Seasonal unskilled workers in Vietnam’s Ben Tre Province, an area famous for coconuts and coconut-based products, brave daily risks while processing up to 1,000 of the rock-hard fruit each day.
Nguyen Ngoc Ly and Lung Van Nhan, a married couple living in Mo Cay Nam District, Ben Tre Province, earn VND750,000 (US$32) each day from processing 3,000 coconuts.
Typically, their work day starts about midnight and finishes up in the early afternoon.
“Once we run out of coconuts to process, we start looking for ways to make money the rest of the day,” Ly said.
A dangerous job
Coconut husks are the fibrous layer between the fruit’s outer skin and hard, inner shell. They sit just above the coconut’s white flesh.
Peeling these husks is considered a profitable job in Ben Tre, and Ly and Nhan, though relatively new to the gig, are extremely productive huskers.
“My wife is from Vinh Khanh District, Ben Tre and I am from District 8, Ho Chi Minh City,” said Nhan.
“We met when she found a seasonal job in Ho Chi Minh City at the same place where I worked.”
Together, Ly and Nhan moved to Ben Tre in 2021 in search of better jobs. That is when they discovered coconut husking.
“We injured ourselves a few times when we first started because the knife we used was too sharp,” said Nhan.
“Eventually, we got the hang of it. Now, we’ve been doing the job for over half a year.”
It takes Nhan and Ly about 10 seconds and four smooth strokes of their blades to completely remove a coconut husk from its shell.
These shells are then sold to merchants who either package them for export or resell them to processing firms which further break down the coconut.
According to Hai Lien, a coconut husker with nearly a decade of on-the-job experience, Ly and Nhan’s ability to process 3,000 coconuts in just 12 hours is extremely impressive.
“Experienced huskers can typically process 2,000-2,400 coconuts in a 12-hour shift,” Lien explained.
“Workers earn VND50,000 [$2.12] for every 200 coconuts they husk.”
Despite its relative profitability by local standards, coconut husking is considered a dangerous job in Ben Tre.
“Huskers can get seriously injured by their sharp blades. Nearly everyone is sure to be injured whether or not they wear protective gloves,” said Lien.
The blades used by coconut huskers typically measure about 20 centimeters long and boast a smooth, wooden handle.
They are usually custom-made by blacksmiths in order to ensure they are appropriate for the heights of their users.
Such blades are shaped similarly to a hockey stick, with the long end designed to measure from the user’s knee to their waist. They cost about VND650,000 ($27.5) and last four to five years.
The blades are usually attached to a thick piece of wood which allows the huskers to have better control and avoid accidents, as one Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporter found out when he almost cut open his ribs while trying to husk a coconut himself.
According to Pham Van Minh, a coconut husker in Ben Tre, tourists are rarely encouraged to take a shot at husking due to the high risk of injury.
|Lung Van Nhan (left) and Nguyen Ngoc Ly remove coconut husks using sharp blades. Photo: Hung Anh / Tuoi Tre|
Less risky jobs
A raw coconut goes through three phases at the Thom River market, where much of Ben Tre Province’s coconut husking takes place.
These phases include husk removal, copra extraction, and copra refinement, and each phase requires a different skill set. Copra is the white flesh of the coconut.
While removing the husk is dangerous and physically challenging, the other two phases are generally considered more worker-friendly options.
Nguyen Van Hau switched from husking to copra extracting about two years ago.
“Once the raw coconut is broken in half, we extract the white part using a special tool,” said Hau.
“[The tool] resembles a spoon. It has a wooden handle which supports a sharp, curved, protruding blade. This tool sells at VND170,000 [$7.2] and lasts for two to three years,” he said.
Demonstrating copra extraction, Hau calmly guided the thin blade between the shell and the coconut’s white flesh, pressuring it downward until reaching the center.
He then began to rotate the blade and, within seconds, had completely separated the shell from the copra.
The man calmly applied the thin blade at the fine line between the shell and the white, pressured it down till the tip touched the center, then began to rotate the blade. The shell is typically transformed into coal while the copra is refined further.
“Refining copra takes cleverness rather than strength,” Hau said.
“An experienced worker can refine up to 1,200 coconuts per day, earning about VND300,000 [$413] in total.
"Inexperienced workers can only refine 800-1,000 packs per day.
“There are no fixed working hours. We gather and work whenever we are needed.”
Pham Thi Hang, another worker at the market, has been refining coconut copra for nearly three years.
She usually starts her work day at 3:00 am and finishes by 11:00 am. During this time, she refines almost 400 kilograms of copra.
“We use a peeler to remove the brownish shell residue left on the copra. It’s an easy job and the pay is pretty low,” she said.
“I earn VND1,000 [$0.04] for every kilogram of copra I refine. More experienced workers can refine 500-600 kilograms each day."
Refined coconut copra sells for VND10,000-15,000 [$0.4-0.6] per kilogram. It is purchased by coconut oil or dried coconut manufacturers.
The removed brownish shell sells for VND5,000 ($0.21) per kilogram and can be used to extract residue oil.
Having worked at Ben Tre’s coconut market for 32 years as a merchant, Vo Van Hung estimates that 10,000 metric tons of coconut copra annually comes to the market from the Thom River coconut market.