UNIONS AND STRIKES IN VIETNAM

UNIONS IN VIETNAM

Vietnam bans labor unions that are independent of the ruling Communist Party. Industrial relations experts say that most workplaces currently lack transparent arbitration mechanisms to settle labor disputes. The founders of the banned United Workers-Farmers Organization, which demands the right to form independent labor unions, were jailed for "abusing democracy and freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state."

Article 1 of Vietnam’s Law on Trade Unions read: “A trade union is a large political and social organization of the working class voluntarily established under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party. It represents Vietnamese workers, is part of the political system of Vietnam, and brings the benefits of socialism to workers.”

“Under the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam, ever since its founding, the Vietnamese trade unions have always been loyal to the interests of the working class and nation; and organized and mobilized workers, office employees and other working people to pioneer in the struggle for the independence and freedom of the homeland and the lawful and legitimate interests of the working people.”— The Vietnam General Confederation of Labor.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Though the rights of workers are a founding principle of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the government has enacted laws that prohibit workers from forming or joining unions of their choosing. All unions must be approved by and affiliated with the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), which is controlled by the Communist Party. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 2, 2009 ^^^]

Before his arrest and imprisonment in August 2006, labor activist Huynh Viet Lang said in February 2006: “The democratization progress in 2006 has focused on two hot spots: human rights and labor rights. As victims of exploitation and injustice, our brother laborers have refused to surrender. Instead, they choose to struggle for their rights and justice, not only for themselves but for the country as a whole. In their struggles, members of the younger generation are standing up as leaders of the democratic movement in Vietnam. The year 2006 will mark breakthroughs in the democratization progress.

Laws Regarding Unions in Vietnam

According to the U.S. Department of State: The law does not allow workers to organize and join independent unions of their choice. While workers may choose whether to join a union and at which level (local, provincial, or national) they wish to participate, every union must be affiliated with the country’s only trade union confederation, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL). The VGCL, a union umbrella organization controlled by the CPV, approves and manages a range of subsidiary labor unions organized according to location and industry. By law the provincial or metropolitan branch of the VGCL is responsible for organizing a union within six months of the establishment of any new enterprise, and management is required to cooperate with the union. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

The law outlines mandatory union dues for union members and domestic and foreign employers. While these dues were intended to support workers and union activities, neither the VGCL nor the government, which is responsible for dues collection, provided transparent information regarding their use. Although the law does not allow for independent unions, it permits the negotiation of disputes to be led and organized by “relevant entities,” which may be composed of worker representatives when the enterprise in question does not have a union, i.e., during the first six months after an enterprise is established. The law allows for “union activities” during this period, especially during emergencies such as a strike. ***

The law provides VGCL-affiliated unions the right to bargain collectively on behalf of workers. Collective labor disputes over rights must be routed through a conciliation council and, if the council cannot resolve the matter, to the chairperson of the district-level people’s committee. In practice VGCL leaders influenced key decisions by drafting, amending, or commenting on labor legislation; developing social safety nets; and setting health, safety, and minimum wage standards. Labor activists and representatives of independent (non-VGCL) workers’ organizations faced antiunion discrimination. ***

There was little evidence that leaders or organizations active during the first six months’ window after an enterprise was established continued to be active or recognized thereafter. There were credible reports that employers tended to use short-term or probationary contracts to avoid certain legally mandated worker benefits, such as unemployment insurance, or to inhibit workers from joining unions. ***

Brief Liberalization of Labor Activists in Vietnam

According to Human Rights Watch: For a brief period in 2006, the government of Vietnam—prior to entering the World Trade Organization and normalizing trade relations with the United States—tolerated a budding civil society. Opposition political parties, independent trade unions, underground newspapers, and Vietnam’s first independent human rights organization publicly emerged, a rare situation in the one-party state dominated by the Communist Party of Vietnam. The most well-known effort was by activists who formed a pro-democracy group, Block 8406, whose membership swelled into the thousands through an online petition. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 2, 2009 ^^^]

