COVID-19 is under control in Viet Nam but informal women waste workers need support to recover

By Morgane Rivoal, Climate Change and Environment Consultant, UNDP in Viet Nam

August 3, 2020

An informal waste worker in Ha Noi resuming her activity after COVID-19 (Photo: People's Policy newspaper)

Read the first blog of this series to learn how UNDP Viet Nam is engaging with a particularly vulnerable group –informal women waste workers - to make sure that no one is left behind.

Viet Nam has been globally praised for the way it has managed the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The principle of ‘safety first’ adopted by Viet Nam has meant that, to date, the country has reported less than 1,100 cases and less than 40 deaths. As a result, Viet Nam is now on the brink of recovery; many businesses have re-opened, domestic travel has resumed, and the streets are once again abuzz with coffee drinkers and badminton players.

Viet Nam has rapidly put in place a social protection package whereby impacted employees are able to receive 1 million VND ($43) monthly over the course of three months. However, not everyone has been able to access this package in equal measure. For those who fall outside official safety nets, COVID-19 has had particularly disastrous consequences. Consider, for instance, informal women waste workers you may have seen in the streets, riding unstable bicycles piled with trash or carrying a bamboo pole on their shoulder with baskets, to collect bottles, metal cans, and other reusable, recyclable garbage.

Many women, who make up a majority of the overall number of informal waste workers, eke out a living by collecting, sorting waste, and selling materials for recycling; 100 metal cans will earn them as little as 30,000 VND ($1.30) per day. They earn, on average, between VND50,000 and 100,000 a day (US$2 to $4).  During the COVID-19 lockdown, many businesses activities slowed down or came to a complete halt, which significantly reduced the amount of tradable waste being generated. Unable to wander the city searching for waste, many informal waste workers lost their primary source of income,  had to return to their hometown, and some are now still struggling to recover.

In addition to economic loss, informal waste workers face high exposure to biological and chemical hazards due to their precarious working conditions and their daily work. Specifically, during the pandemic, waste workers faced greater risks of being exposed to contamined materials if these were not properly disposed by households, quarantine facilities, and hospitals. Besides, their fragile households often live on the edge, in unsanitary shelters and face the risk of falling back into extreme poverty. Moreover, many are migrants from other provinces who are currently unable to send remittances back home due to their lack of income, which may jeopardize the education of their young children.

According to a rapid socio-economic assessment recently conducted by UNDP to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on Vietnamese households, almost all those surveyed considered themselves to be severely affected. The economic downturn associated with social distancing measures has put the most vulnerable families at risk, with near-poor households only having the capacity to survive for two months under conditions like those imposed by the lockdown.

To support informal women waste workers, UNDP with the generous support of the Government of Norway, is implementing a project in five cities to improve local systems of waste management and promote green habits.  A series of measures are being introduced to support the most vulnerable waste workers, helping them to return to some level of normality. As they return to work, women waste workers will be provided with a package of essential personal protective equipment composed of masks, gloves, soaps, protective clothes, and shoes. 

Distribution of PPE to informal waste workers in Ha Long City, June 2020

The project has now started to promote recovery efforts, to support waste workers to build back better, and foster women’s empowerement through training on health and safety, in addition to the establishsment of funds that will allow them to purchase waste collection tools such as trolleys and bicycles to imrpove their livehoods.

Developing effective and sustainable markets for recycled plastic waste is also critical to ensure that waste considered as valuable economic material, is ‘pulled’ through the value chain with a price attached. But for those plastics that can’t be recycled, UNDP is partnering with the Norwegian research organization SINTEF, which was behind the development of the project Ocean Plastic Turned into an Opportunity in Circular Economy (OPTOCE), to foster the co-processing of plastic waste in cement plants, thereby reducing the volume of waste to landfill.

UNDP is conducting additional research to understand how we can support these workers to bounce back better. We will share the research results as we learn them, in the meantime, we welcome any ideas or suggestions on how to ensure that informal waste workers will become more resilient during the next crisis, be better able to adapt, and know where to get the support, and adequate information they need.

This blog is the first instalment in a series exploring the implications of COVID-19 on the life of informal waste workers in Viet Nam. The next post will explore how pickers are contributing to the waste management system in Da Nang. Stay tuned for more information! In the meantime, read about how the Accelerator Lab is bringing innovation to waste management.