BLOG: "Urbanization, Industrialization, and Social Inequality in Ho Chi Minh City: The Plights of the Mekong River Delta Internal Migrant Workers in Binh Tan District"

By Anthony Ukam Unor

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According to experts, from Tibet in China to Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam where the Mekong River delta empties into the ocean, the Mekong River sustained at least 60 million whose source of livelihood depends on it. As a resource-rich downstream country, Vietnam enjoys the reputation of being one of the most lucrative and productive agricultural areas globally with an agriculture output of  about 20% of the country’s GDP in 2012, and 24% in 2000 (Le, T. & Chinvanno, S. 2011, p.1). In recent years, however, food safety has become a concern (World Bank, 2016, p.13) because the proportion of those engaged in agriculture has dwindled due to rapid urbanization and industrialization in Vietnam. It is expected to hit some 50 percent by 2025 (World Bank, 2016, p. 14), leaving only about 77 percent of the workforce in Laos, 54 percent in Vietnam, and 30 percent in Thailand to cultivate the land (Ingalls, M.L. et al. 2018). Nonetheless, the low altitude and the flat topography of the Mekong delta subjects its inhabitants to serious various multilevel natural, economic, political and social impacts from harsh weather that causes seasonal droughts, flooding, and saline intrusion etc., thereby pushing more young people from the Mekong delta to migrate to Ho Chi Minh City to take advantage of the urbanization and industrialization (Summer School and Field Trip Guidebook, 2019, P.15).

Binh Tan District is a modern industrial hub in Ho Chi Minh City. It was calved from Binh Chanh. Due to urbanization and industrialization, its population exploded from 254,364 in 2003 to 629,368 in 2012. 51.1% of the entire population are internal migrant workers. And 70% are from Mekong Delta. Because of this the infrastructure are over stress and other social problems loomed (Summer School and Field Trip, 2019, P.12). According to Oxfam Briefing (2015), for example, Vietnamese ethnic minorities are not having a fair share of Vietnam's development, while the affluence gained more from its continued economic growth.

With regards to the above, from March 23rd to March 27th, 2019, myself (as an African) and a team of researchers from reputable European and Southeast Asian Universities and experts from different walks of life stormed Binh Tan district in Vietnam to explore how the ongoing process of urbanization, and industrialization constitute a development problem that triggers social inequality in the region. The objective was to explore which specific social inequality issues help to paint a relatively general picture of the dimensions and the plight of the Mekong Delta migrant workers in various districts of Ho Chi Minh City of Vietnam for recommendations. And as a TDR project, the researchers were opportune to interact and co-work with non-academic stakeholders and actors (although under serious state security scrutiny) in trans-disciplinary perspectives in the numerous field sites.

This paper is not intended to give a comprehensive account of social inequality in Binh Tan district in general, but focus on the dimensions identified by the workers, the academic researchers and the nonacademic researchers themselves based on the finding and insights gained from the fieldwork and field trip applicability in the study. 


TDR Applicability and Challenges

Using knowledge co-production technique from the framing phase, to the implementation, and to the data interpretation stage of the study, my team collaborated with non-academic stakeholders, migrant workers and community leaders with relevant local knowledge to examine any existing social inequality dimensions created by the rapid urbanization and industrialization within the research area (Binh Tan district), Ho Chi Minh city.

As a transdisciplinary research study (TDR), throughout the framing, implementation and data interpretation stages of the research, knowledge co-production technique was used in collaboration with academic researchers, non-academic stakeholders, migrant workers and community leaders with relevant local knowledge about the issue studied. For an in-depth understanding of the issue, the study combines transdisciplinarity and intersectionality research methods and argues that accommodation, access to education and health care, wage and gender discrimination, social cohesion remain some of the key social inequality dimensions plights of the peri urban (sub-urban) Mekong delta migrant workers Binh Tan district. These social inequality dimensions intersect each other, which makes it even complicated.

