Vietnam's barefoot tradies

By On September 29, 2018

Vietnam's barefoot tradies

Email Vietnam's barefoot tradies

Posted September 30, 2018 05:11:18

Thanh in front of a house in construction. Photo: Thanh runs four worksites in rural Vietnam. (ABC News: Zoe Osborne) Map: Vietnam

Australia's macho tradesmen hold a sacred place in our national mythology. But in Vietnam, tradie life looks a little different.

It's still dark when Thanh wakes up, shuffles into his plastic sandals and starts his motorbike.

He balances a helmet on his head and sets off, one hand steering and one hand holding a battered Motorola to his ear.

He arrives at the first of his four worksites in his quiet rural province just before 6am.

Foremen like Thanh are the hands behind modern Vietnam, working barefoot with small teams of male and female tradies.

The country's few massive construction corporations take the skyscrapers but the rest is left to the little guys.

The sun is rising now, spreading a quiet morning light over the rivers and rice paddies. Thanh takes a seat with his workers and orders a coffee.

"How are you this morning? Ready for work?"

They share a few smiles, enjoying the cool morning air. Soon, it will be very hot.

Men sit around a table sharing a cup of tea Photo: Each day starts with a morning cup of tea together. (A BC News: Zoe Osborne) Tea and cigarettes on a table. Photo: Tea and cigarettes on a table. (ABC News: Zoe Osborne)

A job for nomads

Thanh's workers are contracted for six days a week, eight hours a day, but there seems to be an unspoken understanding between them that their industry operates on its own time.

Almost all of them are semi-permanent and drop in and out of the job when they need the work.

Tradies take a break in the sweltering sun Photo: Tradies take a break in the sweltering sun (ABC Ne ws: Zoe Osborne)

"I love the freedom," says Quang, a Tho Ho (mason).

"If it rains I can stop working, if I want to take a week off I can, if I run out of money I can work again …"

Many of Vietnam's construction workers are semi-nomadic, moving around the countryside and picking up work along the way.

"I work as a labourer, a builder, whatever work is available," Quang says.

Quang at his worksite. Photo: Quang at his worksite. (ABC News: Zoe Osborne)

Lower-skilled labour is easily replaceable and Thanh only offers contracts to the few top masons in his team because their skill level is rare.

Outside of the few big corporations, Vietnam's construction industry oper ates on a country-wide system of unofficial ranks and specialisations, gained solely through experience.

Few tradesmen and women go to vocational school. They simply start working.

Quang sifting sand. Photo: Quang sifting sand. (ABC News: Zoe Osborne)

Thanh's head mason has been with him for a long time. They sit together, Thanh giving directions for the day in between sips of coffee.

Slowly, the men and women around them trickle off to work and Thanh starts his motorbike again.

Nguyen Quoc Thanh rides his bike between his four worksites. Photo: Thanh rides his bike between his four worksites. (ABC News: Zoe Osborne)

Women pitch in

The next worksite is a short drive along slim, winding paths lined with banana trees. Two female employees are waiting for Thanh to arrive, eating breakfast in the shade.

Thuy began working in construction three years ago when her daughter started university and she needed more money to support her.

"I don't want my kids to work in this industry," she says. "It's very hard.

"When I was younger I didn't have the opportunity to study, I couldn't afford it, so that's why I have to do this."

Nguyen Minh Thuy, female tradie Photo: Nguyen Minh Thuy helps out with whatever task needs doing around the worksite. (ABC News: Zoe Osborne)

There are several women on Thanh's worksites and the macho bravado that can often be part of the tradie lifestyle doesn't exist here. Men and women simply pitch-in according to their skill level.

"Men will often work with the heavier things and women will do lighter work, but this is by choice," says Thanh. "Their muscles are weaker.

"If a woman wanted to do heavier work she could, of course, but most don't want to.

"This doesn't necessarily mean they earn less than men though â€" a lot of women plaster walls and if they do a good job they get the same salary as the top level builders."

Thuy works as a Phu Ho (labourer), the lowest level on the worksite.

"I do chores basically â€" bring bricks to the workers, mix cement, clean the walls, set up the scaff olding," she smiles. "A bit of everything really."

Quang and Thuy earn an average of $13 per day â€" a fairly good wage in Vietnam where the average yearly salary is just over $2,000.


The hard hats come off

At Thanh's next worksite, five lean, sun-bronzed men are putting the frame up for a building, already sweating in the morning sun.

A man on the roof drops a bucket of bricks down on a thin rope, narrowly missing his bare feet, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.

DSC_1005 (1).jpg Tradie swings between scaffolding in bare feet above rubble Photo: Tradie swings between scaffolding in bare feet above rubble (ABC News: Zoe Osborne)

Safety is touch and go among Vietnam's tradies. There are government-set safety standards for worksites but these can be difficult to enforce, especially when the workers don't really see their value.

The death toll on Vietnamese worksites is high. In April, Ministry of Labour statistics found the construction sector accounted for over 20 per cent of workplace fatalities nationwide.

Thanh provides all his workers with the correct equipment but as soon as he leaves his worksites, the hard-hats come off.

"The thing is, they don't want to wear the gear!" he laughs. "They say it's too hot, it's unco mfortable."

A tradie wipes his face with his cap in the burning heat. Photo: A tradie wipes his face with his cap in the burning heat. (ABC News: Zoe Osborne)

Thuy is dressed from head to toe in light pyjamas, her socks stuffed into plastic slippers and a sun hat on her head. When asked about safety, she smiles.

"Yes I know about those rules â€" the hard hat, a jacket, proper shoes â€" but in the countryside it's not crowded so we don't need to wear safety equipment," she explains.

"If I worked in the cities, in narrow alleyways, I would wear it."

Instead, she wears what's comfortable.

A tanned tradie squats for a tea break from his strenuous work. Photo: A tanned tradie squats for a tea break from his strenuous work. (ABC News: Zoe Osborne)

'A better life'

It's 11am now and Thanh's workers will be stopping for lunch soon, taking a break in the hottest part of the day.

He takes his leave and drives to the last of the worksites, phone to his ear again and a shovel over his shoulder.

"I got into this work to make money â€" for the sake of a better life," he says.

"It's tiring … I have to plan everything and keep each worksite moving, but I like it. I enjoy what I do."

He will finish work at 5pm and go home to his wife and two sons, ready to put his mud-caked slippers back on the next morning and head out once more under the sweltering Vietnamese sun.

Nguyen Quoc Thanh rides away with shovel on shoulder Photo: Tradesmen ride away with shovels on their shoulders. (ABC News: Zoe Osborne)


  • Words and photos by Zoe Osborne
  • Edited and produced by Annika Blau

Topics: community-and-society, human-interest, vietnam

Source: Google News Vietnam | Netizen 24 Vietnam

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