The government’s tolerance of peaceful dissent, however, proved to be short-lived. In the weeks leading up to Vietnam’s hosting of a major international conference in Hanoi in November 2006, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, the Vietnamese government launched a fresh crackdown on civil society, harassing, threatening, and arresting democracy advocates, labor activists, human rights defenders, opposition party members, and cyber-dissidents. The government also placed a number of activists under house arrest to prevent them from speaking to the international press corps covering the APEC summit. Dozens of activists—including eight independent trade union advocates—were sentenced to prison in 2006-2007 on dubious national security charges, joining more than 350 persons imprisoned for political or religious activity in Vietnam since 2001. ^^^

Formation of Independent Unions in Vietnam

Human Rights Watch reported: “In 2006, unprecedented numbers of workers began to join "wildcat" strikes (strikes without the approval of union officials) at foreign-owned factories around Ho Chi Minh City and in surrounding provinces in the south. The workers demanded wage increases—the minimum wage for workers had not been raised for the previous six years—and better working conditions. As the strikes quickly spread to Vietnam’s central and northern provinces, some workers called for broader labor rights such as the ability to form independent unions and the dissolution of the party-controlled labor confederation. More than 350,000 workers participated in 541 strikes during 2006, according to Vietnamese state media.The strikes were deemed illegal, as workers are prohibited from organizing unions or conducting strikes not authorized by the official labor Confederation. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 2, 2009 ^^^]

Despite such restrictions, in 2006 democracy and human rights activists inside Vietnam began to publicly advocate for workers’ rights. In February, representatives of striking workers in southern and central Vietnam sent an appeal to Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh outlining eight demands. They called for dissolution of all state-controlled labor unions and Communist Party-organized cells in factories and worksites and cessation of the practice of deducting mandatory contributions from workers’ wages to support the Confederation. In March 2006, activists issued two public appeals in support of striking workers, calling on the Vietnamese government to release all workers arrested because of their participation in strikes and requesting assistance from the International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency, to organize independent labor unions. ^^^

In October 2006, activists pressed further by announcing the formation of two independent trade unions. Their stated goals were to protect the rights of workers, including the right to form and join independent trade unions, engage in strikes, and collectively bargain with employers without being required to obtain government or party approval. They also planned to disseminate information about workers’ rights and exploitative and abusive labor conditions. The formation of the first of the two independent unions, the United Worker-Farmers Organization of Vietnam, or UWFO (Hiep Hoi Doan Ket Cong Nong), was announced in September 2006 by Vietnamese-American activist Do Cong Thanh, followed on October 30, 2006 by a public statement by four labor activists in Vietnam. ^^^

On October 20, 2006, well-known dissident and former political prisoner Nguyen Khac Toan announced the formation of a second union, the Independent Worker’s Union of Vietnam, or IWUV (Cong Doan Doc Lap ), along with other democracy activists, including Le Tri Tue and Tran Khai Thanh Thuy. Both unions stressed the link between exploitation of workers and confiscation of farmers’ land in the countryside, noting that increasing landlessness is a factor forcing hundreds of thousands of farmers to urban areas and industrial zones in search of work. ^^^

In a statement released on January 12, 2007, UWFO activist Tran Quoc Hien said: Many farmers have lost everything after being forcibly deprived of their land, farms, and houses by corrupt government officials. Many farmers had left their villages for the metropolitan areas, where some have joined the class of labor workers in order to make their daily living, while others have petitioned the government for compensation for the land confiscated from them by corrupt officials. ^^^

Vietnamese human rights advocates living abroad have supported the work of trade unionists inside Vietnam. In 2006, members of the Vietnamese diaspora in Europe and North America created the Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers (CPVW). The group’s website provides Vietnamese-language information about workers’ rights and international human rights law and news stories about strikes and labor conditions throughout the country. It contains articles such as, "CPVW can help you to take your bad employer to court," "The right to strike under current Vietnamese law," "Sue the Boss?" and instructions for how to send images to CPVW and use proxy servers to scale government-imposed firewalls in Vietnam. ^^^

