Amid the current economic crisis plaguing the world, Viet Nam has managed to secure the ninth lowest unemployment rate in the world, with just over two per cent of the population in search of a job. This statistic, however, veils over the many paid employees of the domestic sector who are struggling to survive.

These latest figures from, together with data collected by the General Statistics of Viet Nam (GSO) in 2011 comes after the amazing declarations from 24/7 Wall Street that Viet Nam is a country where everyone has a job.

Stories from inside the country paint a wholly different story however, as worker Nguyen Thi Nhung has testified. Nhung, 33, who works in a printing company in Cau Giay District, south of the capital city Ha Noi, used to earn a monthly income of VND6 million (US$300). But now, hard times have fallen on her and her wages have plummeted to half that amount or even less. For Nhung and many like her, "having a job does not mean you have enough to live".

With a 5-year-old child and a disabled husband in Yen So Commune, a rural area of Ha Noi, that amount of money is hardly enough to support their minimum demands.

"I spend more than half of my income on my son's school fees and food, which leaves VND1.5 million for food for me and my husband. He now has no choice but to grow what vegetables he can in the garden. Otherwise, we can not afford any at all, as our budget for food is spent entirely on necessary rice and meat," Nhung says.

According to a recent survey, about 15 million workers are suffering from the dismally low wages.

But Nhung is in a relatively good position when compared to the situation of Nguyen Thi Nhan, 35, who must balance her two jobs as a road cleaner and a motorbike taxi driver on Ngoc Ha Street. Despite having two jobs, she has no social security or health insurance. Working as a part-time road cleaner, cleaning duties and salary are split among official staff of the cleaning company, but she still receives no social security. In other words, Nhan is not actually employed by the company but is in fact hired by their staff for VND2.5 million ($125) per month.

"It is terrible to work without any social security. Three years ago, I almost died when I got hit by a car while cleaning the road at night and the driver just sped off," she says. "Fortunately, I was treated and recovered well in hospital." However, without health insurance, she had to borrow more than VND30 million ($1,500) for the treatment, which now forces her to work double shifts to pay off the debt. This has led her to take on a second job as a motorbike taxi driver so that she can also support her children in her home town in Song Cong District, Thai Nguyen Province.

According to Nhan, having not had a good education and not having any vocational skills, she has had to stay in the same job for more than five years which for her is preferable to being a farmer in her home town.

"As farmers, my parents and relatives work hard from early morning often until very late at night," she says. "They reap the rewards if the weather is good and if there are no epidemic attacks on the chickens and pigs, but you never know what tomorrow will bring."

Her parents were too poor to send their children to school and her brother withdrew his child from the education system to support the family by working. She is now forced to stay in the city, where she can earn money to support her two daughters' education until university.

"And then they can change their lives for the better," she hopes.

No insurance

While the General Statistics Office says that nearly 98 per cent of the Vietnamese have a job, 70 per cent of the population are working as farmers or self-employed without State-subsidised social security.

Tong Thi Song Huong, director of the Health Insurance division in the Ministry of Health, says that while over 57 million people have health insurance in Viet Nam, most farmers do not. Huong says official employees and students must buy their obligatory insurance, while others will pay voluntarily for health insurance, which costs about VND500,000 ($25) per year.

Last year, knowing that many farmers cannot afford to buy their health insurance, the law stipulated that people working in agriculture, forestry and fishery industries with average living standards will be supported for 30 per cent of the insurance costs. However, the complicated procedure of getting insurance has put many people off. There are currently about 19 million people in the country outside the health insurance network, says Huong.

Practical training

While things cannot be changed right away, the International Labour Organisation Vietnam director, Gyorgy Sziraczki, has talked about the work that needs to be done in the near future.

He says there is no argument that employees should have full social protection and a good income for working towards a better overall national labour productivity. The director thinks the amended Labour Law made effective this May will help solve some issues, such as ensuring that the minimum wage will support the minimum living needs of employees and their families, giving female workers more time for nursing their child, as well as improving the relationship between the employers and employees.

Sziraczki also mentioned that the chain of labour strategy, skilled employees, labour productivity and labour standards are so strongly intertwined that the country should give more vocational training to improve workers' productivity, which in turn will also have an effect on their living standards. He thinks that the better quality work the worker produces, the better wage he will receive.

Despite considering Viet Nam as a fast-moving economy as well as praising the local government policies on labour, the director says that Vietnamese labour productivity is much lower than others in the region.

According to his data, Viet Nam's work productivity is 15 times less than that of Singapore, 12 times less than Japan and 10 times less than South Korea. It also only accounts for a fifth of Malaysia's efficiency and two -fifths of Thailand.

For a better productivity, Viet Nam should enhance its vocational training as well as give more practical programmes for students at a young age to give them the opportunity to choose the job they feel will provide the best fit for them in the job market. Their schools should also provide lessons for students to have a better level of English as well as improved marketing skills, says the director, who thinks that local education is too academic-oriented.

Sziraczki appreciates the Vietnamese Government's programme to give 1 million farmers vocational training as a way to help them improve their lives and also to create a better labour force for the country.

Vietnam News - April, 21 2013