A culture of silence blunts the impact of a new Vietnamese law against sexual harassment


By Trang Vu

Vietnam’s new labor law requires employers to put in place mechanisms to prevent and penalize sexual harassment in the workplace. But Vietnamese culture trivializes sexual misconduct towards women and discourages victims from speaking out.

  • A landmark  Vietnamese law that became effective this year clearly defines sexual harrassment in the workplace and makes it the obligation of employers to prevent and adjudicate sexual harassment complaints.
  • But companies do not yet have clear policies and procedures for implementing the law. And a culture of silence, victim-blaming, and widespread acceptance of “teasing” women as harmless makes it difficult for women to speak up.
  • Many sexual harassment  victims choose to stay silent in order to protect themselves and their jobs. 

P Nguyen, a 27-year old project assistant at a French-owned construction company, was at her wit’s end. A married male colleague 13 years her senior was texting her regularly at night even if she had already told him his messages made her feel ill at ease.

“One day, your boyfriend will be fed up with your body,” read one message. “You are my trophy wife!” read another. He stealthily took pictures of her at work and made dirty jokes in front of other colleagues who seemed indifferent to her embarrassment. 

Nguyen, originally from the remote Lào Cai province in the country’s northwest, was then on a two-month contract at a mostly male construction site in Soc Trang province, 230 kilometers from her company’s headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City.  She lived in a dormitory along with other workers from the city. 

After months of unwelcome text messages, things came to a head. One late afternoon after work, Nguyen was standing outside the dormitory, talking on the phone.  She was stunned when her colleague walked up and put a hand inside the small wallet hanging around her neck. His hand was on her chest, attempting to take her key out of the wallet. 

“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed at the top of her lungs. 

“I had to shout out in broad daylight so that he knew I was not someone to mess with,” she recounted. “I warned him to stay away from me.” 

The incident happened three months after Vietnam’s new labour law prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace came into effect. 

A male colleague asked Hoang for a kiss in exchange for fulfillment of a task at work.

The man never apologized.

“He did not seem to realize that he was harassing me,” said Nguyen. “Had I complained to my supervisor, I do not think she would understand what sexual harassment means.” 

Nguyen later found out she was not the only one offended by the man’s behaviour.  Only after the incident did a colleague confide to Nguyen that she had to wear long pants herself to avoid the man’s lustful stares. 

In 2019, the Vietnamese government issued a decree that amended the Labor Code and for the first time included a detailed definition of workplace sexual harassment, which it said is a valid ground for a reprimand, delay in salary raises,  demotion and dismissal. But the law, which came into effect in January, does not categorize workplace sexual harassment as a criminal offence. 

It also does not say what specific acts are prohibited. The decree left it to employers to decide on whether reported misbehaviour constitutes sexual harassment.   Discipline and punishment are likewise at the employers’ discretion. The law also does not specify any penalty for companies that fail to set up antisexual harassment policies. 

Moreover, the culture of silence around sexual abuse and a broad acceptance that men can “tease”  touch women pose daunting challenges to implementing the law. 

Interviews with eight victims of sexual harassment, including five women and three men from both the private sector and NGOs, reveal the law’s shortcomings. They also show that young professionals, particularly those from less developed parts of Vietnam, are more susceptible to sexual harassment in the workplace. 

The New Law in the Wake of #MeToo

The Communist government prides itself on enshrining gender equality in the constitution enacted when it took power in 1945. Gender equality has been enshrined in major documents, such as Law on Marriage and Family. In 2006, the Law on Gender Equality was enacted but did not make any reference to sexual harassment. 

The term, known in the local language as quấy rối tình dục, was used for the first time in Vietnamese labor legislation in the 2012 Labor Code, which prohibited sexual harassment in the workplace but fell short of providing a clear definition.  In 2015, the Viet Nam Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Viet Nam General Confederation of Labour jointly issued Code of Conduct on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. 

 In 2018, a young intern at Tuổi trẻ Newspaper, one of the best known Vietnamese media outlets,  committed suicide. Her colleagues blamed her death on her alleged rape by her supervising editor. Her suicide prompted female journalists and other women to tell their own stories. This airing of long-unspoken grievances became known as Vietnam’s #MeToo movement. The women said  that harassers rarely got punished, or got off lightly. They cited the example of a man who forcibly kissed a woman resident in an elevator and was fined only about $8 by the police.