Restrictions on Labor Rights in Vietnam

Human Rights Watch reported: The development policy of the Vietnamese government is based in part on using Vietnam’s hard-working and low-paid work-force as a selling point to attract foreign investors. In Vietnam, minimum monthly wages range from 650,000 dong (US$36) for workers in Vietnamese companies to between 800,000-1 million dong (US$50-62) for workers in foreign-owned companies. As the website of the Vietnam Trade Office in the United States asserts, foreign investors are drawn to Vietnamese "traditions emphasizing learning and respect for authority as well as low wages." Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan confirmed the importance of low-cost labor to the economic development of Vietnam: "Over the last 20 years," he told the state news service in 2008, "Vietnam had successfully attracted foreign investment because of its low cost labor force." [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 2, 2009 ^^^]

As a member of the ILO, the Vietnamese government is required to respect and promote the fundamental rights enshrined in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. These include the principle of "freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining." However, Vietnam has not ratified either of the two ILO conventions concerning this fundamental principle: Convention No. 87, regarding the right to freedom of association and protection of the right to organize; and Convention No. 98, regarding the right to organize and collectively bargain. Even so, as an ILO member, Vietnam is obligated to promote freedom of association, regardless of whether it has ratified the relevant conventions. ^^^

With input from the ILO, Vietnam passed a comprehensive Labor Code in 1994. The law sets minimum wages, establishes safety and sanitary conditions, and recognizes the right of workers to strike under certain conditions. However it prohibits workers from freely forming their own trade unions or from joining trade unions of their own choosing. The Communist Party controls the only official trade union in Vietnam, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL). Headed by a Communist Party Central Committee member, the Confederation is an umbrella organization that oversees and supervises subsidiary labor unions established in different regions and industries across Vietnam. ^^^

Any enterprise with more than 10 workers is required to form a trade union approved by, affiliated with, and acting under the authority of the Confederation. The 1990 Trade Union Law defines a union as an organization of the working class "voluntarily established under the leadership of the Vietnam Communist Party." It requires all unions to inform relevant government organizations at the time of their formation, in order to "establish official relations." In fact, many joint ventures and foreign-owned companies that have experienced wildcat strikes have not had formal unions, with only about 40 percent of Vietnam’s 16 million wage earners belonging to the Confederation and its ancillary unions. ^^^

The Confederation’s website offers the following description of its mandate: “The Vietnamese trade union is an umbrella social-political organization voluntarily formed by working class, intellectualists and workers in order to mobilize, consolidate forces and build a working class strong in all aspects, to represent and protect lawful and legitimate rights and interests of workers, striving for building an independent and unified Vietnam towards socialism.”

All activities and objectives of unions in Vietnam must be authorized by the Confederation, providing it effective veto power over unions’ international relations and affiliations.[28] At times the Confederation has advocated for labor reforms, calling for better health, safety, and minimum wage standards and amendments to labor laws. Revisions in the Labor Code approved in 2001, for example, authorize workers in certain enterprises, such as taxi drivers and cooks, to form unofficial "labor associations." However, these associations lack the authority to bargain with employers or conduct strikes. In 2006, recognizing that many workers are not members of the Confederation, the Labor Code was again amended to allow "relevant entities" to negotiate in labor disputes. ^^^

The lack of independence of Confederation representatives from the Communist Party and the enterprises that employ them, as well as the lack of protection for those seeking to organize, undermines any mandate the Confederation has to defend workers rights. Unsure how to address escalating labor unrest, the government has not only tolerated large unsanctioned strikes, but also frank assessments of the Confederation’s shortcomings by its own leadership. In 2008, Confederation Vice President Mai Duc Chin stated in an article in the Vietnamese state press: There hasn’t been any policy to protect [Confederation] union staff and most employers don’t cooperate with unions... Local union staff at non-state enterprises were not adequately qualified for carrying out their responsibilities. Most of them didn’t devote much time to union activities and some lacked the courage and motivation to fight for labor rights. ^^^

