Vietnam’s Women of Steel

Vietnamese women describe how they make ends meet by relying on scrap.

2012.04.06
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scrap-305.jpg A woman walks with metal she bought as scrap iron for recycling in Hue, May 8, 2002.
AFP

For decades, women have been at the center of the scrap trade in Vietnam. Of all ages and from all walks of life, they travel across the country, buying discarded goods that others have written off as trash: scrap iron, plastic, aluminum, glass bottles, and paper products. The song of the scrap collector is a lonely refrain, and one that has become commonplace amidst the hustle and bustle of urban centers like Hanoi, where an estimated 1,000 women, like 36-year-old Sinh, walk through the streets carrying their scrap bundles on their shoulders.

Originally from Nam Dinh city, Sinh has walked the neighborhood around the Kim Lien housing complex in Hanoi for the past three years, seeking out scrap to buy. On some days, she carries more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of scrap on her shoulders in 10 kilogram (22 pounds) bundles to a wholesale collection center near the housing complex to sell. One kilogram of old newspaper costs 3,000 to 4,000 dong (U.S. $0.15 to $0.20), while each kilogram of scrap metal runs 5,000 to 6,000 dong (U.S. $0.24 to $0.29), but Sinh says her profits come mostly from hard labor.

“I walk from 8:00 a.m. until noon and then go home. In the afternoon, I walk from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. I work only around my neighborhood, back and forth, back and forth, all day long. After a long time, I’ve become used to it,” she said.

“On some days I earn several hundred thousand [dong], and others [I make very little]. On some days, I don't make anything at all. There’s no stability in this job,” she said.

But despite the often unsteady income, women like Sinh flock to urban areas to collect scraps every day because the profits are much higher than what can be made working on farms in the villages.

“Right now, it's neither time for planting or harvesting. Even after plowing the field from morning until evening, for 360 square meters (3,875 square feet) of land, [farmers] can only earn [a few dollars]. Then [they] still have to rent machines and buffalo to work the field,” she said.

Every day, Sinh leaves her four young children in the village with their grandparents so that she can go to the city to work as scrap buyer. Her husband also works in the city on a construction site. The couple only returns home for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, or for the planting and harvesting seasons, twice a year. They have had to leave their family behind, but in return, Sinh and her husband have been able to build a small home and pay for their children's school expenses.

“In the village, sometimes I had to borrow money to pay for my children's school expenses … Working like this, I have some income. I don't have to borrow money anymore,” she said.

Nam Dinh trade

Sinh’s hometown of Nam Dinh has one of the highest concentrations of scrap dealers in Vietnam, mostly due to the city’s longstanding tradition of bronze working. Tuyet, a former scrap dealer who has spent many years in Nam Dinh, said she began her trade as a young girl.

“I only finished 9th grade, and soon after, I began to stay home [from school] to follow my parents' trade—buying and selling scraps. After [I] got married, for the first few years I continued to work as a scrap buyer. Even after the birth of my second child, I still went to buy and sell scrap,” she said.

“This job is very hard, and that means [you] earn only a [few dollars] a day. It's only enough to buy vegetables. It's nothing, really, and all day long, you are bicycling tens of kilometers [to look for scraps], but you still do not earn enough money. I am sad and disappointed. I neglected my children.”

Tuyet said that both her mother and grandmother before her worked as scrap buyers for their entire lives. At the age of 15, she was already following in their footsteps, carrying bamboo baskets to villages near and far to search for scrap.

“This trade has existed for a long time … My village's trade was casting pots—pots for cooking rice. Bronze rice cookers were used a long time ago … The scrap buyers were already around when I was very young. They were farmers who would stop dealing in scrap in time for planting and harvesting,” she said.

“All year round, they work in the fields. Some families plant several 360 square meter plots, some plant a whole hectare (2.5 acres), but they still work as scrap buyers. Farming only takes one or two months a year. After that, they go to buy and sell scrap.”

After several years of hard labor during the 1990s, Tuyet was able to save enough money to open a bronze casting shop at her home, allowing her to leave the scrap metal trade.

Making ends meet

But not everyone is as lucky as Tuyet. Most other women have no choice but to continue the backbreaking work hauling scrap. To earn extra money, many take extra jobs in the city, including caring for the disabled, cleaning houses, and washing laundry. If they find a nice family to work for, they may earn a little extra.

“Scrap buyers are like fishermen,” said Sinh. “Some are lucky and are able to make a lot. If you meet a nice family, they might tell you, ‘Clean my house, and you will get all our scrap for free.’”

To the housewives of Vietnam’s cities, scrap dealers can lend an important helping hand in assisting with housework, and were especially helpful when hourly housecleaning services were not yet common in the country.

Phuong, a Hanoi resident, said she would often hire scrap dealers to help around the house before the popularity of hourly cleaning services took hold in Vietnam.

“I used to call the scrap buyer to come help me clean the house on occasions like holidays or for New Year preparation. I would clean the house, and if there were extra things [that I wasn't using] I would ask her to buy them, then ask for help in cleaning for some extra money,” Phuong said.

“The scrap dealer group is very fair. In Hanoi, for example, each one has her own territory—she works in the same area every day. I saw the same scrap buyer almost once a week.”

To save money, scrap dealers in the city typically rent a small house together in a popular part of town and share the rent.

Sinh rents a tiny 10 square meter (105 square foot) home in the Hoang Cau area of Hanoi’s Dong Da district, where most of the city’s scrap dealers live. She shares the house, barely more than a room, with four others who each have just enough space to store a cot. Ropes hang from the ceiling to dry laundry. A small kitchen with a charcoal stove and bathroom are located behind the house.

The rent for such modest accommodations is 2 million dong (U.S. $96) a month, without electricity and water. Each month, Sinh pays about 400,000 dong (U.S. $19) for her space.

But Sinh says that even without much space, the scrap dealers are happy because they are all sharing the same circumstances, far from home.

“We protect each other and share our burdens to ease the pain of homesickness and missing our families,” she said.

Reported by Viet Ha for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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