Worker Rights Essential for Sustainable Development and Civic Participation

Last December, 18,000 Vietnamese workers at a Taiwanese-owned shoe company in Saigon went on strike to demand higher wages and humane working conditions. Within a few weeks, tens of thousands of workers at other foreign-owned factories throughout southern Vietnam walked out. By February, the labor unrest had spread north with 5,000 workers on strike at a locally-owned firm in Haiphong.

Vietnamese workers typically earn less than US$2 a day and face harsh conditions. They are frequently subject to overtime without compensation, insults, and physical punishments (including sexual abuse) by factory managers. Some striking workers reported that they were allowed only one bathroom break per shift.

The underlying reason for the worker unrest is government neglect and coercion with factory owners, and the lack of labor rights. Communist officials claim that the Vietnamese General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) represents the interests of workers. In reality, the VGCL is an arm of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

According to Vo Van Nhat, an official from the VGCL: “The workers have the right to strike. This is in our labor code.”

However, strikes are only deemed legal when sanctioned by the VGCL. That is the fundamental problem. Vietnamese workers do not have the right to form independent trade unions to truly defend their interests.

Authorities responded to the mass strikes by harassing and detaining organizers. According to an article in the International Herald Tribune, police detained some 100 striking workers at two Taiwanese companies in Binh Duong Province. Their whereabouts are unknown.

To limit the turmoil, prime minister Phan Van Khai issued a decree in early January increasing the monthly minimum wage at foreign invested firms by 40% effective February 2006. The introduction of this vaguely worded decree, which seemed to exempt enterprises with foreign capital run by the communist party, was subsequently postponed to April causing further labor protests.

The American and European Chambers of Commerce in Vietnam both expressed shock at this sudden change in government wage policy and the widespread labor action. Perhaps American and European business will see that the veneer of political stability in Vietnam causes greater social and economic instability.

There is ultimately more transparency and predictability when owners and workers freely negotiate contracts then when an authoritarian government decrees by fiat the wages of workers. The same VGCL and government officials that collude with owners one day to suppress workers can turn around the next to instigate worker protests as a bargaining tool against owners. In fact, some of the “legal” strikes in Vietnam over the last decade have been orchestrated by local authorities to gain concessions from foreign investors.

Thus, it is essential that labor rights, especially the right to form independent trade unions, are respected to ensure that Vietnam’s economic transition is sustainable and benefits all Vietnamese. When Vietnamese workers have the right to collective bargaining, the “dumping” of goods into overseas markets because of unfair wages will no longer be an issue. Foreign investors will also find a less arbitrary economic environment—and happier workers.

Ultimately, the unprecedented labor action is a sign of ordinary Vietnamese taking a more active role in shaping their lives. These early buds of civil society activity will flourish as more Vietnamese become aware of their basic rights and engage in civic issues.

You can help promote labor rights in Vietnam by:
- traveling to Vietnam to investigate first-hand the status of worker rights.
- raising with the Hanoi authorities specific cases of worker repression and reminding multinational companies of their corporate social responsibility to workers.
- providing moral, technical and financial support to individuals and groups inside Vietnam seeking to organize independent trade unions.