It is nearing 10am at Foster Electric’s factory in the Vietnam – Singapore Industrial Park (VSIP) in Bac Ninh. Over 3,000 employees are packed into tight production lines on the highest floor, where 40,000 headphones are manufactured every day.
“They have seats,” a manager tells me as we make our way along the aisles. “Not like Chinese factories.” He brings two female workers over to me and stands directly behind us as we speak. Nguyen Thu Uyen and Vu Thi Tham are both 22, the same age as me. They earn $250 a month and are members of the company union.
For young women like Nguyen and Vu, factory employment is often a more attractive option than uncompensated farm or domestic work. As you enter any industrial zone on the outskirts of Hanoi, you see hundreds like them on motorbikes, speeding into work from company dormitories and rented rooms.
It is women that make, assemble and check the clothes, cameras, phones, and electronic components that leave parks like VSIP to be shipped or flown to cities all over the world. According to the ILO, around 80% of Vietnam’s 700,000 factory workers are female. In VSIP, 93% of Foster Electric’s employees are women.
While they are typically paid more than women in the informal and even public sectors, female factory employees are often set strict production targets that they must reach every day. This can sometimes involve having to work unpaid overtime, Duong Thi Viet Anh, the managing director of CDI, a Vietnamese NGO working in northern industrial areas, tells me.
Childcare is another big issue. As most factory employees are migrant workers, they have restricted access to public crèches and primary schools. When I ask two female workers at a Canon factory in the Thang Long Industrial Park about their hopes for the future, they both say that on-site childcare facilities would make their lives so much easier. Few factories provide such facilities, though, and so most women have to leave their children with grandparents at home.
Even in highly feminised workplaces, there are also gendered hierarchies of promotion and status. Differences start to become clear when you look at who does what factory jobs, Ms Nguyen Hong Ha, programme manager of Better Work Vietnam, tells me. “Women tend to be sewers and helpers, while men are usually in higher paid occupations working as cutters and mechanics. Men are also three times more likely than women to be supervisors.”
Nearly three decades after its Doi Moi reforms, Vietnam has proved itself to be an ally of foreign capital. A 2011 UN study of nearly 1,500 factories in Vietnam found that most foreign firms have received incentives such tax breaks and land rent reductions from local authorities. Following the burning of several foreign companies during anti-China riots in May, the Vietnamese government went as far as to pledge rent waivers, tax relief and compensation packages for affected companies.
The buoyant business section of Viet Nam News, an English language newspaper published by the official state news agency, reflects this change of direction, bringing news every day of new factories and jobs. “US companies pounce on opportunities,” a headline read this Monday.
Most of the factories in industrial parks hit by anti-China disturbances have resumed production and the four companies I have spoken to so far all say they are here for the long run. Vietnam is clearly a country in transition and, for major international companies after an abundant supply of cheap labour, its advantages seem to outweigh recent troubles.
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