In fact, Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus and milieus aggregate states of capital approach to the concept of capital, that defines inequality as the probability of an individual to access various social, economic, cultural, and symbolic sorts of capital was introduce to the issues alongside” human security perspectives. The aims was to provide a firmed conceptual framework to guide the framing, implementation and interpretation phases of the study as strategy for producing socially relevant knowledge. According to Alkire, (2003), the 1994 Human Development Report defines human security as “people-centered and concerned with how people live and breathe in a society, how freely they exercise their many choices, how much access they have to market and social opportunities – and whether they live in conflict or in peace.” (Alkire, 2003, p.13). Therefore, to operationalize the meaning of social inequality within this context, I will once again define social inequality as social construct that attempts to institutionalized disparity among people within a culture (Binh Tan district in this context) in accessing available political, economic and social resource cum opportunities, etc. Perhaps, a further paragraphed or sub definition of the 1994 Human Development Report as put forward by Alkire will also help to drive it all home as “a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, a job that was not cut, an ethnic tension that did not explode in violence, a dissident who was not silenced. It is not a concern with weapons – it is a concern with human life and dignity.” (Alkire, 2003, p.13). This conceptual grid also serves as a lens that influences the researchers’ reflections, investigation, empirical analysis, and data interpretation of the data collected in Binh Tan district during three days fieldwork.                                                                                                              

Unfortunately, because of the socialist orientation, neither did  the above definition nor the knowledge gained from training sessions served a quick fix to bridge the knowledge gap about ‘social inequality’ by our Vietnamese partners. Therefore, one of the difficulties the research team confronted in the study was how to craft an acceptable thematic definition of what constitute social inequality through the lenses of the Vietnamese without either running into problems with the authorities and the non-academic stakeholders or breaking completely away from expected contributions academic pedagogies and expertise brings into the research field. This was very important because to understand any society, organization, or communities, networks, and gatherings of social interactions etc., TDR necessitates a local grasp of the patterns of the existing variables studied within the society. This is partly because the uniqueness of the social inequality dimensions, for example, varies from societies to societies depending on existing power relation structure, hierarchy, economic and political system, including development factors.

For example, the Vietnamese non-academic stakeholders argue that natural disasters issues, conflicts, and globalization can easily trigger emigration, immigration, health, and accommodation problems that mediate different structures in the Mekong delta. And working in the peri urban areas provided them with better alternatives that should not necessarily be seen as social inequality problem within their context.

In fact, after over three hours of debate and meaning negotiation, one could comfortably define social inequality as socially constructed phenomenon triggered by power-relation-structure that consciously or unconsciously endorsed uneven access to various social resources within a society. It ranges from unequal access to natural resources, to education, shelter, jobs, income, social cohesion, credit, health care, and, movement, and social opportunities, otherwise known as social capital. This meaning captures the basic attributes of the social fabrics of the Mekong delta workers communities in Binh Tan district.


The Push and Pull Factors  

To understand the migrant workers motivation to move to Bin Tanh district, the researchers connect abstract scientific and case specific knowledge and integration of experience based knowledge by first examining what push factors (natural disaster and migration issues) and pull factors (the quest for greener pasture) influence their choice to migrate to Binh Tan District and fund a hybrid of environmental, economic and social factors. And it was also discovered that the quest for greener pasture arose from the impact of natural disaster on the Mekong delta region. Socially, some migrated because city life elevates their status within their local communities. Other posit that it brings them closer and reunite them with relatives and friend who flee home to the cities for better jobs. Some maintain that, economically, the jobs in the cities pay better than the hardship they endure in their local communities due to the loss of their livelihood from environmental impact.Besides, in a reflection on findings from other field trips groups during lunch break at Tham Quan Resort where all the researchers gathered, other groups attested that the local blamed the effects of countless upstream dams in China and Laos, previous poorly regulated sand mining that changed the flow for landslides that destroyed their livelihood. Others reported that the exploitation of the aquaculture resulted to water pollution and internal conflict. There was also a unanimous observation that the environmental impact of climate change exposed a serious challenge to the locals who depended on the stream and exposes them to untold sufferings from saline intrusion and soil erosion.Consequently, the huge impact on the unsustainability of the lives of the habitants in the Mekong led to outward internal migration problems in this area and its surrounding districts. Thus, considering the scale of development progress made in Vietnam in the last 25 to 30 years, most of the vulnerable Mekong delta residents have to migrate to the newly urbanized and industrialized districts such as Bin Tan district, Ho Chi Minh City, and Binh Duong for greener pasture (Nguyen, L.D., Raabe, K., & Grote, U. 2016.)

