'Hot weather wrecks my nerves' - Climate Change and Workers' Rights in Vietnam

Opportunities for a just transition
Motorbike taxi riders in the heat; Thanh Tùng

Motorbike taxi riders in the heat

Thanh Tùng

  • Authors:
    Anh Vu
    Dr Loc Duc Nguyen
  • Publishing date:
    28 November 2023

As the Asia Pacific Climate Week (APCW) took place between 13-17 November 2023 in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a resonant call for a 'just transition' echoed through the halls of the plenary sessions. Malaysia's Federal Minister for Natural Resources, Environment, and Climate Change emphasised the imperative for this transition to be not only successful but just and equitable, ensuring the inclusive distribution of its benefits. Aligned with the core themes of APCW, which illuminate 'cities, urban settlements, infrastructure, and transport,' as well as 'societies, health and livelihoods, and economies,' this article reflects on the challenges confronting app-based couriers (ride-hailing and delivery) in Vietnam, in the context of a changing climate. Instead of discussing climate change and workers’ rights as separate issues, we discuss the importance of embedding discussions on workers’ rights and employment relations within the climate agenda. 

The intersection between climate change and the gig economy

As Southeast Asia grapples with a "once-in-200-year" heatwave, motorbike taxis, a popular means of transport in many cities, continue to deliver everything from passengers to parcels to cooked food. The lives of those couriers are entwined with the rhythm of the streets and the mercy of weather patterns. Preliminary research conducted by NatCen International, with local partners in Vietnam and in partnership with the Social Life Research Institute, unveils a stark reality where being a driver or rider represents one of the limited options for migrant workers in bustling megacities in Vietnam. Job losses in industrial zones, compounded by the pandemic fallout and climate change-related events in home villages, have driven individuals towards the gig economy – a rapidly growing sector marked by temporary positions for independent contractors. Drawing on our ongoing research on precarity and vulnerability of climate-exposed marginalised groups in the Global South, coupled with empirical data collected by Dr Loc Duc Nguyen, who has closely collaborated with and studied migrant workers in Vietnam for over two decades, we highlight two dimensions of the intersection between climate change and workers’ rights in Vietnam.  

First, our research has shown that labour laws and regulations can exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities of app couriers. The Fairwork Vietnam Ratings 2023: Labour Standards in the Platform Economy highlights the stagnant nature of Vietnam’s regulations in determining the employment status of workers within digital labour platforms. For example, where contracts are concerned, the Fairwork report stated that “No platform was awarded points for this principle due to issues of unclear contract terms, platforms being able to make changes to their terms and conditions without prior notice, workers not understanding their contracts, contracts excluding platforms from liability for negligence, unreasonably exempting them from liability for working conditions and/or preventing workers from seeking redress for grievances that arise from the working relationship, and inadequate privacy policies”. Labour regulations have left app couriers in a state of uncertainty regarding their employment status, a reality that highlights the pressing need to strengthen social protection systems and reform regulatory policies to allow them to both understand and practice their rights. The lack of clarity on whether digital platform workers should be classified as contractors or employees has created a precarious situation. Moreover, while there some companies providing limited measures to mitigate risks, such as free annual health checks or some accident and injury insurance to workers free of charge, many workers were unclear about what exactly this insurance is and what it covers. In an interview with a motorbike rider, he said: “Working in the streets is very hard, inhaling dust, drying in the sun, soaking in the rain and getting sick: I have to cover medicine cost[s] myself” (Male, 35, motorbike taxi rider, 21 April 2020, Ho Chi Minh City).

Second, according to a report by the Friedrich-Elbert-Stiftung, harsh working conditions have had various effects on platform couriers in Vietnam, including respiratory illnesses (61.7%), joint damage (62.8%) and digestive issues (48.3%). Existing studies have found that vulnerable outdoor workers in developing nations have higher average core body temperatures than those working indoors, and that they are two or three times more at risk of dehydration, which exposes them to kidney ailments. Drivers are particularly vulnerable to heat stroke and similar illnesses.

“Riding outdoors for more than ten hours a day in the hot weather really wrecks my nerves”, confessed a motorbike rider in one of the interviews (Male, 46, motorbike taxi rider, 20 June 2020, Ho Chi Minh City). 

Climate change is expected to multiply the ways in which workers in developing countries are vulnerable to climate change. This is especially true for those in the gig economy who are already among the groups most exposed. Working long hours, waiting at street corners and outside restaurants for orders, navigating dangerous roads and traffic in heat waves and during violent storms which inundate streets and worsen traffic jams: despite being at the sharp end of extreme weather, app-based couriers have minimal access to medical care and protections. The nature of their exposure is poorly understood and policies to address it are limited. The precarious nature of their employment, compounded by regulatory ambiguities, unveils an urgent need for policies that address their unique vulnerabilities. 

In summer 2022, a ride-hailing platform company, introduced a weather fee in Vietnam, an extra payment applied when the local temperature hits 35°C. Due to the contentious nature of the issue, this company had to retract its hot weather surcharge because it exposed the riders to health risks. The experiences of app-based couriers in Vietnam indicate that popular understanding of employment relations in the gig economy is out of date. Climate change is shattering the illusion that these jobs offer workers ‘independence’ and ‘choice’, rendering already precarious livelihoods even more insecure.

Tackling climate change together

With its rapidly growing economies and economic dynamism, the Asia Pacific region has the potential to be a climate pioneer, leading green technologies and innovations, driving global efforts to combat climate change”, emphasised Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, at the Asia Pacific Climate Week this year. 

Platform companies have the technology, information and resources to organise themselves and their workers in a more sustainable manner. They could build a weather and disaster risk warning system for their drivers and recognise them as employees, with all the legal rights that come with it. Platforms could implement policies to protect workers from basic risks associated with their work and actively promote measures to ensure and enhance workers' health and safety. They could also work with academics to properly study the risks to their workers and customers from climate change – information that could help governments design effective policies. 

Climate change is often missing from discussions about employment relations and policy, and labour struggles tend to be neglected in environmental campaigns.

Precarious workers can contribute to addressing climate change too. Drivers are exposed to variations in the climate and their work covers large areas, making them barometers of air quality and weather conditions. Their experience and knowledge could help design strategies for adapting to climate change that prioritise the health and safety of workers.

The couriers we spoke with demanded changes to their working conditions. These include being legally recognised as employees protected by labour laws instead of “sub-contractors” or “partners”. But they also complained about the lack of shade, trees and rest areas in the city where workers could seek refuge from heat and bad weather. Many proposed information centres across Ho Chi Minh City where workers could go to get help if they had an accident, their vehicle damaged or were robbed. At present, couriers support themselves.

For a long time, worker rights and environmental issues have been treated as separate. Climate change is often missing from discussions about employment relations and policy, and labour struggles tend to be neglected in environmental campaigns. In a variety of ways, workers’ rights advocates and environmental organisations can develop a more effective joint strategy that addresses the impacts of climate change by championing the most vulnerable workers.

Dr Anh Ngoc Vu is a Research Director at NatCen International, National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), London.

Dr Loc Duc Nguyen is Associate Professor and President of the Social Life Research Institute, Vietnam.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Centre for Social Research, NatCen International, or the Social Life Research Institute.