Trang Do, Linh Chi and Hieu Phan

Published: December 6, 2023

The global move away from fossil energy towards renewable sources signifies an unavoidable outcome: a labor shift within the energy industry. This trend is observable in numerous countries worldwide, including the USA and China, and Vietnam is no stranger to it. Over the next few decades, fossil fuel industries are anticipated to shed several million jobs, while jobs in the renewable energy sector are expected to experience significant growth.

At present, Vietnam is positioned as a leading country in Southeast Asia with a strong commitment to energy transition. This gained significant momentum when the Prime Minister pledged to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050 at COP26 in 2021. Further reinforcing this ambition, Vietnam has become the third country, following South Africa and Indonesia, to endorse a Political Declaration that establishes a Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) with countries both within and outside the G7.

Vietnam’s strong commitment to energy transition will push the fossil fuel industry under many pressures and risks. (Photo courtesy of Vietnam Law Newspaper)

Nearly 100,000 workers may be affected

According to Jay Rutovitz, Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, at the University of Technology Sydney, the transition is poised to affect nearly 100,000 individuals working in the fossil fuel industry in Vietnam.

Coal mining employs roughly 78,000 individuals, with an annual decline of around 3%; oil and gas extraction has an employee base of about 8,000 while approximately 9,000 workers are engaged in operating coal power stations among the 146,000 employees in the broader electricity sector. The workforce in the coal mining industry, especially in coal thermal power and thermal power overall, is slated for direct impacts due to the ongoing energy transition in the coming decades.

Jobs in coal mining, especially in underground mines, are heavy, hazardous, and risky. (Photo courtesy of Cao Xuan Thin/Hon Gai Coal Company – TKV)

Risks and barriers

Vietnam’s coal industry, concentrated in Quang Ninh province, has a history of over 180 years. Jobs in coal mining, especially in underground mines, are heavy, hazardous, and risky due to cramped spaces, low oxygen, and various dangers like dust, noise, CO2 exposure, high temperatures, and toxic chemicals.

While working conditions are improving, mining large quantities of coal involves many steps and risks. Workers, like Pham Dinh Duan with 18 years of experience, note that job requirements are increasing, requiring them to go deeper underground.

Geographical challenges further complicate matters. According to Cao Xuan Thin, who has worked in the industry for a decade, coal workers, once concentrated in northern provinces and cities, have shifted to the Northern midland and mountainous provinces, leading to workers living far from their families and needing to rent accommodation at the production site.

Similarly, jobs in the coal-fired power industry, like most in the coal sector, are specialized and pose various risks to workers’ health. Workers often operate in shifts, enduring a harsh environment with limited rest time. They are frequently exposed to heat, high-temperature steam, noise, dust, and chemicals.

High-level workers in the coal and coal-fired thermal industry might face a lot of unprecedented risks during the energy conversion. (Photo courtesy of Vietnam Law Newspaper)

On the other hand, workers in the thermal power industry, particularly coal thermal power, earn higher incomes. However, transitioning to renewable energy during the ongoing energy shift is challenging due to differences in geographical location and expertise, especially for highly specialized fossil fuel workers.

Vu Duc Viet, a long-time worker in the thermal power industry, shares reasons why workers hesitate to explore opportunities in the renewable energy industry. He points out that coal thermal power workers lack the necessary training and skills for the new energy industry, and the project locations often do not match their residences. Many workers, especially older individuals, face inertia and are reluctant to confront the challenges of changing careers.

Viet believes the energy transition will impact workers differently, with less impact on those in newly built factories and approaching retirement. However, young workers and those in underperforming plants with outdated equipment face the risk of job loss and income reduction.

Despite the unprecedented challenges and risks, the majority of workers lack access to Just Energy Transition (JET) policies and are unclear about the direct and indirect effects on their livelihoods. Still, workers expect the government to issue appropriate policies for them and their families.

Transitioning to a new job or changing careers is a challenging process, especially for those with experience in the coal-fired power industry. It involves training and self-learning to adapt, considering their established work history, work habits, and some loss of knowledge.

This challenge is even greater for female workers who juggle additional responsibilities such as raising children and managing household tasks.

Just energy transition needs to ensure to not leave fossil fuel workers behind. (Photo courtesy of Vietnam Law Newspaper)

Just labor transition

Approved in August 2023, the JETP Implementation Plan focuses on ensuring ‘just elements in the energy transition’, outlining social security support mechanisms. This includes assistance for severance allowance, early retirement, unemployment allowance, social support for informal workers, and other forms of protection tailored to each labor group affected by changes in employment and income. The goal is to secure household living standards post-energy transition, emphasizing training and retraining for impacted employees.

“Green energy transition is an inevitable trend for Vietnam. To ensure workers in the coal-fired power industry not to be left behind, the government needs to complete the basic legal framework and roadmap. The transition process should take into consideration specific training policies and social security policies for coal-fired power enterprises during the energy transition process.”, proposed Do Dinh Dat, Deputy Head of Safety – Environment Department of Uong Bi Thermal Power Company.

For Nguyen Manh Tuong, Permanent Deputy Secretary of the Quang Ninh Coal Party Committee, it is crucial to build an energy conversion roadmap to implement the government’s COP26 Commitment. He stressed the need for a fundamental and comprehensive solution, considering Vietnam’s status as a developing country with limitations in industry, scientific and technical advancement compared to developed countries.

A fundamental and comprehensive approach must be considered thoroughly in the nation’s energy transition roadmap (Photo courtesy of Vietnam Law Newspaper)