The purpose of my research was to explore gender relations and income inequality for women participating in the developing global gig economy. More specifically, this pertained to studying women worker empowerment in the informal sector of Vietnam. My research examined the limits of hegemonic gender roles, the ambiguity surrounding an international definition of sexual harassment in the workplace, and how past literature, both from Western countries and Southeast Asia, has depicted these topics.
Gender Relations in Global Informal Economies: A Study of the Vietnamese Labor System and Women Empowerment
Nicole Estess, Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations
The purpose of my research was to explore gender relations and income inequality for women participating in the developing global gig economy. More specifically, this pertained to studying the intersection of women worker empowerment in the informal sector and the socio-political climate of Vietnam. My research examined the limits of hegemonic gender roles, the ambiguity surrounding an international definition of sexual harassment in the workplace, and how past literature, both from Western countries and Southeast Asia, has depicted these topics.
In the time since the end of the United States-Vietnam war in 1975, Vietnam has undergone substantial economic change and development. In 1986, the country experienced a series of reforms known as Doi Moi aimed to create a socialist-oriented market economy by opening up price controls and promoting foreign business efforts. These reforms accelerated national economic growth, but gravely increased class stratification. After the growth of the Doi Moi renovations, the household business (HB) sector became the largest employer in the country following agriculture with informal household businesses accounting for over two-thirds of HB jobs. This key economic reposition spurred this increase in informal employment opportunities as foreign enterprises scaled-up production, creating new labor outlets, especially for women, to pursue. While both the formal and informal sector in Vietnam have higher proportions of male workers, the informal sector remains less male-dominated with only an 11.6% discrepancy between each gender’s participation rate.
According to the ILO, as of 2016, 75.2% of total employment in Southeast Asia occurred in the informal. Showcasing the divergence in working conditions between formal and informal employment, informal workers in Vietnam worked on average more hours per week than formal workers for 58% less pay. Of that, men earn nearly 50% more than women in the informal sector when hours worked, education level, and seniority are held constant, exacerbating a perpetual gender pay gap. Furthermore, women are twice as likely to be involved in objectively more vulnerable informal employment. After computing the relative risk ratios from the General Office of Statistics, indicators revealed women are 34% less likely than men to have written contracts and 41% less likely to have fixed wages in informal employment. In formal employment; however, women are only 7% less likely to have fixed wages.
When reviewing the literature and research surrounding informal employment and gender relations, a few trends tended to emerge that help to better understand barriers to women’s potential in these industries. One trend is that work organizations, particularly subcontracted informal labor in the garment industry, follow enduring hegemonic gender ideals. This includes clichés that women are passive, docile, and willing to work longer hours. While women's participation has been crucial to poverty reduction, the absence of government attention and regulation is a large contributor to why the gap exists, thus halting full worker empowerment and women’s ability to earn a living wage or escape the poverty cycle. In addition to having a systematically lower wage, women often bear the responsibilities of domestic activities, epitomized by the term the “female double day.” As highlighted by researcher Angie Ngọc Trần, when women’s work schedules are flexible, often in the case of informal work, there is a tendency for them to perform both productive and reproductive household functions. This reproductive work is unpaid, and often invisible, labor that habitually burdens women and makes the pay gap broader than reported.
One of the most nuanced facets of analyzing gender relations in the informal economy is the discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace. With the prevalent and monumental efforts of movements such as the MeToo campaign, many developed and western economies are engrossed in issues related to workplace harassment and assault. However, in countries that historically lack vocal women’s rights efforts, there is significant ambiguity. This is especially true for Vietnam, having stricter gender norms but a high female labor force participation rate and a large focus on the global supply chain. One explanation for the dearth of substantial advancement on this issue is widespread underreporting, an inconclusive definition of sexual harassment within the Vietnamese Labor Code, and lack of consensus across employers. Complicating this is the different cultural understandings of sexual harassment that varies across countries and socioeconomic levels. Furthermore, as of a report in 2013, no cases of workplace sexual harassment have been brought to court in Vietnam. Another probable explanation for this trend is that despite the influx of women into the workforce, power dynamics in place still favor men, leaving women vulnerable to sexual violence.
The heterogeneity of employment opportunities in the informal sector create complex, multi-faceted issues that cannot be solved with a single policy. Formalization will require not only policy cooperation, but realistic enforcement on enterprise’s commitment and an understanding of barriers to formal contracts. However, by doing so, it imparts an opportunity for employers to increase job stability, improve access to benefits, and offer better social protections to workers. Furthermore, to reduce worker vulnerability and increase their productive capabilities, policies must engender social security incentives and upskilling efforts. As recommended by the ILO in its 2016 report, this could be aided by establishing linkage chains between the formal and informal economic sectors to help workers mobilize and gain social and health protections. Additionally, in an effort to increase gender parity, the government should look to implementing family-centric policies tailored to address constraints faced by women in the workforce. While there are few studies on the effects of these policies in Vietnam, it is certain that its effectiveness will depend on cultural cognizance and a capacity for enforcement.
Overall, it is clear there is a need for comprehensive and uniform definitions of the informal sector and informal employment to breed consistency among policy dialogue and, thus, coordinated implementation. This extends into consistent definitions of gender relations including addressing the extensive underreporting of sexual harassment and invisible domestic labor that may be stifling women workers’ empowerment and ability to advance their careers. Paired with more accurate household and informal sector surveys for collecting data, the Vietnamese government can better address labor supply prospects, capitalize on their high female participation rate, and raise the standard of living for its workers. While this may seem unviable, with proper coordination between the government, employers, and employees, and intensive time and effort, it can become a reality rather than an ideal.
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