Former Confederation President Cu Thi Hau stated that despite restrictions in the Labor Code, during 2005-2006 more than 1,000 strikes deemed illegal took place. "It is thus clear that the Labor Code is not realistic, it must be speedily corrected," she stated. Even when Confederation representatives have highlighted violations of labor laws, authorities rarely follow through with action. Part of the problem is that when courts adjudicate labor complaints, including disputes involving thousands of striking workers, they do so on a case-by-case basis. ^^^

Crackdown on Labor Activists in Vietnam

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam’s emerging independent trade union movement was effectively brought to a grinding halt in 2006-2007, with the arrests of proponents and supporters of two independent trade unions who publicly announced their formation at that time. Since 2006, at least eight independent labor activists have been convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Other labor activists have been harassed, intimidated, and forced to cease their activities or flee the country. By arresting the most prominent leaders, the government has attempted to wipe out the independent trade union movement. It continues to target and harass independent labor activists, who are seen as a particular threat to the Communist Party because of their ability to attract and organize large numbers of people. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 2, 2009 ^^^]

Describing an incident in Ho Chi Minh City in March 2007, two months before he went missing after fleeing to Cambodia, Le Tri Tue, a Vietnamese labor activist said: “While walking down the main street of Phu Nhuan District, I was approached by two policemen who asked me to come to the police station with them. When I refused, they beat me. I had been beaten many times before by people on the street. The police had told me that they were just locals who hated people who struggled against the government, but I believe that they were secret agents. I was scared so I never told anyone about the beatings. But this was the first time I had been beaten by policemen in uniform. “ ^^^

“The Vietnamese government responded to the surge in strikes and labor activism in 2006 with threats, legal sanctions, and arrests—as well as some reforms, such as wage increases for workers at state- and foreign-invested enterprises as well as government employees. Fearful of political instability and upsetting foreign investors in advance of the APEC summit, during the latter part of 2006 the Vietnamese government took steps to shut down independent union activities in Vietnam, as well as contacts between Vietnamese activists and their supporters abroad. In August 2006 police in Ho Chi Minh City arrested Huynh Viet Lang, a member of the opposition People’s Democratic Party who had issued a lengthy critique of Vietnam’s violations of labor rights. In October 2006, democracy activist Le Thi Cong Nhan was denied a passport and barred from traveling to Warsaw, Poland to attend a conference on workers’ rights in Vietnam organized by CPVW, where she was to present a paper. ^^^

In November 2006 police arrested all of UWFO’s known members in Vietnam, including Doan Huy Chuong, Doan Van Dien, Tran Thi Le Hang, Nguyen Thi. Tuyet, Le Ba Triet, Nguyen Tuan, and Ly Van Sy. Police prevented other activists, including Le Thi Cong Nhan and IWUV leaders Nguyen Khac Toan and Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, from leaving their homes or receiving visitors. Police padlocked the back door to Nguyen Khac Toan’s house and guarded the front door, where they placed an English-language sign stating, "Security area. No foreigner allowed."

The arrests and detention of the labor activists were followed by trials in which at least eight were convicted and sentenced to prison for violating national security provisions of Vietnam’s penal code. These prosecutions violated Vietnam’s obligations under international human rights law to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

In December 2007, the Dong Nai Province Peoples’ Court sentenced UWFO leaders Doan Van Dien, Doan Huy Chuong, Tran Thi Le Hong, and Nguyen Thi Tuyet to prison sentences ranging from 18 months to four-and-a-half years under penal code article 258, "abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state." They were accused of slandering the Vietnamese government by alleging that it violated workers’ rights and illegally confiscated farmers’ land through articles disseminated on "reactionary" websites and interviews with western news sources. On January 14, 2007, the authorities arrested UWFO activist Tran Quoc Hien, just two days after he issued an appeal on behalf of the jailed labor activists and publicly emerged as UWFO’s spokesperson. The jailing of other labor activists followed, with Tran Khai Thanh Thuy arrested in March 2007 and Le Thi Cong Nhan in April 2007.