Accommodation and Social Cohesion

Vietnam is a country with obvious unfriendly house registration regulations and laws. It is therefore important that examining how such the status quo impact on the Mekong Delta Identity of the migrant workers in their daily struggle to cope with the existing (and any future) social inequality dimensions in their destination districts with specific interest in Binh Tan district from a human security perspective.

Using human security approach, the study found out that accommodation accessibility does not necessarily constitute actual social inequality problem, but the uniqueness of the physical structure, the size, the living condition, and the location of the accommodation are the actual factors that reinforce social inequality between the workers and the locals within the communities.      For example, the workers accommodations are often uniquely designed to be different from the locals’ accommodations around them, which psychologically consistently legitimized discrimination and reinforces a sense of stereotype of poverty that devalued the workers’ identity who live in these accommodations. In most cases, police regulations are pasted on the walls of their accommodations right in the communities as if they inhabitant are foreign migrants with little or no knowledge of such domestic laws or regulations, whereas they local accommodations are not.

In addition, the size of the accommodation is so small that, naturally, it restricts the workers from enjoying modern convenience that consume space at home and limit their choices to raise a larger family in there, even when they can afford it. It also forced those who have kids to send them back home where they receive little or no education. This thereby reproduces the cycle of social inequality among the Mekong Delta migrant workers whose kids lacks the potentials to break the poverty circle in the future due to deprivation caused by the size of their accommodations.

Also, though the workers are often happy that they have a place to live in as accommodation, however, the living condition of the accommodation is often not livable or good enough in comparison with the locals around them. For instance, the kitchen is located right next to the toilet and bathroom within the 20 square meters unit with little or no source of ventilation for air to circulate around the rooms, despite the Vietnamese construction law stipulating 15 – 16 square meters per individual (Pham Manh Hungin, a Vietnamese architect, in a private conversation, 2019,  March 28).  Because of these difficulties, most of them cannot stand staying inside their rooms in the afternoon. In fact, few of them were compelled to buy air conditioners irrespective of their little earnings.

Furthermore, the accommodations are often located in the outskirts of the city in a secluded area of the neighborhood, with most of them located in the slumps where the landlord take advantage of them by either inflating the utility bills or the rent. The choice of the location naturally keeps them away from accessing key infrastructures such as hospitals, schools, and malls. According to one migrant worker who works in Mr. Namh’s recycling company, her thirteen years son has not been going to school because she has never been informed of any school around where he could go to school. She also testified that her family has only accessed the hospital once when her husband came down with a lung infection problem in the entire nine years she has spent in that area. These couples live in a small unit directed attached to the walls of the recycling factory where the entire smell from the chemicals from the recycled plastics is the only refreshing air in the room.

Besides, even PouYuen Industrial complex also acknowledges the distance as a problem. Thus, the company provides its workers with transportation to and from work daily. However, when the workers leave for work and there is no school around for their kids, they are left with no options than to send them back to their grandparents thereby limiting their children potentials to receive good education and interact with their peers in the cities. Consequently, their identity is devalued and are often stereotype as people who are lazy, despite that fact that they do most of the odd and hard jobs in some of the most hash conditions in the district. They are also seen as people who cannot save money, even though most of them earn higher wages that the locals but spent their earnings to support their grandparents and children in their villages who cannot fit into their accommodation due the small size, distance to school, and the poor living conditions that are not good enough to leave a child behind for work. All of these resulted to a social cohesion problem whereby they are often not allowed to join women unions, makes friends with the locals or celebrate any key festivals together with the locals.

Wage Discrimination

Commenting on the issue of wage, Mr. Namh (a company recycling manager and a non-academic stakeholder in the study) affirmed that the majority of the migration workers earned low wages (about 23,000 VDN hourly) with most of them working without official labor contracts and health insurance due to the bureaucratic bottleneck involved in the process. Besides, gender is a determinant factor in wage payment as men are often paid higher than their female counterparts, which the respondents also attested.

