Experts eye Vietnam's domestic helper law warily as it goes into effect

By Minh Hung, Thanh Nien News

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A domestic worker in Hanoi. A decree taking effect on May 25 has recognized labor rights for domestic workers in Vietnam. PHOTO: NGOC THANG
Huynh Thi Hong doesn't like to introduce herself as a home helper.
“People look down on me when they find out what I do because it’s a lower class job for those who are not educated,” said the 41-year-old woman in Ho Chi Minh City.
Lawmakers in Vietnam are trying to change that.
Hong and many domestic helpers are optimistic about a new regulation that aims to better protect their rights, while experts and insiders worry about its feasibility.
“I'm happy because now we can pay into the social insurance fund and live on pensions when we become old. Moreover, domestic help is now a recognized profession,” Hong said.
The decree takes effect on May 25 and requires employers to sign contracts with home helpers and pay them social and health insurance stipends.
Employees will be responsible for using the funds to buy insurance fees on their own.
Phillip Hazelton, chief technical advisor on industrial relations at the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Vietnam said the decree represents an important step toward protecting these workers and promoting domestic work as a legitimate profession.
“[This] job brings substantive economic and social benefits to the families of employer households," he told Thanh Nien News. "250,000 workers are expected to be employed in domestic work in Vietnam by 2015," he said.
In Asia, 21.5 million people – or more than 40 percent of the world’s total – are employed by private households, according to the ILO.
In Asia and the Pacific, the proportion of domestic workers covered by labor laws is lower than in other parts of the world: only three percent enjoy a weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours and annual leave.
Meanwhile, they typically earn less than half of what is considered an average wage, and sometimes no more than one fifth of that average, while access to legal and social protections remains another major challenge, ILO said.
Long hours, violence and harassment
A joint study conducted by the ILO and the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs in 2011 showed that the majority of domestic workers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are women from the countryside.
The study described the living conditions for non live-in domestic workers and those tending the sick at local hospitals as poor whereas live-in domestic workers were described as having limited communication outside their employer families.
The study also indicated that many domestic workers have to work “extremely long hours” and are likely to be exposed to sexual harassment and other forms of violence.
Ngo Thi Ngoc Anh, director of the Research Center for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CGFED) said that a survey conducted by her center in 2013 found domestic helpers earned an average of VND3.2 million (US$151.4) a month, which is higher than the basic salary of a university graduate.
“However, many of the surveyed home helpers had to work for more than eight hours a day, suffer insults, threats or sexual harassment,” she said, adding that most of them work under informal, verbal contracts.
She also said many home helpers in Vietnam are untrained, which creates conflicts with their employers.
New hope, but concerns remain
While home helpers are optimistic about the new decree, many observers worry it won't be effectively enforced.
Thanh Tuan, a resident at the To Hien Thanh Apartments in HCMC, said he pays a live-in home helper VND3.5 million a month plus bonuses and a bonus of a month's salary at the end of the lunar year.
“If we have to pay social and health insurance, we will have to reduce the current salary,” he said. “Moreover, I think home helpers want a high salary and don't care much about insurance.”
Nguyen Thi Minh, a resident in HCMC’s Go Vap District, is concerned that many home helpers won't use the extra money the decree affords to buy insurance.
“Many of them don't care much about the future,” she said. "They'll only think their monthly salary is being curbed by some kind of fee."
Tran Anh Tuan, deputy director of the HCMC Center of Forecasting Human Resources Needs and Labor Market Information, said social insurance agencies should authorize local authorities to collect benefit payments given to domestic workers to make sure the funds go toward insurance.
“I think it is unfeasible to expect home owners to pay insurance fees to home workers and expect them to buy insurance on their own,” he said.
Pham Thi Minh Hang, deputy director of the Research Center for Gender, Family and Environment in Development, said the decree stipulates that employer families must file copies of their labor contracts with the local authorities.
“But there is no punitive measures if the employers violate this regulation,” she said.
But Hazelton, the ILO advisor, recognized some significant benefits in the decree.
“Another key is domestic workers coming together to promote their rights in this decree, either through seeking to form associations or a trade union. The Vietnam General Confederation of Labor has an important role to play here.”
However, he said the training for domestic workers required by the decree remains another challenge.
He quoted the 2011 joint study written by the ILO and the labor ministry as saying that a majority of domestic workers in Hanoi and HCMC are women from the countryside who mostly have completed lower secondary school and have almost no training for their job.
“It will be important for vocational centers to develop affordable and accessible courses for those who want jobs as domestic workers.”
Hazelton hoped the Vietnamese government would seek to raise public awareness about the benefits of this new decree.
“It would be hoped that government inspectors and the authorities at the local level who receive the contracts can also promote and facilitate compliance with the decree over time,” he said.
“Enforcement will be difficult yes – but there are mediation mechanisms for resolving disputes in the decree if there is enough awareness about it.”

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