In this undated photo, garment workers at a factory in Bình Duong province, Vietnam. (PHOTO / VIET NAM NEWS)
HANOI - Eight hours a day, five days a week, 35-year-old Nguyen Thi Hoa* painstakingly looks for tiny defects in thousands of apparel products at a dusty garment factory in Lai Vu Industrial Zone, the northern province of Hai Duong.
She earns VND4.9 million (US$210) a month.
There is no better alternative for Nguyen the moment. She left her job at an electronics assembly factory to work here for a better schedule, but her salary was the same.
Almost all workers spend extra hours at the factory. The pay is 1.5 times higher for each hour.
Ngyuen Thi Hoa, Textiles worker, Vietnam
“It is impossible to live a proper life with that amount of money,” said Nguyen.
Leaving her husband behind in the central province of Thanh Hoa, she moved to the emerging industrial hub in Hai Duong with a clear goal, “earning enough money to start a business.”
This target now seems out of reach, as she can hardly cover her living expenses.
Nearly three million garment workers in Vietnam, mostly women, are in similar situations.
A study of fashion suppliers in Vietnam conducted by the Institute of Workers and Unions and Oxfam Vietnam found that 99 percent of surveyed workers earn below the Asia Floor Wage of VND8.9 million (US$382) while 74 percent earn below the Global Living Wage Coalition (Anker) benchmark of VND5.2 million (US$223).
The national average minimum wage in Vietnam of VNĐ3.34 million (US$143) is not enough for a person to live at the most basic level.
Even though the wages of most garment workers are higher than minimum wage, they “fall short of what is considered a living wage,” the research found.
A living wage should cover eight essentials including nutritious food, decent housing, healthcare, utilities, education, clothing, transportation and savings.
Nguyen doesn’t have a living wage, so she can’t save the money she wants to send home.
To try and achieve her dream of starting her own business, she works overtime.
“Almost all workers spend extra hours at the factory. The pay is 1.5 times higher for each hour,” she said.
Aiming to earn more money, Nguyen stays late, from one hour up to three hours in busy seasons.
She does not dare take a break or show up late as her monthly bonus for attendance of VND300,000 (US$12.9) will be cut.
“When I have a minor illness, it is better to go to a local medical facility for a check-up and buy medicine,” she said.
“Although we pay for insurance, it takes time to ask for leave and go to hospital. If I’m absent one day my income will be cut short. I simply do not want that to happen,” Nguyen added.
Sixty-five percent of surveyed workers said they regularly work overtime while 22 percent said they did not take annual leave and even go to the toilet quickly.
Getting to work late, taking sick leave, violating the rules or failing to meet production quotas can result in wage deductions.
In addition, when workers take annual leave, they will receive half or sometimes none of their attendance allowance.
Long and arduous road
“Many workers told me that they had to work overtime to earn enough for living,” said Vu Quang Tho, former head of the Union Institute and a former member of the National Salary Council.
However, the impacts of overtime on workers’ health are severe and 53 percent of them cannot afford medical treatment and medicine, meaning they are sacrificing their health for employment.
“Therefore, it is essential to raise the minimum wage besides other assistance policies,” said Vu.
Increasing 1% of employees’ wages means costs would rise 3% or 4%. And as manufacturing costs account for 92% of the industry’s revenue, profit will be reduced by wage lifts
By increasing the wages of workers by 1 percent, employers can ease heavy financial burdens they are bearing, the research recommends.
In reality, that isn’t as easy as it sounds.
According to Tong Thi Minh, former head of the Department of Labour Relations, Vietnam’s textile industry focuses mostly on manufacturing.
Increasing 1 percent of employees’ wages means costs would rise 3 or 4 percent.
As manufacturing costs account for 92 percent of the industry’s revenue, profit will be reduced by wage lifts.
Garment factories are facing deadlock. While costs increase, buyer’s purchasing prices fall.
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Since their negotiation power cannot fight the fierce competition with other suppliers, manufacturing enterprises impose sanctions on workers to keep prices low.
“Committing to preventing the race to bottom should be prioritized,” Tong said.
“The membership of new-generation FTAs and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) includes codes of conducts that offer Vietnamese garment companies better opportunities in price negation. They are also asked to share social responsibilities and allow workers to ask for wage rises,” she added.
The road, however, is arduous and long.
“It will take at least five to 10 years for garment workers to enjoy the living wage they deserve,” said Vu Minh Tien, head of the Union Institute.
“At least we are making the first steps,” he added.
But Nguyen cannot wait.
She is 35 now while the average age of garment workers is 30.4 and the turnover rate is about 40 percent a year.
“I know it all, that my wage is too low, that the working conditions are bad, that my body is being destroyed. I know but cannot do anything,” she said in vain.
(*) Not her real name.
HONG KONG NEWS