According to (2018), data from the Report on national wage in 2017, shows Vietnamese Work from 1.1.2017 to 31.12.2017: Monthly minimum wage of a labor in Ho Chi Minh city: 10,370,000 VND ($456) nearly 124,440,000 VND/year, 38% higher than average of the country, meanwhile, monthly maximum wage of a labor in Ho Chi Minh city is $791 ( & Ta 2016). Moreover, the General Statistical Office of Vietnam, caps the average wage of a Vietnamese worker in 2017 at 6,500,000 VND/person/month. In 2018, for example, the Vietnamese General Confederation of Labor announced survey report of labor, salary, income, expense and life of workers and the region-specific base pay of enterprises in 2018 adjustment. The survey showed that the average salary of Workers in Free-trade and industrial zones stood at 4,78 million VND; average income: 6,2 Million VND.  Ms. Babeth Ngoc Han Lefur, Director of Oxfam in Vietnam also declared that more than 50% of the non-official workers do not have a stable job, especially the vendors. She maintained that their average base pay could not afford their basic needs ( & Oxfam, 2015).


Social Opportunity

According to the respondents (community leaders and Pou Yuen manager), the majority of workers working in industrial parks and export processing zones are migrant workers. Therefore, migrant workers and their children face difficulties in accessing basic social security services. To be precise, up to 71% of these migrant workers lacked access to public health services at their destination where they work. And 21.2% of children between the ages of 6 and 14 years migrate alongside their parents to their destinations but are often left behind without access to school. The report stated that only 7.7% of migrant children attend public kindergartens, while 12% attend public preschools (, 2018). Contrary to the official figures, most of the migrant confirmed they have to send their kids back home to stay with their parents because the schools are either expensive or the house registration process deprive the kids access to kindergartens or primary school in their destinations. We spoke with a woman whose thirteen years old boy only stays at home daily without going to school. When asked how she feels about the future of her son, she broke into tears and said “it is very sad”. She confessed that she has never been told there could be such opportunity for her son around in the last nine years she moved in to work in that company (Oxfam Vietnam, 2015).

Gender Discrimination

The report "World Employment and Social Prospects - Women's Trends" 2018 published by the International Labor Organization (ILO), showed that Vietnam belongs to a group of countries with a representative proportion of women participating in the labor force. However, income disparity between female and male workers remains a setback in employment (ILO, 2018). The report shows that Vietnamese women rate is 72%, higher than the world average (49%), the Asian average and the middle-income group. low. Female workers in Vietnam account for 48.4% of the total labor force. However, the proportion of women in Vietnam is 9% lower than that of men. There are currently 7.8 million female workers working in the informal sector with unsecured working conditions. The proportion of female workers in the informal sector that are often subjected to vulnerable work is up to 59.6%, while men is 31.8%. The report also indicates that female workers are in a lower position than men in the employment strata. Women account for 26.1% of leadership positions only, but contribute to 52.1% of unskilled work force and 66.6% of family workers nationally. This indicate that women access to career growth opportunities are limited when compared to men. In addition, in the area of foreign enterprises, male workers have a tendency of signing an indefinite labor contract of up to 73.91% while for female workers enjoy only 67.67%. (ILO, 2018).        

In a nutshell, while the accommodation plights remain unrecognized as social inequality and development problem due to language difference and knowledge gap among the migrant workers, their employers and landlords in the beginning of the study, the gaps were bridged by creating a thematic definition of the concept via knowledge co-production while interpreting the available research data. Finally, it was acknowledged that social inequality existed between the migrant workers and the locals in the district (Oxfam, 2017). Also, accommodation unavailability does not constitute the causes social inequality among the workers per se in Bin Tanh district, rather social inequality is reinforced by inequality of voice and opportunity, with the migrant workers excluded in favor of the rich and the locals around them. These workers (migrants and informal workers, and women) are more likely to remain poor, excluded from services and political decision making, and shall continue to face discrimination if nothing is done to help them.

As a recommendation, Ho Chi Minh Municipal Government should work with central government in Hanoi to urgently implement progressive policies on good governance, simplify the house registration, introduce efficient taxation, simplify employment contracts, increase public spending and public services to enhance universal health care, respect and protect labor rights, and increase advocacy for civic engagement in Bin Tanh district etc., to enable the poor benefit from the wealth from the industrialization and urbanization.



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