang Long, measure their income – how much water spinach and instant noodles they can buy. They have no savings.

She gets paid VND3.75 million a month, the exact minimum wage set by the government, and combined with her husband’s income, the family of four, which includes her child and grandmother, has VND8 million a month to live on.

They live in a 10-square-meter room that costs nearly VND1 million a month and gives them space for two pieces of furniture: a bed and a wardrobe. Lam said they once looked for a better option, but the VND1.2 million price tag was more than they could afford.

A national survey conducted in March this year found that 12 percent of workers said their wages were not enough to live on, so they had to take on extra jobs. 33 percent said their wages were low and they had to live thriftily, while only 16 percent of workers, most of them in the mining sector, were able to save.

Many young workers across Vietnam, some of whom are just in their 20s, live that same life.

They get a break once in a while by going to a karaoke parlor especially designed for factory workers so it can accommodate a whole assembly line, with 20 of them, at a time.

Some of them have broken from the cycle by taking up farming jobs back in their hometowns, where “life is less harsh,” according to a worker’s mother.

Some have signed up for overseas labor.

The rest are left to worry, not about the industrial revolution, but how to find enough money to take the next trip home for the Lunar New Year.

“We are broke and cannot go home for the holiday," a young man from central Vietnam told a police officer in the southern industrial province of Binh Duong three days before the holiday in 2011.

"That’s why we decided to rob someone," he said. "This is our first time, sir,”

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