SEI Asia Podcast: Intersectionality and air pollution in the world of work

Photo: Thanh Vu.

The exposure of workers to air pollution is often shaped by pre-existing inequalities. For example, gendered norms, as well as disparities related to income and education, may influence the type of tasks that workers are assigned to or choose, which leads to differentiated exposures.

We talked with Thanh Vu from Hanoi’s Institute of Human Studies to unpack the nuances related to gender, age, socioeconomic status, and other factors that influence unequal air pollution exposures. She explored the structural causes of air pollution and main drivers of increased exposure for different informal labour groups in Vietnam’s craft villages1Thanh Vu is a partner in SEI Asia’s research project “Intersectional impacts of air pollution on the world of work of informal labour groups in craft villages in Hanoi, Vietnam”.

Why an intersectional perspective?

Understanding the differentiated exposures and impacts of air pollution on workers requires an intersectional perspective to better show how social identities and socioeconomic and cultural factors create unequal exposures to air pollution for different labour groups. For example, women and youth in the informal sector may be disproportionately vulnerable due to inequalities related to social norms, hierarchies, divisions of labour, and limited access to resources.

“Multiple and intersectional characteristics might make some worker groups more vulnerable to air pollution due to restricted resources, opportunities, or power to protect themselves from air pollution, and to improve their working environment or livelihoods. Our study analyses how gender and other intersectional features [impact] labourers’ exposure to air pollution,” Vu explained.

Although men tend to participate in more hazardous work tasks than women in the craft villages, men also tend to spend less time at a given workspace because their tasks typically allow for greater mobility. However, women are more likely to be confined within production facilities and spend more time being exposed to concentrated air pollution due to the nature of their tasks.

While the majority of the labour force of the craft villages consists of middle-aged workers, younger workers, especially younger men, are the most likely to undertake heavy work with the most direct exposure to pollutants.

Additionally, migrant workers in craft villages are more likely to experience prolonged exposure to air pollution as they tend to not only work, but also live, near the production sites. Since many migrants are only temporarily working in the craft villages, they are also more likely to take on riskier jobs with higher exposure in exchange for better incomes.

Insufficient protection for workers

Despite high levels of air pollutants in craft villages, there is a lack of comprehensive air pollution and labour regulations to ensure safe working conditions for informal workers. There is also a lack of supervision or resources to ensure that regulations are effectively implemented.

“Notably, existing policies do not take into account the vulnerability of informal workers, and in particular, migrant workers. Advocacy for informal and migrant workers’ rights have been implemented by NGOs such as ILO and trade union organisations such as Vietnam General Confederation of Labor; however, advocacy efforts are limited. Moreover, policies on environmental protection in Vietnam are largely gender-blind and lack the nuances to address gendered vulnerabilities,” Vu added.

This is an excerpt of a podcast conversation with Thanh Vu for the first episode of the SEI Asia miniseries “Air Pollution in the World of Work”.

Listen to the podcast below:


  1. In Viet Nam, “craft villages” are residential clusters at the village or commune level that produces one or more different types of handicraft products.