New Report Reveals the Lives of Vietnamese Women Workers Making the Samsung Smart Phones

Executive Summary

In recent years, the electronics industry has made important contributions to the development of the Vietnamese economy, becoming a leading industry with great potential to become both a regional and global exporter. According to the Vietnam General Statistics Office, in 2013, for the first time, electronics exports surpassed the garment sector – a key industry of Vietnam. The electronics industry currently maintains its number one position in exports. In 2015, the Vietnamese electronics industry was recorded to have a total revenue of $46 billion USD, including phones, computers, and other devices. In 2016, the industry’s exports increased to $53 billion USD. The total number of employees in the industry increased from 46,000 in 2005 to about 411,000 in 9 years, of which approximately 80% are women working in assembly lines. Although the industry has grown rapidly and is considered to be a “symbol for the integration” of the Vietnamese economy, information on the working conditions in the industry is limited, particularly impacts on the environment and health of workers.

Samsung started its operation in Vietnam in 1996. After 20 years, the company has become Vietnam’s largest foreign investor with a total registered capital of $14.8 billion USD. In 2016, the turnover of Samsung Vietnam was $46.3 billion USD, with $40 billion USD in export value, an increase of 9.9% over 2015 (accounting for 22.7% of the country’s total export value) and employing nearly 137,000 workers. Of the Samsung factories in Vietnam, Samsung Bac Ninh and Samsung Thai Nguyen are key, not only in Vietnam but also in the company’s global system. For example, Samsung currently manufactures 50% of its mobile phones in Vietnam and only 8% of them in South Korea. The revenue of Samsung’s factories in Vietnam in 2016 was $36 billion USD, and their products were exported to 78 countries and territories, concentrating mostly in Europe and the US. Samsung Electronics is appreciated by some as “a successful demonstration of the electronics industry and FDI” in Vietnam.

While many reports and studies have focused on the economic impact of the electronics industry, the stories of its women workers have largely been neglected. This study offers a unique contribution to the existing literature on working conditions in the Vietnamese electronics industry. The study combines industrial sector research and qualitative narratives of 45 women working at two large Samsung factories in Bac Ninh and Thai Nguyen. It is the first study of its kind in Vietnam to shed light on the experiences of the predominantly female electronics industry workers. Because Samsung is notoriously secretive, it offers a rare glimpse into life on the Samsung factory floor. Phase one of the study used document-based research methods to create a landscape and history of the Vietnamese electronics industry and related existing labor relations policies and recommendations from both the government and the International Labour Organization (ILO). The second phase utilized qualitative methodologies to present narratives of 45 women currently working in the industry to advance understanding of their working conditions and lives.

The results emerging from the study speak to the need for implementing policies and actions that prevent harm to workers in the electronics industry and the surrounding environment. Increased knowledge of the sector and its impacts in Vietnam is needed, particularly gender disaggregated data concerning impacts on women. Finally, the study underscores the importance of raising public awareness about chemical and occupational health and safety in the electronics industry.

Key findings in this report include:

  • The electronics industry is the highest grossing industry in Vietnam with $53 billion USD revenue in 2016 – and $36 billion from Samsung alone. Samsung currently makes 50% of their mobile phones in Vietnam.

  • Vietnam has placed emphasis on developing standards for electronics products to ensure quality. However, there are no specific regulations on workplace safety in the electronics industry to safeguard the health of its workers.

  • The workforce of the electronics industry in Vietnam is mostly composed of women. Approximately 80% of the workers are women, working at the lowest-paid rung of the management hierarchy—assembly line workers.

  • Nearly one-third of electronics companies examined by the government violate Vietnamese law governing overtime work. A government investigation of 17 electronics companies found two with more than 100 hours/month overtime in peak months and three others with 50 – 60 hours/month overtime. Vietnamese law limits overtime to 30 hours/month. A government study noted that, “too much overtime is one of the main reasons leading to labour accidents in electronic companies (MOLISA, 2016).”

  • None of the 45 female workers at Samsung interviewed for this study received a copy of their work contracts. This is a violation of Vietnamese law. All the women said that their work contracts are kept by the company and that they were not given a copy.

  • The health impact of the electronics industry in Vietnam is unstudied and unknown. However, the government has noted the potential for serious health impacts of the electronics industry: "Problems relating to labour safety in the electronics industry can lead to cancer and heart attacks due to being exposed to chemicals, radiation and electronic waves … But this is only an inference, without proving statistics, although there are real lead poisoning and occupational diseases" (MOLISA, 2016).

  • More than half of the women workers in this study are married and had children before coming to work at the company. However, all of the women with children are separated from their kids, who live with their grandparents in another town or city.

  • Female workers reported exhausting working conditions include alternating day and night shifts for periods of 4 days; standing for the entire 9 – 12-hour shift; and high noise levels regularly exceeding Vietnamese legal limits (MOH, 2016) (MONRE, 2010). Pregnant workers stand for the entire shift but are permitted to take breaks. However, most of them try to not take breaks because if Samsung thinks they are taking too much time off, the company deducts money from their wages. Time is controlled to such an extent that workers have to request “toilet cards” to be able to go to the bathroom in order to maximize time on the production line

  • The women workers in this study reported a variety of health impacts. All 45 women reported fainting or feeling dizzy at work – though it was described as a “normal” consequence of shift work. Miscarriage was reported to be “very normal if they are young.” Other reported 7 problems included eyesight damage, nosebleeds, “big legs,” changes in beauty, and aches in the stomach, bones and joints.

  • The women interviewed for this study stated that they did not work directly with chemicals. However, none of them thought of cleaning products as containing chemicals or about exposure from chemical use elsewhere in the factory. Jobs within mobile phone factories include positions that utilize paints, inks, and cleaning products containing chemicals. Process steps include heating, gassing with metallic coatings, painting, laser carving, and cutting – all of which have the potential for chemical releases.

  • Formation of trade unions and freedom of association is a requirement of ILO Conventions 87 and 98, but Vietnam has not ratified them. The Vietnam National Union of Workers in Industry and Trade (VUIT) is affiliated with IndustriALL and covers workers in the electronics industry. However, Samsung has a no-union policy and claims that it “has a principle of management that does not need trade unions.” An internal Samsung document described company actions to undermine formation of trade unions.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In 2017, Samsung Vietnam is expected to achieve a turnover of $60 billion USD with an export turnover of more than $50 billion USD. Currently, Samsung continues to expand its component parts manufacturing business in Vietnam, with the number of employees expected to increase to 150,000 by the end of 2017. Vietnam’s electronics industry has made significant contributions to the national economy and has generated many employment opportunities. However, the rapid growth of the industry has not been accompanied by parallel and proportional improvements in environmental, health and safety measures and the health of the workforce in this industry. This is a matter of great concern.

The Government of Vietnam has policies to attract investment capital and create favorable conditions for this sector. This overlooks the harms of the industry to the environment as well as the health of workers. Women workers in Vietnam have the right to a safe and healthy environment. The research team proposes 13 recommendations that emerge from issues documented in this report that are critical steps to address worker and environmental health. These recommendations include legal and regulatory measures, access to information, and independent research with gender disaggregated data to identify and characterize impacts on workers’ health.


This report also can be downloaded at IPEN website here.

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