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International Trade Mechanisms and Climate Change Adaptation: Exploring the Links to Labour Migration in Vietnam

Learn about the connections between international trade mechanisms and climate change adaptation through a case study on Vietnam's Mekong Delta, focusing on internal domestic labour migration.
Multiple Authors
dark grey cloudy sky in top of image, road inbetween rice fields in bottom half of image, cyclist on road
Tra Vinh Province, Vietnam. Photo credit: Paula Kunzemann.


In March 2019, the authors participated in the Knowledge Networks of Transdisciplinary Studies (KNOTS) project as doctoral researchers from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. This article summarises a study based on the KNOTS project examining the connections between international trade mechanisms and climate change adaptation, with a focus on internal, domestic labour migration. It considers labour migration in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and how the newly promulgated Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has the potential to affect the governance of Vietnam’s internal migration and influence domestic climate change adaptation approaches. The study draws from information and narratives gathered during fieldwork conducted as part of the KNOTS program, exploring trends in labour migration as climate change adaptation strategies for the region’s most vulnerable populations. The study also investigates the work conditions and limitations on access to social welfare benefits in the destination place for internal migrant workers, including the effects of the ho khau household registration system. The study concludes with an analysis of how Vietnam’s status as a member party of a major international trade deal could affect the country’s future labour protections and thus, potentially benefit internal migrant labourers.

This weADAPT case study is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text.

Project Overview

The study draws on data from the KNOTS project. The project was co-funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ program and included collaboration between universities in Europe and Southeast Asia. As participants in KNOTS, the authors undertook group fieldwork related to slow-onset climate change impacts and internal migration from Tra Vinh and Soc Trang Provinces in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Over the course of a five-day period, issues related to migration, vulnerability, and salinity intrusion were studied using transdisciplinary research methodologies. Fieldwork was arranged and coordinated by Ho Chi Minh City Open University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The purpose of the fieldwork exercises was exploratory in nature. In particular, participant researchers sought to engage with non-academic stakeholders in the Mekong Delta to learn, share, and engage in knowledge coproduction at various sites of study. The research aimed to explore issues related to climate change, environment, migration, and inequality, using a participatory, transdisciplinary approach. At the time of the KNOTS project fieldwork, no data was collected that related directly to the CPTPP. The connections the authors drew between international trade and the stories of labour migration that are briefly described below originated several months later, as they analysed their fieldwork results and considered the broader implications of the collected data.

Farm labourers, Tra Vinh Province, Vietnam. Photo credit: Sara K. Phillips.


The authors studied two separate geographical locations within Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. They then compared and analysed their findings collectively. They formed a hypothesis through revisting their data. The data and results are based on information gathered from interviews, participant observation, and focus group discussions. Field reports were composed based on data collection and analysis, which were presented to KNOTS participants in April 2019 at Ho Chi Minh City Open University. Following are the methods used for each onsite location.

KNOTS Field Trip Group 3: A Study of Vulnerability and Saline Intrusion Adaption in Tra Cu District, Tra Vinh Province, Vietnam

A variety of research methods were used during this field trip, including interviews, document analysis, mapping, timelines, activity schedules, transect walks (photo interviews), seasonal calendars, and observation. Research participants ranged from governmental officials, university researchers, nongovernmental organizations, and agricultural experts, to community members and farmers. Farmers included those living inside and outside an area near the South Mang Thit Sub Dyke, which had been constructed as a measure to prevent saline intrusion in the surrounding region. Area farmers were of varying ages and genders and included landowners and those without property holdings, and persons of Kinh and Khmer ethnicities.

KNOTS Field Trip Group 6: A Study of the Role of Migration in Attaining a Better Life for Bang Lang Villagers in Soc Trang Province, Vietnam

Several techniques were utilized in this research, such as in-depth interviews, group interviews, focus group discussions, as well as informal conversations. Researchers also undertook participatory and non-participatory observations. Research participants ranged from villagers of various biographies and socio-economic positions to local government representatives and government-affiliated organizations, and the executive board of a farming cooperative.

In this study, KNOTS researchers spoke with 41 respondents, of whom 30 were women and 11 men.



In-Depth Interviews

The leader and representative of a women’s union, seven individual interviews with local people, local authorities, a staff member of the Job Promotion Center, the vice principal of a primary school, the president and board member of the Evergrowth Cooperative.

Group Interviews

One group interview with women’s union members.

Informal Discussions

One chilli farmer, one elderly person, two teenagers, a group of nine local women, a family of four (farmer and his family members), one Buddhist monk, police officers, and local security.

Focus Group Discussions

One focus group discussion with four (past/present) female shrimp farmers.


Non-participatory observation and participatory observation.

Excerpt from KNOTS Field Trip Group 6 Summer School and Field Trip Report (April 2019) on research methods.

Salinity intrusion, Tra Vinh Province, Vietnam. Photo credit: Frank Seemann.


