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The Vietnamese government has made 77 hard and dangerous jobs off-limits to women under a new regulation, but experts and women themselves fear it would cause unemployment and poverty


Workers dredge a canal in Hanoi. Women are set to be prohibited from doing arduous and dangerous jobs under a new regulation that experts say could force women into unemployment and, thus, poverty. PHOTO: AFP

Nguyen Thi Luot and her husband migrated to Ho Chi Minh City 10 years ago and she has been doing back-breaking construction jobs along with him ever since.

“It is a heavy job for a woman but I have no other choice; I don’t know tailoring to work at garment factories like many others,” the 43-year-old, a native of the northern province of Thanh Hoa, says.

At a construction site on District 2’s Tran Ngoc Dien Street, she was busy making mortar with a shovel and carrying it and bricks to bricklayers.

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“The whole body aches every day after work but I have to work hard to raise my two children and take care of our parents,” she says.

The couple had to send their children back to Thanh Hoa with their grandparents.

Huynh Thi Noi, 53, is another woman working at the construction site. She is worried after being told about a new regulation that prohibits women from doing arduous and risky jobs like theirs.

“We are poor and cannot find a good job,” the worker from the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh says.

“We have to work at hard jobs despite the ban. Otherwise, how can we eke out a living and survive?”

Vu Van Tuan, an official at the Investment and Construction Development 1 Company (Investco 1), told Vietweek that many companies are concerned by the new regulation, which took effect on December 15 of last year.

“Honestly, they are unskilled workers who cannot be given other jobs that require certain skills.

“It will be difficult to sack them. They are migrant workers and if we fire them, they will seek the same strenuous job at other construction sites.”

Protected in poverty

At the Thu Duc wholesale market, a dozen women work as porters, unloading agriculture produce from trucks and carrying them to the stalls, mainly from midnight to 3 a.m. every day.

The new regulation prohibits employers from hiring women for jobs including those that entail carrying loads of 50 kilograms (110 lb) or more.

“The lightest load is 50 kg; most are 70-80 kg,” Lam Ngoc Bich, 50, who has been a porter at the market for 30 years, told Phu Nu (Women) newspaper.

“It is a hard job but we have to [do it] to earn money to put food on the table,” she said, adding that she earns VND200,000 (US$9.5) a day.

Bich and her fellow workers are fearful since most of them are their family’s main breadwinner and have young children to raise.

Nguyen Thi Bich Thuy, deputy chairwoman of the HCMC Labor Union, said most women working in the proscribed jobs are poor and unskilled.

So the ban should not take effect right away, she told Vietweek.

“There should be a study on women working in such jobs. Then, they should be trained to work in other jobs.”

Nguyen Van Hau, deputy chairman of the HCMC Jurists’ Association, said if the regulation is enforced scrupulously many women would lose their jobs.

“Women will have fewer job opportunities, and many of them who escaped poverty by doing heavy jobs could become poor again,” he told Vietweek.

Both Hau and Thuy said the labor ministry should review the regulation and remove certain jobs from the list to make it more appropriate for Vietnamese conditions.

Ineffective bans

While the regulation has attracted controversy, existing regulations under which fewer jobs are off-limits to women have never been implemented thoroughly.

Nguyen Thi Thu Huong of the labor ministry’s Occupational Safety Department, said a 1968 circular banned women from doing 18 arduous and dangerous jobs, including carrying loads of over 50 kg and working with toxic chemicals.

A 2011 circular updated the list, adding more jobs.

But many women do these jobs and the number is only increasing, Huong said.

Nguyen Thi Dieu Hong, a former official at the ministry’s Gender Equality Department, said most unskilled workers are female.

“In this situation, it is not easy for them to be choosy and refuse heavy jobs,” she told Phu Nu.

Khuat Thu Hong, director of the Center for Social Development Studies, said the new regulation is unfeasible.

“Women work in many of the 77 [proscribed] jobs,” she said.

“If the regulation is enforced thoroughly, many of them will lose their jobs. Is it for protection of women or terminating their means of livelihood?”

Get them other jobs

Nguyen Kim Lan, national coordinator on gender issues at the International Labor Organization in Vietnam, told Vietweek that the best approach to gender equality is improving safety at the workplace for both male and female workers with safety equipment and improved technology.

“In reality, many women workers are in good health, not being pregnant or raising young children, and they want to do these jobs. But employers refuse them just because they do not want to break the law.

“Many women workers are single or are the breadwinner of the family, but they do not have the skills or qualifications to find a better job.

“They accept [strenuous and dangerous] jobs hoping to earn enough money for a living.”

The list of jobs in the regulation should be pruned before implementing a long-term plan to keep women away from them, she said.

“Meanwhile, we have to promote vocational training and create jobs for women as a sustainable solution.”

THE BANNED JOBS

  • 35 jobs that could potentially jeopardize women’s ability to give birth and raise children - like smelting and pouring metals, working on oil rigs, controlling heavy machinery of more than 36 horsepower, carrying loads of more than 50 kg, doing autopsies, and bury and exhume bodies.
  • 3 jobs in mining and under water, including diving and underwater construction, cleaning sewers, and digging wells and mining.
  • 39 jobs proscribed for pregnant women and those with children aged less than a year: like carrying loads of more than 20 kg, working in electromagnetic environments and at jobs where they will come directly in contact with harmful substances like tobacco and pesticides.

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