Although Nguyen was willing to fight, she did not know to whom the incident should be reported. Her company’s HR Department was based in Ho Chi Minh City and it paid little attention to what was happening at construction sites. It was mostly interested in project completion, she said. 

Nguyean’s direct supervisor declined to comment on this story but said she was reluctant to intervene in problems between employees and not interested in dismissing anybody while the project was going on. 

“The law might not be able to change the mindset of my colleagues, supervisors, who either think that I might have done something amiss or that teasing women is part of men’s nature,”  said Nguyen. 

Like other victims of sexual harassment, Nguyen sometimes blames herself. “From time to time, I could not help but wonder what I had done to make myself misunderstood by male colleagues,” she said. “I was never wearing suggestive clothes, nor did I ever flutter eyelashes at them. Why did they do that to me?” 

The Law That Few People Have Heard Of 

Six months after the new Labor Code came into effect,  many companies like Nguyen’s have yet to set policies and mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. Processes through which victims can seek redress and whistleblowers can bring complaints have yet to be established. 

M Hoang, a 28-year-old accountant for a logistics company in Hanoi, was certain that the HR team in her company had not kept its anti-sexual harassment policies up-to-date.

“They would quickly update any rule related to salary, but sexual harassment is not their priority. I doubt if they understand the term,” she said.  

She recounted that a middle-aged male colleague, who also happened to be the brother–in–law of her direct supervisor, texted her at night, made unwanted physical advances, and asked her for kisses so he would do his assigned work. 

One day, Hoang, recounted, she was at the office wearing a knee-length skirt. She was printing some documents  when the man came close to her and whispered, “How come you are so covered today?” 

“At that time, I was preparing for the final exams for my evening classes, “ she said. “I could not concentrate for three days. I was really scared. What did he actually imply? Did he mean that I was always wearing revealing clothes?”

In the days that followed, Hoang tried to stay away from her harasser. She was at a loss. There was nobody at the privatized state company she worked for to whom she could think of reporting her case.  

“My supervisor made no pretence about her favourable treatment of her brother-in-law at work. Reporting to her about a misdemeanour of her family member would make her lose face. Besides, she was also Deputy Head of the Labor Union”, said Hoang.

A culture of silence and acceptance 

The problem of sexual harassment is rooted in the culture of the workplace and in society at large.  What is an act of sexual nature, and what crosses the line are not taught in school or discussed in public. Teasing women in a sexual way is often deemed acceptable behaviour. Flowers are meant to be picked, women are born to be teased, a Vietnamese folk saying goes.  

According to the Vietnam Organization for Gender Equality, (VOGE), a youth-led NGO,  it would be challenging to implement the law without an independent agency to directly monitor, support and advise companies on how to prevent and handle sexual harassment. Vietnamese companies, by and large, are far from ready to translate the new law into daily practices, a VOGE representative said in an email. Furthermore, companies might not be fully aware of the damaging consequences of sexual harassment.  

That’s true not just for private companies but for NGOs as well. H. Ngoc, an activist in a Hanoi-based environmental NGO, said sexual harassment is an open secret in Vietnam.  For privacy reasons, Ngoc asked to be referred to by her middle name. 

“NGOs who are supposed to champion social justice cannot even practice what they preach,  let alone private companies,” she said. 

The problem is not just with the men in the organization. Ngoc said a female colleague considered it flattering for women to be teased bout their clothes or appearance, even if for Ngoc, this is borderline sexual harassment. 

“If a man makes unwanted physical touches, it is dismissed as friendly and fun loving,” she said. “But when a woman does exactly the same thing to a man, it is seen as seducing and immoral”.

Speaking up is not encouraged in Vietnamese culture. As the Vietnamese saying goes: Forbearance brings fortune. Moreover, face-saving is essential in the workplace.  A young woman speaking up against senior or powerful colleagues can be seen as a loss of face on the part of the senior male and is likely to put complainants at risk.

“A house, if leaking, leaks from the roof,” said Hoang, who has become accustomed to sexual harassment and now sees it as an institutional, rather than just an individual, issue. 