Strikes in Vietnam

Strikes are fairly common in Vietnam. About 900 of them were reported between 1995 and 2005. Strikes were illegal until 1996. However even today strikes permitted under international law are still considered to be illegal by the Vietnamese government. The irony of this in that striking coal miners were among the first groups to put pressure on the French colonial government on thr road to Vietnamese independence.

Taiwanese- and South Korean-owned footwear and garment factories in both Ho Chi Minh City and neighbouring provinces have been the scene of frequent industrial disputes in recent years. Dozens of Asian sub-contracting firms have set up shop there to take advantage of Vietnam's huge reservoir of cheap labor.

The were massive strikes in Vietnam in late 2005 and early 2006. More than 150 strikes occurred at foreign-invested enterprises (FIEs) at the beginning of 2006, with 160,000 workers participating. The main reasons for the strikes were low pay and poor protection of workers’ interests. The strikes subsided after the Government raised the minimum salary at FIEs. [Source: The Saigon Times Daily - December 28, 2006]

According to Human Rights Watch, When more than 9,000 workers walked off the job in 2005 at a Hong Kong-owned factory in Vietnam that manufactures toys for McDonald’s, it made international headlines. It was not an isolated incident, however. An unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes in 2006 prompted the Vietnamese government to increase the minimum wage at foreign-owned companies in 2006 and again in 2007, with another wage hike put into place on May 1, 2009. Despite this, labor unrest continues to escalate in Vietnam. In 2008, at least 650 strikes took place—20 percent more than during 2007. In the midst of the global recession, the number of strikes is likely even higher now. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 2, 2009 ^^^]

Reasons for Strikes in Vietnam

Human Rights Watch reported: “The government largely attributes the escalation in strikes to violations of Vietnam’s Labor Code by foreign-owned companies, and notes that the Confederation and local People’s Committees often intervene in labor disputes on the side of the workers. At the same time, however, the government continues to wage a repressive campaign to ensure that Vietnamese workers do not organize independent trade unions, using the Confederation and other official institutions to prevent workers from gaining real rights. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 2, 2009 ^^^]

In an increasing number of cases, workers are not striking for higher wages, but simply to be paid for work completed. During 2008, thousands of workers in Ho Chi Minh City and surrounding areas lost their jobs when their companies announced bankruptcy or laid off workers to keep costs down. At several factories, the foreign supervisors fled the country without paying workers two or three months worth of salaries owed to them. Workers are also striking to express their grievances over poor working conditions, and in some cases, their mistreatment by foreign managers, including physical and verbal abuse and sexual harassment. ^^^

Local branches of the Confederation have reportedly tried to intervene in some of these cases, calling on the Vietnamese government to seize the foreign companies’ assets in order to pay the workers’ wages. In addition, the Confederation has advocated for a more streamlined process at the district level for workers to sue the companies. Lacking confidence that these measures will produce adequate or timely compensation, at some of the factories workers have conducted sit-down strikes to prevent the runaway owners from removing assets such as sewing machines. For example, in November 2008 when talks failed between government officials and workers at the Quang Sung Vina Garment Company, striking workers said that if the government could not find a reasonable solution for them they would sell the factory’s machines and furniture to collect their salaries from the proceeds. ^^^

