Where women bring home the bacon as pig porter

By Dac Thanh   June 12, 2020 | 12:00 pm GMT+7

Five women at the Ba Ren Market in the central province of Quang Nam make a living carrying and weighing pigs.

The Ba Ren Market in Quang Nam Province. Video by Dac Thanh.

Tran Thi Thao, 58, gets to the market on an old motorbike at around 6 a.m.

She has been doing this without fail for 32 years, but she does not get there to buy or sell anything.

Thao makes a living doing a very unusual job – that of a pig porter at the oldest market of its kind in the country and the biggest market for pigs in the central region.

Ba Den was established in 1970 and is situated right next to the National Highway 1. The market is several thousand square meters in size, and its heart is a 500-square-meter "house," selling piglets.

The market reopened recently after being closed in the wake of the African swine flu that swept across the nation, taking the lives of millions of pigs.

Once she gets to the market, Thao puts on the indispensable conical hat, some extra layers of clothes and a pair of gloves before she gets to work. She is one of only five women who work as pig porters. She is also the most experienced of the five, the youngest having entered the procession five years ago.

The noisy market reverberates with the grunts and squeals of pigs, the chatter between vendors and loud negotiations between vendors and customers.

Suddenly, Thao hears someone call out her name and immediately rushes to a wire cage, grabs a pig and carries it to another. In about 10 minutes, she has neatly transferred a litter of 10 pigs weighing about 5 kg each.

Tran Thi Thao holds a pig while standing on a scale in Ba Ren wet market. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

Tran Thi Thao holds a pig and stands on a scale at the Ba Ren Market in Quang Nam Province, central Vietnam. VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

Her job involves more than carrying pigs from one place to another. If the deal has not been "finalized," she will carry the pigs for buyers to inspect. Once the two sides have agreed to transact, Thao's next task is to hold each pig and stand on a scale. The seller and the buyer look at the scale and mumble the calculations to find the weight of the pig, subtracting her weight from the total.

At this point, earnest bargaining is conducted before the sale is concluded.

Explaining the human-pig weighing method, Tran Van Tien, a trader, said: "To weigh each pig, its legs have to be tied or it has to be placed in a cage. This is very time consuming."

He said using the pig porters is much faster, allowing traders the time to buy more pigs. Each day, Tien heads to the market to buy dozens of pigs and takes them to mountainous districts.

The Ba Ren pig market usually lasts for about four hours in the morning.

Pham Cu, head of market's management team, said about 100 people come and buy nearly 1,000 pigs every day. The market only closes on the 1st and 15th of every lunar month.

"In this market, even if there is no paperwork, pigs will be traded orally. If in four days the pigs show signs of illness, customers can bring them back and the seller will exchange them for another pig."

This means that the pig porters are kept busy throughout.

Soaked in sweat, Thao runs from place to place, trying to carry as many pigs as possible to boost her income. She is aware that her speed makes the work of buyers and sellers much easier.

When the market closes at 10 a.m., Thao goes around to the vendors to receive her payment. She is paid VND500 ($0.02) per pig that weighs under 10 kg and VND1,000 ($0.04) per those that pig over 10 kg. That day, from dawn to noon, Thao has earned nearly VND100,000 ($4.3).

Women bring home the bacon by weighing pigs in wet market - 3

A woman carries a pig at the Ba Ren market. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

Thao was born and raised in a northern province. She met and married a soldier, a Quang Nam native, and moved to the Que Xuan 1 Commune. Since 1988, she has hired out her labor at the Ba Ren Market.

Several years after she began working at the wet market, pig sellers began asking her to carry pigs between cages or picking them up for traders to inspect. The job earned her the nickname "Thao Bac" (bac meaning grab or catch in Vietnamese). Later on, other hired laborers also signed up for this job.

This low income but intensive labor job became more important when her husband died, leaving her with two young children.

"Even though this is very difficult, I am still very thankful for this job since it gives me some income to help raise my children," Thao said.

No raise for years

While she is thankful she has a job, Thao has not received any increase in her remuneration for decades. After she is done at the market, she still has to work hard in the fields to make ends meet.

Apart from getting no raise, another occupational hazard that Thao and her peers suffer and cannot escape is the smell of pigs lingering on them all the time. The women say the smell sticks to them even after many showers using different kinds of soaps.

And though the job looks simple enough, it requires some skills, too.

"The job also requires skills. If we are not careful when we carry the pig and let it run away, we have to pay for it," Thao said, adding that she has mishandled and accidently let a few of them escape when she had just started out on this job.

Sometimes, she was lucky and able to chase and catch them. but there have also been a few occasions when she had to pay for the escaped pigs.

"I grab the pig near its front two legs with one hand and place the other hand near its belly and push them back against my body to secure it."

Risky, too

Nguyen Thi Lam holding a pig weighing over 10 kg. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

Nguyen Thi Lam holds a pig weighing over 10 kg. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

Nguyen Thi Lam, 60, one of Thao's co-wokers, said: "The job may look easy, but it is a tough task and carries great risks. Some of us want to quit, but still carry on since we are old and it is hard to find another job, and we still have to provide financial support to our families."

Even as she spoke, someone called out for her and she rushed to carry some pigs and put them in a truck.

Lam said that what she earns as a pig porter is only enough to buy groceries from the market itself.

But, she said: "Since I feel like I still have the strength, I will keep doing this while I can. I feel sad if my children have to take care of me and support me."

 
 
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