Behind booming FDI figures are Vietnam’s ‘disposable’ workers

By Bao Uyen   May 24, 2018 | 11:03 pm PT
Behind booming FDI figures are Vietnam’s ‘disposable’ workers
Women work at a small-size garment factory on the outskirts of Hanoi. Photo by AFP
Workers are left with no skills and no valuable experience once factories dismiss them after profiting from their youth.

Xuyen, 31, has spent over 10 years working in numerous textile factories across Vietnam. Without a high school diploma, she packed her bags and joined her friends to work for a meager wage of VND3 million ($133) a month.

Xuyen was working at a factory producing cellphone components in the northern Bac Ninh Province last year. I met her one afternoon when she got to take a rare breather after a string of prolonged shifts. She told me about her first rented apartment ever since she became a factory worker. It had boxes for rooms and shards of glass for windows. The air inside was stagnant, and the narrow entrance which could only fit one motorbike through made the apartment all the more suffocating. Xuyen shuddered as she recalled blackouts.

Xuyen’s youth was spent on days trying to figure out what food to buy so as to not overspend her VND15,000 ($0.66) budget for an afternoon meal for three; working overnight shifts to send some money back home; and fearing wage deductions if she got caught falling asleep on the job.

It’s been like that for Xuyen for over 13 years. And soon, the factory is going to dismiss her because people over 30 are “not welcomed” there.

Xuyen is not alone. Vietnam has over 10 million people currently working in industrial facilities. Women make up more than two-thirds of them, mostly from 18 to 40 years of age.

That day inside the phone component factory, I saw many faces from all walks of life. Some had just graduated from high school, while others hid away their bachelor’s degrees in pursuit of a factory worker’s life. The job market is only getting tougher, yet the farmland back home can’t provide enough to sustain them. Straight out of school, they went to factories as if that was their best bet for the future.

Nguyen Duc Loc, a lecturer at Thu Dau Mot University in Binh Duong Province, Vietnam’s industrial hub north of Ho Chi Minh City, said no one can fully describe industrial workers’ quality of life and work, citing his own research on social welfare for young laborers. Loc and his colleagues conclusion was: “They suffer from multifaceted poverty” - They have little land back home, few assets after years of Sisyphean work, no valuable skills, or faith or life experiences.

Factories firing female workers over 30 or 35 are no longer separate cases. Eighty percent of female workers over 35 in industrial facilities either quit or are forced to quit, according to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs. Companies would cite business restructuring as the reason for the dismissals, or just prompt them to quit on their own by making work conditions unbearable.

Vietnam is an attractive destination for foreign investment due to its abundant, young and cheap labor force. We welcome investors with open arms but have been owing workers for years a legal clause that would grant them a meal between shifts to improve their lives. The government’s Project 404 that was approved four years ago attempts to solve just that, but it remains on paper.

Over 1,000 workers met with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and other officials in the northern Ha Nam Province last Sunday. Over the course of two hours, many of the questions raised by Xuyen’s colleagues aligned with her own concerns regarding their working and living conditions.

When the PM asked if the workers were prepared for the upcoming fourth Industrial Revolution, it reminded me of Xuyen. She and her colleagues only know how to screw bolts and assemble electric components imported from China. Never mind industry 4.0, their job just requires the skills of industry 1.0.

Contrary to what the government has hoped, foreign invested companies have not transferred their technologies to domestic ones. And workers are left with nothing, no skill and no valuable work experience once factories dismiss them after profiting from their youth.

You may ask, what training responsibility these companies have towards their employees to ensure that they are not left poor and with a gloomy future. The answer is, the companies do have plenty of responsibilities in many other countries.

In China, foreign investors are required to offer workers training on the job, soft skills and English classes and nurseries. They are required to transfer their technology to domestic companies, meaning after profiting from the youth, the employees are given back a new future.

Rapidly rising figures on GDP growth and foreign investment are seen as a breakthrough for Vietnam, but they carry a hefty price. Those numbers are the culmination of many hours spent working day and night by our young workers, only to be discarded when all their youthful strength has been squeezed out and they can no longer stand for hours straight in a soulless assembly chain.

Xuyen previously planned to submit her resignation letter after the Lunar New Year holiday, but she hesitated. Where would she go next, when she has no job prospects and her farm back home is already gone?

One day, Xuyen will have to leave the factory gate but she doesn’t know what to do with her degraded health and the little savings she has.

She never had a chance to look back on her youth. Neither can she answer the prime minister’s question.

*Bao Uyen is a Vietnamese journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are her own.

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