According to the U.S. Department of State: The VGCL reported 981 strikes in 2011. The main reason for the high number of strikes—more than double the number in 2010--was reportedly the negative impact of high inflation on workers’ living conditions. The majority of these strikes occurred in Ho Chi Minh City and surrounding provinces in foreign-invested enterprises (mainly South Korean and Taiwanese companies). None of the strikes followed the authorized conciliation and arbitration process and thus were considered illegal, “wildcat” strikes. The government tolerated these strikes and not only took no action against the strikers but on occasion also actively mediated agreements in the workers’ favor. In some cases the government disciplined employers, especially with foreign-owned companies, for the illegal practices that led to strikes. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

Laws Regarding Strikes in Vietnam

According to the U.S. Department of State: The law permits strikes under certain prescribed circumstances and stipulates an extensive and cumbersome process of mediation and arbitration that must be followed before a lawful strike may occur. The law prohibits strikes in businesses that serve the public or that the government considers essential to the national economy and defense. The law also grants the prime minister the right to suspend a strike considered detrimental to the national economy or public safety. The law defines “essential services” more broadly than in International Labor Organization (ILO) criteria. A decree defines these enterprises as ones involved in electricity production; post and telecommunications; maritime and air transportation, navigation, and management; public works; and oil and gas. The essential services list was reduced by nearly 60 percent in April (effective June 1), from 142 firms to 58. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

Strikes that do not arise from a collective labor dispute or do not adhere to the process outlined by law are illegal. Before workers may hold a strike, they must take their claims through a process involving a conciliation council (or a district-level labor conciliator where no union is present). If the two parties cannot reach a resolution, the claims must be submitted to a provincial arbitration council. Unions (or workers’ representatives where no union is present) have the right either to appeal decisions of provincial arbitration councils to provincial people’s courts or to go on strike. Individual workers may take cases directly to the people’s court system, but in most cases they may do so only after conciliation has been attempted and failed. The law also stipulates that workers on strike will not be paid wages while they are not at work. ***

The law prohibits retribution against strikers, and there were some anecdotal reports of employer retaliation against strike participants by limiting future employment prospects. For example, MOLISA’s Center for Industrial Relations reported the case of a company photographing workers on strike and sending the photographs to other companies within their business association. Local news reported that employees at a Panasonic factory accused the company of creating a list of striking workers. By law individuals participating in strikes declared illegal by a people’s court and found to have caused damage to their employer are liable for damages. ***

Restrictions on strikes

Activist Le Thi Cong Nhan, who served a three-year prison sentence, said: “Vietnamese laws provide no definition of what constitutes a strike, but they do define what constitutes an illegal strike!

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam’s Labor Code allows party-controlled unions to strike but imposes strict and cumbersome conditions that must first be met, which effectively nullify this right. In order to receive authorization to strike, workers must first submit their complaints for mediation by local conciliation councils comprised of equal numbers of representatives of workers and employers. If conciliation fails, either party can submit the complaint to a district labor arbitration council established by the provincial People’s Committee, or to the district-level People’s Committee. If the dispute remains unresolved, it can proceed to the provincial labor arbitration council. [Source: Human Rights Watch, May 2, 2009 ^^^]

All of these steps must be taken before a legal strike can take place. Unions—or groups of workers if no union is present—can contest the ruling of a provincial arbitration council by filing an appeal with the labor court under the Provincial People’s Court, if necessary taking the dispute to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court for a final decision. If dissatisfied with the results, in theory the workers can then legally go on strike. Since the Communist Party controls not only the Confederation but the conciliation and arbitration councils, the People’s Committees, and the People’s Courts, strikes are rarely—if ever—given legal authorization. ^^^

Amendments to the Labor Code that came into effect in July 2007 further stiffen restrictions on "illegal" strikes, imposing administrative sanctions and criminal charges against people who "incite, embroil, or force" workers to strike. The amended code defines two types of labor disputes: those over compliance with the law and contracts ("disputes over rights") and disputes over benefits and demands beyond what the law provides ("disputes over interests"). The amended code establishes different procedures for conciliation of the two types of disputes. Strikes are only authorized for disputes over interests. For disputes over rights, if conciliation fails either party can take the case to court, thereby outlawing rights-related strikes. ^^^

