The gender dimension of informality in waste collection in Vietnam

The unnoticed workforce in urban waste management and environmental protection

Unlike the formal environmental workers who are protected and covered by relevant state policies, freelance scrap pickers – known as Ve Chai (bottles) or Dong Nat (broken copper) according to their daily tasks – are undertaking more unstable jobs with limited occupational safety and health conditions. However, this workforce in which women are the majority plays an important role in the waste collection and classification system in Vietnam.

Vietnam is now facing serious waste problems, specifically in big cities. Each day, approximately 60,000 tons of domestic waste are discarded nationwide, of which more than 60 percent are generated in urban areas. Plastic waste alone accounts for about 1.8 million tons per year and only 11 percent of this is collected and recycled.

The target of recycling at least 15 percent of waste by 2025 has been set by the government. However, most households do not classify their waste at source and dump recyclable, solid, plastic and landfill waste together at roadside and official dumping sites. Official waste collection and management services are provided by both public and private units. But when it comes to recycling, it is the story of a hundred thousand informal waste workers who make a significant contribution in helping to classify, recycle and trade waste from landfills across the country. It is estimated that more than 30 percent of waste in Vietnam is collected through informal channels. Collectors of junk and waste are silently contributing to solid waste management in urban areas. These workers, mostly women, separate out materials such as cardboard, metal and plastic from other waste and take them to collection centers. Their work remains invisible which makes it difficult for the government to fully understand the recycling opportunities and vulnerabilities of the waste management system.

Once you are attached to your job, you will find your work very meaningful which contributes to environmental protection and urban waste reduction”, stated Ms. Do Thi Hoa, a full-time Ve Chai in Hoang Mai district, Hanoi.


A tough job with numerous difficulties and challenges 

Whereas formal workers in state-owned environmental companies enjoy a quite stable and long-term payment regime, including a wage and bonuses, scrap collectors in the private sector often face ups and downs in their job.

Many scrap-pickers sort waste by hand, in large part in order to distinguish between paper, metal, and certain types of plastic. Those actions and work processes can easily lead to respiratory diseases, skin infections or severe injuries due to dirty trash, dangerous waste or sharp objects. Moreover, female workers are often seen trudging kilometres every day to screen and sift through household items, even rummaging through landfills, waste collection spots and public trash bins to search for recyclables. In such situations the probability of traffic accidents increases when they are carrying heavy or bulky objects.

Again, the income for trash collecting tasks varies considerably over time as the price depends on many other factors such as the market demand or bilateral negotiation between seller and consolidators. In previous years during peak times, one kilogram of plastic bottles could be sold at a price up to 40,000 VND, depending on the plastic type. Now the price is only half or one third differing from area to area, so the income is quite unstable for these informal workers.

I have been working as an informal waste worker for 15 years. This job must be maintained for the long-run, even when times are difficult.” said Truong Thi Phi Yen, an informal waste picker in Tran Cao Van street, Da Nang.

“Nowadays when selling junk or used papers, the requirements are much higher. Before Covid-19 rumpled papers could be sold easily, but now manyrecyclers andbuyers do not accept it or pay at a very low price.”

Another challenge is that women who work as garbage collectors are easily isolated or looked down upon. Waste collectors work with scraps and garbage every day, so they are rarely welcomed and sometimes discriminated against in some public spaces such as shops, restaurants and other service-providing areas. This discrimination and public concerns arise from the fact that environmental freelance workers are often not covered by the country’s social insurance system, including health checks, insurance in case of sickness or accidents at work as well as other social benefits according to the Vietnamese labour law. Indeed, female waste pickers are not always willing to buy voluntary social insurance because of their low income on the one hand and the limited benefits of the voluntary insurance scheme on the other hand. So they usually live marginalized lives, isolated and most of the time with the unwanted label of exposure to dirt and infectious diseases.


Acknowledgement and growing space for initiatives

It is known that Vietnam ranks 4th out of the top 20 countries with the most plastic waste in the world, with about 730,000 tons of plastic waste dumped into the sea each year. Without the efforts of the self-organised environmental workforce, waste in cities would be left unmanaged and add to the climate burden.

In this context, Vietnam is currently revising its social security system and aims to insure more informal workers. According to Resolution No. 28 of the 12th Party’s Executive Committee, a goal has been set that by 2025, about 45 percent of the workforce will participate in social insurance and by 2030, this will reach about 60 percent. In order to achieve this goal, it is necessary to have preferential policies for workers in the informal sector to participate in voluntary social insurance.

In addition, to international organisations and the Vietnamese government recognising the hard work and meaningful contribution made by female waste collectors during past years, local actors have also come up with various initiatives aiming at awareness-raising and improving the labour safety and social security for workers and garbage collectors.

“The Centre for Adaptive Capacity Building (CAB) is currently carrying out many activities to reduce waste in communities, including training courses on labour safety and protective equipment for freelance garbage collectors”, stated Hoang Nguyen Nhat Linh, a staff member at the (CAB) in Da Nang.

Besides training and awareness raising activities, it is relevant to build up a collection system and a labour network in Hanoi as well as in other provinces for the sake of more effective waste management through informal channels. Moreover, there should be an exchange platform or even a representative unit for those self-organised workers in order to strengthen their voice and to stress their contributions. Once waste pickers are formally recognized, they will be in a better position to demand rights, increase the amount they collect and charge proper prices.

In short, women play a key role in collecting, sorting and recycling waste in urban areas. Governments and communities need to consider “Ve Chai” and “Dong Nat” as a profession as well as one important part of the waste management workforce in order to create appropriate support mechanisms and proper recognition in the policy development process. Policymakers need more research, data and evidence on issues related to solid waste management, gender and social inclusion to avoid any negative impacts on women, freelance workers and other vulnerable groups in the environmental and social protection policies.

“I would be very grateful if the state cares for us and provides better insurance scheme or free medical examination and treatment programs which would bequite meaningful, stated Nguyễn Thị Vinh, a part-time trash collector in Long Bien, Hanoi.

Trang Nguyen is a researcher at the Vietnam Youth Academy, the university under the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union, specialising in youth related matters. Her research activities focus on the labour skills and capacity of young people.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

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