Hoang recounted that in 2018, the director of her company physically harassed a woman, who then yielded to his sexual advances in exchange for favours at work. The woman’s husband then exposed their relationship online. Despite the scandal, the woman’s boss kept his position while his victim was forced to quit her job. 

A few months after the scandal, the same man went on to text Hoang and presented her a gift: a calendar, featuring her photos taken from her Facebook account, including one with her wearing a bikini. 

“I found it sickening, but I accepted the gift. Telling him off outright would prompt him to come up with nastier deeds. If he brought it home and his wife found out, it would be even scarier,” said Hoang, who gently requested her boss to delete the photos, citing her fear of his wife’s jealousy. She did not accuse him of harassment or invasion of privacy.

Not only powerless women

Vu, a tour guide from An Giang province working in Ho Chi Minh city said sexual harassment is rampant in the tourist industry.

“I have been harassed by both male colleagues and tourists, both online and in-person,” said Vu, who identifies as a gay man. 

Some messages he received from clients vary from “Are you a third gender person?” to “How long is your penis?” How Vu would reply depending on how intrusive the questions were.  Vu blocked the phone numbers of serious harassers even if he continued to work as a tour guide for them. 

He said that men, in general, might not see unwanted advances as harassment. They are also often unwilling to acknowledge themselves as victims, he added. 

T Le, head of a small educational technology firm in Ho Chi Minh City, received unwanted comments and physical advances from her American business partner who was also the head of a renowned international school in Vietnam. The man was about 20  years her senior.

“The law can only apply when unwanted acts happen during working hours, at the workplace. For me, it happened when both of us were discussing at a cafe, which was technically not their workplace.  “Which law is gonna be on my side then?” Le asked, pointing to a loophole in the new law. 

A support network is needed

Nguyen got her first job in Thanh Hoá province, about 140 kilometres from Hanoi.  It was not long before a male co-worker sent her inappropriate messages every day and followed her home even after receiving warnings from her boyfriend, who was working in the same company. Her Japanese company had an HR section, headed by a male leader, in charge of discrimination.  Upon receiving a formal complaint from her, he wrote a written warning to the perpetrator, warning potential dismissal if he persisted. 

“I was lucky enough to be supported by male colleagues, who urged me to report and bear witness to my story, while female colleagues seemed to take harassment for granted in a male-dominated working environment,” said Nguyen. Sadly, she said her female colleagues often blamed her for being oversensitive. 

Likewise, Vu acknowledged that his boss’s trust was key to his courage to confront clients who harassed him.“I would just quit the job if my boss were not on my side. Luckily, the thought has not crossed my mind”. 

For Hoang, breaking the silence about sexual harassment is a strategic balancing of pros and cons. 

“In Vietnam, whistleblowers are never supported,” she said. “Why should I take such a risk complaining against seniors and leaders? Under any circumstance would women be at a disadvantage.”

Hoang’s female friends advised her not to complain, since retaliation would be inevitable. “I cannot wait to quit my job here. Yet, I have to be patient. During the pandemic, it is harder to find a job,” she said. 

Instead of quitting she decided she would not respond to any sexually suggestive messages from her boss but would be very quick to reply if the content were work-related. 

“Even if I want to move elsewhere, a recommendation letter from a supervisor is needed. If I am not on good terms with them, how can I switch jobs?  Other companies will not be interested in hiring someone who has a record of not maintaining harmony at work,” she said. 

While Vu did not shy away from confronting his clients, from replying with an equally annoying message to blocking a number, he was more lenient towards his colleagues that harassed him physically and/or virtually. 

“I would forget and forgive. I acted as if nothing had happened. I play it safe: keep my distance, but still save their face”, said Vu.  

For Le, the choice was between speaking out or risking her business. Exposing a well-connected Western businessman, she thought, would be inimical to her business.  “My priority should be securing deals and not creating enemies. Ruining one partnership would mean removal from a whole business circle,” she said. 

Disclaimer: This story was supported with funding and training by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

To protect their privacy, most of the interviewees for this report asked that only their last, not their first, names be used. 

To read more about the different cultures of abuse in other parts of the world, check out Asian Geographic Magazine Issue 4/2021 coming to the shelves soon, or reserve your copy by emailing marketing@asiangeo.com.

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