The new amendments also set a high bar for worker approval of strikes, requiring that 75 percent of workers at enterprises with more than 300 employees must vote in favor of a strike (or 50 percent for enterprises with less than 300 employees). Some provisions in the amended law protect workers in "legal" strikes from reprisals such as termination of workers’ contracts or unilaterally suspending a business operation in order to thwart a strike. ^^^

Strikes are prohibited in 54 sectors considered to provide essential public services or be important to national security or the national economy, including the transportation, banking, and postal sectors; oil, gas, and forestry enterprises; and power stations. The prime minister can terminate any strike considered to be a threat to public safety or to the national economy. Furthermore, government regulations impose fines of up to three months’ pay on workers who participate in strikes declared unlawful by a People’s Court, to compensate employers for losses incurred as a result. ^^^

“Despite such restrictions, strikes and other public expression of discontent over wages and working conditions continue to soar in Vietnam, with at least 650 unsanctioned strikes taking place in 2008. This is 20 percent more than during 2007, according to official statistics. All of these strikes have all taken place outside of Vietnam’s legal framework, as outlined above. While wildcat strikes are often tolerated by local officials, the vast majority are in fact in violation of Vietnamese law. ^^^

Disturbances at Taiwanese-owned Footwear Factory in Vietnam

In October 2000, AFP reported: Disturbances broke out outside a Taiwanese-owned footwear factory in Ho Chi Minh City after a dozen sacked employees went on hunger strike, the official trade union daily Lao Dong reported. Police were forced to intervene when passers-by joined the protests outside the Hue Phong plant Wednesday after seven of the hunger strikers collapsed, the paper said. [Source: Agence France Presse, October 19, 2000 \\\\]

“District officials stepped in to organize transport to take the stricken strikers to hospital after plant managers refused. Doctors ordered all seven kept in hospital overnight, it said. The workers, eight of them women, launched their hunger strike after they were summarily dismissed by plant deputy director Nguyen Kim Quoc. Managers evicted them from company lodgings without giving them time to collect their belongings or arrange alternative accommodation, the paper charged. A management spokesman insisted the hunger strikers' state of health had nothing to do with the company. "These workers have been sacked and so they are no longer company staff," said personnel manager Nguyen Van Tien. \\\\

“The Hue Phong plant has been the scene of repeated disputes in recent months amid accusations in the official press of poor working conditions and abuse of child labor. A strike by thousands of workers earlier this year prompted an investigation by Go Vap district officials, Ho Chi Minh City trade union official Mai Duc Chinh told AFP. "More than 3,000 workers work regularly in the plant but the company has signed only seasonal contracts to avoid paying social insurance," he charged, adding that conditions in the company dormitories were extremely cramped. Chinh said the authorities were still investigating the child labor accusations but added that Vietnamese law permitted 15-year-olds to do suitable work under parental supervision. \\\\

Strikes in Vietnam in 2006

Strikes in early 2006 were among the largest ever in Vietnam. Michael Karadjis wrote in the Green Left Weekly, “Beginning in late 2005, tens of thousands of Vietnamese workers downed tools at dozens of foreign-invested enterprises (FIEs) in southern industrial zones around Ho Chi Minh City, demanding implementation of a 40-48 percent wage rise decreed by the Vietnamese government in September. Some strikes have turned violent. According to the January 26 Christian Science Monitor, "In the Song Than industrial zone, some smashed windows and attacked machines, spurred on by ringleaders who distributed handwritten messages urging action against low pay and poor conditions, say factory owners". [Source: Michael Karadjis, Green Left Weekly, February 15, 2006 <|>]

