Without protection, workers sacrifice rights to be in bosses' good books

By Bao Uyen   November 25, 2019 | 05:58 pm PT
Xuan is a worker at a Taiwanese shoe factory. After 15 years of working there she understands the rights the Labor Code gives her.
Bao Uyen

Bao Uyen

But during her pregnancy, when her managers ask her to do jobs that may not be good for her unborn child, she obliges.

She used to work in the sole glueing division where, every day, she was exposed to industrial glues containing hazardous chemicals. When she became pregnant, she was transferred to the assembling division, where exposure to the glue is limited.

So far so good, but then her managers ask Xuan to return to her old work every time they are short of hands. Though she understands the risks for her baby, she complies.

She explains, "They ask me politely; they do not force me to do anything." But the real reason is that she does not want to be in her bosses’ bad books, which for her is worse than any possible harm to her baby.

"Afterward, when the baby is born, if I am on good terms with the managers, they will be more likely to rearrange my working schedule for easier child rearing."

She did the same when she was first pregnant five years ago.

Similarly, many of Xuan's co-workers are giving up many of their rights. One of them is an extra 30-minute break every day during menses. Hang is one of many women workers who sacrifice this right every month.

Fearing that the manager might complain and deduct her salary for visiting the restroom too often, she only drinks about 500ml of water every eight-hour shift when menstruating so that she does not need frequent toilet breaks.

Hang is aware of her right to a 30-minute break, but then no one has ever taken it. She does not feel comfortable doing it differently.

Xuan, Hang and most other women factory workers know their rights since they are in their labor contracts, but rarely exercise them.

Penalties for employers' violations of labor rights and dismissal of employees are much lower than the cost workers would pay to defend their rights.

There's no equality in work negotiations. The employers can make their workers do more without violating the laws outright.

Women work at a furniture factory outside Hanoi, Vietnam, April 5, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Kham.

Women work at a furniture factory outside Hanoi, Vietnam, April 5, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Kham.

Xuan will have to return to her old job after the pregnancy break. It also means she has to find a babysitter to take care of her infant. She will also have to ensure a high level of performance, which would be near impossible with the added pressure of raising a child.

As a 34-year-old single mother who has been trained with nothing other than shoe-gluing skills of the past 15 years, Xuan does not see good prospects of finding a job elsewhere.

She would have to accept all kinds of job requirements. Her position in the negotiation table is very low.

Inside factories, rules are not only framed by the Labor Code: many other unspoken constraints exist, like a request from managers or just a long-standing norm.

The unspoken rules in fact govern the working environment, deciding the negotiating positions of workers and often undermining their rights. Workers’ compliance is motivated by a bigger fear, unemployment.

A 2018 OXFAM study found that 69 percent of workers could not make ends meet with their regular income, and working overtime was not a matter of choice but compulsion.

Hang's salary can barely support her basic needs. If she falls ill and has to skip some shifts, all she can afford for dinner will be instant noodles, the cheapest meal possible. She occasionally tries to make more money by skipping drink breaks.

Our national policy always try to protect workers' right. But our policies are based merely on theory. In reality, there are workers like Xuan, or Hang, who are willing to give up their rights. The work equality stated in the law only exists on paper.

Without a legal representative that is powerful enough, workers, especially female, will keep suffering unequal work negotiations. Hang will still receive an extra VND38,000 for skipping her drink breaks. She will keep drinking 500ml of water over eight hours and take painkillers to voluntarily work her whole shift and a few extra hours.

*Bao Uyen is a journalist at VnExpress. The opinions expressed are her own.

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