Addressing vulnerabilities, inequalities, and biases linked to the minority status of migrating peoples and prioritizing those groups most susceptible to harm would work towards alleviating many of the adverse impacts caused by slow-onset climate change events. There may also exist barriers to access to justice and deficiencies in the rule of law that make accountability and remedy difficult to achieve on the part of displaced persons. To this end, substantive domestic legal reform efforts can be an effective route through which accountability measures may be strengthened. Accountability mechanisms and access to legal remedies are oftentimes most effective when promulgated at the national level, via domestic legal frameworks. However, the capacity of internally displaced persons to pursue such remedies may be limited due to financial restraints, social vulnerabilities, and access to resources, generally.

In November 2019, at the 6th International Conference on International Relations and Development in Chiang Rai, Thailand, the authors presented their hypothesis that international trade mechanisms were one pathway through which accountability related to labour protections could be strengthened. As a ratifying member of the CPTPP, Vietnam affirmed its commitment to implement labour reform measures that would bring its domestic legal framework into compliance with internationally recognized labour standards, specifically the International Labour Organization Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up. The authors do not here assert that international trade deals offer a comprehensive solution to the challenges faced by internally displaced persons. Indeed, international trade is often the subject of intense criticism. However, the ability of such mechanisms to enhance labour protections at the national level is a frequently overlooked area of study. With the advent of new international trade deals that include measures relating to labour and human rights and climate change, the domestic legal reforms to which states agree can function to bolster protections relevant to the slow-onset adverse effects of climate change.

Priorities for Future Studies

With new commitments to labour reforms alongside the ratification of the CPTPP, Vietnam presents an ideal case study for further exploration of the interrelationship of domestic climate change adaptation and international trade. The process by which Vietnam achieves CPTPP compliance and the resultant outcomes will offer ample opportunities for ongoing and future research into the linkages between international trade, climate change, and internal labour migration, including closer scrutiny of both the purported benefits and potential pitfalls of such connections.


The research, based on data collected from Tra Vinh and Soc Trang Provinces in the Mekong Delta, indicated that communities faced threats from both rapid- and slow-onset natural hazards. In the authors’ site studies, saline intrusion, soil degradation, and drought were identified as the primary slow-onset climate events, which had widespread consequences for millions of people throughout the region. These slow-onset natural hazards produced additional challenges to communities as they were unable to maintain traditional livelihoods due to environmental change. Slow-onset hazards also impacted the ability of residents to remain in their homes due to reduced food security, loss of biodiversity, diminished agriculture and aquaculture production, and increased socio-economic vulnerabilities. Such vulnerabilities created even greater financial instability for community members, including increased indebtedness.

Key takeaways:

  • Migration became a crucial adaptation strategy for persons unable to remain in their homes, including those families who struggled with the negative impacts of the area’s environmental change.
  • Loss of livelihoods, indebtedness, landlessness and land scarcity, lack of employment opportunities, and decreased labour demand in the Mekong Delta were identified as the core issues that shaped decision-making processes regarding mobilization.
  • Internal migrants (or as the authors posit, environmentally forced migrants) face numerous challenges in the destination place. Lack of access to important services, including education and healthcare, and familial separation created additional vulnerabilities for migrating labourers when they reached the destination place.
  • The interviews from the field studies suggested that work conditions and access to social services for internal migrants is deserving of greater attention at the policy level. In particular, labour rights and labour protections in Vietnam need to be reformed to meet international standards.

Building on the connections between migration linked to the slow-onset adverse effects of climate change and barriers to labour mobility, the authors hypothesized that commitments found in international trade deals, such as the CPTPP – to which Vietnam is a ratifying member – could work to drive domestic legal reforms and bolster labour rights in the Mekong Delta. While interlinkages between international trade and climate change are often made at the global level, connections between a country’s domestic adaptation measures and international trade mechanisms can also be made. These connections link current observations of labour migration patterns due to climate change with the expected domestic impacts of international trade in terms of labour protection.

The views, observations, and analyses expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the KNOTS program, Chulalongkorn University, Ho Chi Minh City Open University, or any other affiliated or referenced entity, including organizations, governments, companies, and individuals.

Suggested Citation:

Phillips, S.K. andSurimas, T. 2020. Addressing Climate Change Adaptation Through International Trade Mechanisms: Labour Migration and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement forTrans-Pacific Partnership in Vietnam. Conference Proceedings ofA New Global Network: What’s Next of “The Turns” in International Relations and Development, 22-23 November 2019, Chiang Rai, Thailand. [Online]. Chiang Rai: School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University, 528-542. Available here.

Surimas, T. and Phillips, S.K. 2020.Submission to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally DisplacedPersons: Internal Displacement in the Context of the Slow-Onset Adverse Effects of Climate Change.Report on internal displacement in the context of theslow-onset adverse effects of climate change,Office of the United Nations High Commissionerfor Human Rights.Available here.

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