They are women and mothers, not machines
Viet Nam has had a relatively better record than many countries in the world when it comes to recognising and protecting women’s rights, despite the pernicious impacts of patriarchy and Confucianism.
And things have gotten even better in this regard over the last several years, with lawmakers approving a number of preferential policies for female workers, especially those of child-bearing age and those with small babies to nurture.
The approval of the 2012 Labour Law brought great relief and happiness to female workers across the country. Fertility leave was increased from four to six months, female workers with babies under 12 months old got an hour off during the day, and those in their menstrual cycles got a 30 minute break.
However, in what appears to be a one step forward, two steps back move, it has been reported that the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA) is preparing an amendment to the Labour Law that will cut the maternity benefits female workers are currently entitled to.
Ha Dinh Bon, director of the ministry’s Department of Legal Affairs, said many companies have asked for these breaks to be eliminated to avoid negative impacts on their businesses.
The enterprises argue that their manufacturing has been hit by financial obstacles, and if there were too many preferential policies for female workers (too many breaks), they would not be able to set up proper production plans, especially with production lines in the garment or leather industries.
Bon said regulations should consider the benefits of both enterprises and workers. If the law had too many preferential policies for female workers, they might become a barrier.
“When enterprises have to bear so many expenses including fund for production and social insurance, enterprises will find ways to avoid hiring female workers,” he explained.
These explanations have not assuaged the increasing concerns of female workers.
Do Thi Tinh, 35, a mother of three sons, was shocked on hearing about the proposal.
Tinh’s youngest son is five months old, and she is set to return to work for a company in Long Bien District one month from now, following current fertility leave regulations.
“My son breastfeeds two times each night, and one more time before I go to work, so I’m really tired and sleepy. The 60 minutes extra time for resting and taking care of the baby is necessary and worthy,” said Tinh, who is also sleep deprived whenever her son is ill and cries all night.
Given this stress, her desire for extra rest is well founded.
In 2015, workers of a company in HCM City’s District 12 went on a strike and the reason surprised many people. They were not demanding higher salaries or allowances or overtime. They struck work over time limits set by the company for workers to go to toilets and have a drink.
The company had nearly 1,000 workers, most of them women. It regulated that each worker can go to the toilet twice a day, between 9.30am and 10.30am, and between 2pm to 3pm. To go to the toilet, they must have a badge and a time slot. With the limited number of badges and toilet time, each worker had no more than a minute in the toilet. The wages of workers who violated these regulations were docked.
This story is just one small example of difficulties faced by workers, especially women. Many women working on production lines at industrial zones and processing zones struggle to overcome many obstacles, big and small, from low salaries to shortage of accommodation and kindergartens for their children.
Instead of giving them more support, how can anyone think of taking existing support away from them? And if the laws on extra break time for menstruating and lactating women are repealed, it can set the stage for more such regressive moves in the name of neutrality and a level playing ground for workers and enterprises.
A healthier employee is in everybody’s interests, surely. Against the loss of income claimed by enterprises, this is the payoff for an extra hour off per day for female workers with babies under 12 months. And it is important for the child’s health as well. No less a person than the Deputy Minister of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, Dao Hong Lan, praised this provision a few days ago, saying it was a commendable humanitarian move.
Lan is not just a Deputy Minister. She is a mother of two children. With the 60 extra minutes, women can return home at midday to breastfeed their babies, or go home earlier in the afternoon to take care of the little ones, she said.
Being breastfed and cared for by their mother will give the babies greater resistance to illnesses and lay a good foundation for their future health, she added.
Female workers make up more than 48 per cent of total workers in the country, and 25 million are of the child-bearing age. Taking care of them and their children means taking care of the country’s future.
So I, along with all women and, I hope, most men, would like the preferential policies to continue.
Meanwhile, I would like those espousing the repeal of these policies to think: Enterprises are created by entrepreneurs. Who gives birth to them, and nurtures them to this stage in their growth?