Vietnam has made great strides to increase women’s participation in the economy over the past 30 years. Today, 72% of women are in the workforce, giving Vietnam one of the highest female employment rates in the world, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). That fact, to be sure, is worthy of celebration. It is great that women are able to earn a living and contribute to their family’s economic wellbeing; however, women still face a host of workplace discriminations, from pervasive sexual harassment to unequal wages that curb the development of true gender equality in Vietnam.
With so many challenges, what do you address first? That’s a gut-wrenching question when you consider the multitude of areas that need and deserve attention on the march towards true gender equality. Unfortunately, no magic wand exists to erase all discrimination with the flick of a wrist.
As a steadfast advocate for gender rights and the social advancement of women in Vietnam, Kenan has mainstreamed women’s issues into the Strengthening the Awareness and Practice of International Labor Rights in Vietnam (SAP-ILR) project that is empowering workers and helping factory management embed international labor standards into their daily practices. Our experience working in the factory setting in Vietnam, however, indicates that real progress can and should be made to help a particularly vulnerable group – new mothers and pregnant women in the workforce – realize their rights. Because Vietnam’s Labor Code has measures in place to protect pregnant employees, such as the prohibition on the unilateral termination or suspension of labor contracts during pregnancy, the legal framework already exists for progress to take root. The problems that pregnant workers and new mothers face, thus, do not arise from the Labor Code itself, but rather the application and enforcement of the Code at the enterprise level.
Despite being entitled to six months of maternity leave, which is higher than most countries in Asia, Vietnamese women still face obstacles in understanding and realizing this right. Although their maternity entitlements are clearly expressed in Vietnam’s Labor Code, this information seldom trickles down to workers on the factory floor. As such, workers frequently pose questions about maternity entitlements on online media sites and legal forums. Furthermore, data from Google Trends suggests that the term “nghỉ thai sản” (maternity leave) has significant interest in industrial zones. For example, the term has an average rating of 96/100, which is very high, in sub-regions with industrial zone like Bac Ninh, Vinh Phuc and Bac Giang, whereas the average for Vietnam overall is only 60. This figure reflects the need for information about maternity entitlements to be broadcast more widely and transparently. Without adequate data available, it is impossible to quantitatively measure just how uninformed workers are; however, our direct experience with workers coupled with the frequency of questions raised online indicates that the lack of transparency is a clear problem with real consequences on women in industry.
Pregnant women or women even considering starting families, moreover, are frequent targets of discrimination in the workplace and have fewer and less secure employment prospects. The ILO stated in its Better Work Annual Report 2017 that firms in Vietnam hire “female workers on short, fixed-term contracts…[to] enable them to be terminated easily (and without maternity benefits) if they fall pregnant, and furthermore it was reported that physical ‘fitness’ tests (jumping on the spot etc.) are carried out during the recruitment process…to rule out already-pregnant workers from the prospective job role.” Only vigilant factory monitoring processes and continued education on gender equality will enable Vietnam to rise above the hurdles that women continue to face.
To help Vietnam do just that, Kenan is using a two-pronged approach under SAP-ILR that is improving monitoring of standards in factories and addressing information gaps related to maternity entitlements. First, Kenan has created a workplace standards checklist and opened up both in-person and virtual communications channels for workers to provide confidential feedback. These channels enable Kenan to gather common questions and identify persistent issues to address through advocacy efforts. Second, Kenan educates workers, enterprise managers, and other key stakeholders on the rights of workers as set forth in the Labor Code through trainings in industrial zones. By using gameplay and team-based activities during training, Kenan has created widespread buy-in and commitment from relevant stakeholders to uphold the Labor Code and adopt international standards into their practices. Because of our approaches and innovative training methods, we have been able to identify key issues that women face in the workplace and taken actions to address the problems directly.
“By using creative methods, such as gameplay, to strengthen the interaction with workers, knowledge about labor rights…has been successfully delivered,” said Thao Lan, a journalist from Labor & Society Magazine, who visited one of Kenan’s workshops.
Echoing Lan’s observation, Cao Thi Thu, a 29-year-old worker for Foster Electric, said, “the knowledge from Kenan’s communication event has helped me clearly understand the social and maternity policies for female workers. I can share [this knowledge] with other female workers and help them understand [their rights] too.”
Critically, we are educating factories on the importance of meeting international labor standards from both a social and business lens. By presenting adherence to labor standards as a win-win scenario and opening up dialogue between workers and management, we have reduced sensitivity around the issue and gained buy-in for enhanced monitoring and firm commitments to build a safe, ethical, and successful business environment in Bac Ninh.
Social change does not take place overnight, but the time for true gender equality to be realized is long overdue. One article or one seminar won’t bring about wholesale change, but, with a strong, persistent effort to educate the public and gain commitments from key stakeholders in government, business, and civil society to tackle the issue, Vietnamese women can realize their full rights at long last. Through trainings with workers and management, monitoring of factory conditions, and public awareness campaigns about women’s rights in the workplace, Kenan is bridging the chasms that affect millions of women workers every day. The first step towards genuine change is a commitment to better understand the issues that women face, both socially and in the workplace, and we hope that you will join us on the march to gender equality.