Duong Thi Thai and her husband, Nguyen Van Khoi, work in Ho Chi Minh City at the Freetrend Ltd. factory, a series of low-slung buildings where, on any given day, nearly 20,000 people labor. There the couple make shoes, earning about VND 10 million ($445) per month, which, while certainly better than not having a job, leaves them near the bottom of Vietnam’s wage scale.

After getting married in 2009, Thai says, they hoped to buy a few basic appliances for their new one-room apartment. For the...

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