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Eking out a living as pig porters in Vietnam

Sunday, July 12, 2020, 17:26 GMT+7
Eking out a living as pig porters in Vietnam
Tran Thi Thao, an experienced piglet porter at the Ba Ren Market in Que Son District, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, has worked here since 1994. Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre

It might seem like a strange job, but being a piglet porter is an important source of income for a group of elderly women in Que Son District, Quang Nam Province, located in central Vietnam.

The job description is simple: carrying the piglets out of sellers’ baskets, putting them on the scale, and delivering them to buyers.

“This is a nobody-knows-what-it-is kind of job," said Tran Thi Thao, one of the experienced female piglet porters. 

"I can’t even tell my relatives what I'm doing for a living.

"Sometimes bus drivers won’t allow me to get on because I just smell so bad."

Carrying piglets for a living

Ba Ren Market in Que Son District, Quang Nam Province is the go-to place for local consumers looking to purchase pigs.

The market’s reputation as a trading hub for swine is has spread so far that both buyers and sellers travel from as far as Nghe An Province, 528 kilometers north of Quang Nam, to purchase its pigs.

Part of what sets Ba Ren apart from other markets is the crew of female pig porters who spend their days carrying hogs from sellers’ baskets to scales, making sure customers get what they pay for while staying clean in the process.

The female porters begin their day at 6:00 am, chit-chatting through face coverings under the shade of traditional Vietnamese non la conical hats.

The ladies’ voices are raised, loud enough to be heard over the clatter of cages, scales, tables, and chairs being set up as vendors prepare for a busy day at the market.

That noise all comes to a screeching halt the moment a procession of piglet-carrying motorbikes rumbles into the market.

“Here come the piglets! Quick, let’s grab them. What a long wait today!” exclaimed one of the female porters as the motorcade arrived.

These sellers have one job — meeting with buyers and discussing business. Everything else, including carrying the piglets, bathing them, and weighing them, is handled by the porters.

To increase their income, the female piglet porters at the Ba Ren Market in Que Son District, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam also provide baskets and stools for rent. Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre

To increase their income, the female piglet porters at Ba Ren Market in Que Son District, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam also provide baskets and stools for rent. Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre

Working together to earn a living

The market’s crew of porters is an experienced bunch, with many of them having worked together since the marketplace was established decades ago.

Tran Thi Thao from Phu Sa Village, Que Xuan Commune, Que Son District affectionately considered their leader.

Not just because she is a 26-year veteran of the market, but because the 60-year-old woman is widely deemed the cleverest on the team.

“My job is to carry the piglets where they need to go,” she said. “When I need to weigh them, I hold them tight and step on the scale. Then I weigh myself without the pigs and subtract the difference.”

According to Thao, disputes are extremely rare amongst the market’s porters.

“Each of us has our own regular clients we attend to. When some sellers don’t show up, we work together to help those who do,” she explained.

Each morning at 7:30 am, piglet merchant Huynh Van Tanh visits the market on his motorbike, typically carrying about a dozen pigs he has brought from his family’s farm in the province’s Tam Ky City.

The moment he parks his bike, women porters quickly rush to his aid, untying the strings holding his cage together, preparing a bamboo basket for the piglets, and setting up his vendor area.

While all this is happening, Tanh appeared to wander off in search of a cup of tea, unworried about leaving his wares in the hands of the porters.

One piglet porter counts her little earning after a hard morning at work at the Ba Ren Market in Que Son District, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam. Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre

One piglet porter counts her little earning after a hard morning at work at Ba Ren Market in Que Son District, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam. Photo: B.D. / Tuoi Tre

According to Xuong, one of the female porters, the women earn VND500 (US$0.02) for handling each little piglet and VND1,000 ($0.04) for each larger one.

To increase their income, porters provide low plastic stools and large bamboo baskets for rent.

“I charge VND5,000 [$0.22] per morning for every piglet basket, and VND1,000-2,000 [$0.04-0.08] for plastic stools,” said Xuong. “I earn about VND100,000 [$4.3] in total each day.”

Thao, the ‘senior’ porter, says that most of these female porters do not have their own farms to work on and simply learned how to handle the pigs by working at the market.

“Every day I make just a little money. I seldom get to keep ‘big notes’ in my purse, only banknotes of VND500 or VND1,000,” she said. 

“Everything else goes toward my family’s meals.”

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Tien Bui - Thai Ba Dung / Tuoi Tre News

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