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June 2024 The working lives of sanitation workers in Hanoi, Vietnam Ha Nguyen Thu, Hien Dao Minh

Sanitation is the backbone of human civilisation, yet those who keep this system up and running do it silently to the detriment of their health and safety, sometimes even risking their lives. This is evident in Hanoi, Viet Nam, a city of fast-paced urban development, which brings with it increasing pressure on the city’s public sanitation infrastructure. However, little is known about the dire situation faced by sanitation workers; the reality of their lives and work only exists in anecdotal evidence and has not been systematically documented.

Hanoi generates a large volume of collected solid waste[1] each day, approximately 6,500 tons of domestic solid waste according to 2020 data. This makes it one of the top three cities for domestic waste production nationally. The city is experiencing fast-paced urbanisation, with a high population density of 2,480 people per square kilometer, therefore, ensuring a well-maintained sanitation system poses a great challenge. In Hanoi, the two main stakeholders responsible for solid waste management are the Hanoi Urban Environment Company (URENCO) and the Hanoi Sewerage and Drainage One-Member State Company Limited (HSDC):

  • The Hanoi Urban Environment Company (URENCO) is a state-owned enterprise, with responsibilities for solid waste collection and disposal, including faecal sludge from public toilets;
  • The Hanoi Sewerage and Drainage One-Member State Company Limited (HSDC) is also state-owned, delegated by Hanoi People’s Committee, which is responsible for the treatment of wastewater;
  • Other responsible state agencies are the Ministry of Construction, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Ministry of Health, Hanoi People’s Committee, and local People’s Committees.

The state-owned Hanoi Urban Environment Company (URENCO) is seen to monopolise the market, with eight state-owned branches.

Four challenges faced by sanitation workers in Hanoi

Currently, there are approximately 7,000 sanitation workers in Hanoi, including 5,000 working at URENCO and 2,000 at HSDC, along with a small number of workers in cooperatives. Similar to the hardships of sanitation workers reported globally[2], those in Hanoi face four key challenges, namely:

  • Occupational and health hazards
  • Financial insecurity
  • Social stigma and discrimination
  • Poor legal protection and the invisibility of its workforce.
URENCO workers (Source:

URENCO workers (Source:

A survey of 344 workers working in in six urban and rural districts of Hanoi was conducted in early 2023. After aggregating and analysing the results into three sub-groups – by gender (female, male), migration status (non-migrant, migrant) and settlement (urban, rural) –  the research team found that sanitation workers in urban districts were more likely to encounter occupational and health hazards than rural workers, and rural workers experienced greater insecurity in terms of employment and finance. Specifically, 30% of all those surveyed who worked for more than eight hours per day came from urban areas. A similar proportion reported being frequently involved in accidents while working on the streets. Regarding health hazards, 60% of respondents said they often had flu or fevers, headaches and joint/bone pain, and 50% of workers also suffered from respiratory conditions through exposure to various contaminants and toxins synonymous with sanitation work. In terms of financial insecurity, the average monthly income of respondents in 2022 was much lower than the average income in Hanoi at this time, which was considered to be sufficient to meet daily needs without savings. Those sanitation workers in rural areas were most likely to experience late payment.

Results also showed that many workers were subject to discrimination, mostly from strangers or society in general. Almost half of all respondents reported having been mocked or treated with contempt on a regular basis. Only 40% of workers said they felt either proud or neutral about their job. The percentage of male respondents who felt ashamed was almost twice that of their female counterparts.

In Viet Nam, procedural documents from central to local level protect sanitation workers’ rights and provide monitoring and regulation of sanitation works. The survey results in Hanoi showed that sanitation companies basically comply with these in providing a good and safe environment for workers, including the provision of PPE, labour safety training, and standard insurance and benefits.

Although employers meet these basic workers’ rights, other benefits, allowances, advancements for working equipment and career development plans are still not provided sufficiently for workers.

More details about the survey results and the difficulties experienced by sanitation workers in Hanoi can be found in the full report.

Call to action

Our initial research revealed significant policy gaps and challenges related to occupational and health hazards faced by sanitation workers in Hanoi. Hence, several suggestions and recommendations for action are listed below.

  1. Enhance employment policies especially those relating to wages and benefits. For example, a more up-to-date legal framework should be drafted to address those areas of unmet workers’ benefits and to tackle financial difficulties. Sanitation workers’ salaries in Hanoi are generally much lower compared to the average wage in the city. This means that many sanitation workers are inadequately provided for and cannot establish any savings or other means of financial security. Furthermore, regulations should also facilitate rural sanitation workers to receive more equitable contract terms to narrow the gap in occupational benefits between rural and urban workers.
  2. Foster awareness raising activities for sanitation workers on the types of conditions they may suffer, their causes, and the importance of seeking professional medical attention as soon as they have symptoms. In addition, awareness should also be raised about the benefits of using health insurance for sanitation worker’s medical care.
  3. Launch public communication campaigns to raise the awareness of society in general on the importance of sanitary work and sanitary workers. This can be achieved through communication at local level or through projects that focus on protecting workers’ rights.
  4. Develop larger scale studies and evidence-based data in order to fully measure the hardships of sanitation workers and the sanitation sector of Hanoi and Viet Nam in general.

We hope that this initial research, although it has limitations, can serve as the foundation to pave the way for more studies in this area.


[1] Solid waste in Viet Nam is defined as waste in solid form or sludge, as in Point 19, Article 4 of Law on Protection of the Environment of Vietnam no. 72/2020/QH14, issued on 2020. Hence, the solid waste industry and its workers in Hanoi, Viet Nam, also deal with solid waste and faecal sludge.

[2] We draw this insight from the report Health, Safety, Dignity of Sanitation Workers by ILO, WaterAid, the World Bank and WHO (2019). This is the most comprehensive global report on the conditions of sanitation workers thus far.


Acknowledgments: This blog was written with support from Ha Nguyen Thu and Hien Dao Minh from Development and Policies Research Center. This project was made possible through a research grant from the Initiative for Sanitation Workers.

Ha Nguyen Thu, the author of this blog is a Senior Researcher at the Development and Policies Research Center. She has more than ten years of progressive experience of evaluation in development fields such as education, public policy, rural development and poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment, gender equality, sanitation, and economic empowerment in Vietnam. For any questions, please contact her using the following email addresses:

Ms. Minh Hien graduated with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies from Hanoi University. She has more than 2 years of experience assisting and coordinating development projects, training projects, and social impact projects.