“Most Western media has reported that the strike wave ended around January 6 when the Vietnamese government relented to the strikers’ demands for a 40 percent pay increase. The January 28 Economist reported: "What is especially unsettling for investors is how the workers got their extra dough. Since late December, wildcat strikes have swept through the industrial zones surrounding Ho Chi Minh City. The government issued a decree in February 2006 month raising the minimum wage in foreign-owned factories and most strikers returned to work. <|>

“The strikes broke out because many foreign investors asked the government to defer the wage rise until after the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, beginning on January 28, because they "couldn’t afford" the wage rise and also pay the Tet bonus. The Tet bonus is the equivalent of a 13th-month salary that Vietnamese workers are entitled to. The government thus left it up to the bosses and workers to bargain over when it would be implemented. Figuring they could "afford" not to get the rise less than the bosses could "not afford" to give it, the Vietnamese working class showed its bargaining strength, with the full knowledge that it had the law, the open sympathy of most Vietnamese, the discreet sympathy of the government, and the active support of the VGCL on its side. According to the January 11 Viet Nam News, the VGCL claimed "the reason for recent strikes is that companies have announced wage policies and bonuses late. Also, companies have yet to improve working conditions and meals for laborers, while at the same time requiring them to work overtime." <|>

Wage Hike That Ended the 2006 Strike Issued Before the Strike Began

Michael Karadjis wrote in the Green Left Weekly, “The Vietnamese government decreed the wage rise long before the strike wave. As the September 25 Vietnamese daily Saigon Giai Phong (Liberated Saigon) reported, "The Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs [MOLISA] has called on FDI [foreign direct invested] enterprises to increase the minimum wages they pay their employees. It wants firms based in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Dong Nai and Binh Duong to pay at least 870,000 dong [about US$55] per month, those in Hai Phong, Ha Long, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Vung Tau and Can Tho to pay 790,000 dong [$50], and those in other areas to pay 710,000 [$45]." The new minimum salaries replace the previous minimums of 626,000, 556,000 and 480,000 dong respectively. This decision was due to earlier lobbying by the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), the country’s peak trade union body. [Source: Michael Karadjis, Green Left Weekly, February 15, 2006 <|>]

“The government did not announce a new policy to end the strike wave, but merely stated that the existing policy had to implemented no later than February 1. Foreign investors, governments and the Western media responded with hostility to the workers’ struggles. The Economist quoted bosses claiming that "outside agitators stoked the protests, distributing notes at factory gates while police stood idly by", and noted that "some observers find it implausible that [the protests] could occur without the prior knowledge of the ruling party, which forbids independent trade unions. Workers are allowed to join only a pliant, party-affiliated union." But this fiction of "a pliant, party-affiliated union", which Western "democracies" and their pliant media pretend to be concerned about, has blown up in their faces, and they are now revealing that it is precisely "pliant" unions that they would prefer to the militant, Communist Party-affiliated union leadership in Vietnam. The Economist goes on to ask, "Why didn’t Vietnam crush the illegal strikes?" Taiwan’s deputy foreign affairs minister Michael Kau stepped in to demand the Vietnamese government "protect Taiwan investors and their businesses", warning that if the government did not deal with the strikes properly and quickly, it would have an adverse impact on Taiwanese investment in Vietnam. <|>

A 2002 report by the US Department of Commerce, Socialist Republic of Vietnam — Determination of Market Economy Status, asserted that although most strikes are led by spontaneous workers’ groups rather than official unions, and though most "do not follow proper legal procedures, they are tolerated by the government with no reports of retribution against strikers". “I have also observed during my four years in Vietnam that in virtually every strike reported, the official Communist-led unions stepped in and forced bosses to relent to workers’ demands. In one example during a similar strike wave last October-November, reported in the November 25 Viet Nam News, the 1000 workers who struck at the Hong Kong-owned Rieker footwear factory only returned to work "after a meeting between company’s management and the provincial Nam authorities and Quang Nam Labor Federation", when "the company’s management agreed to a worker pay raise, better lunch and better working conditions" — i.e., the strikers’ demands. <|>

Wave of Strikes Hits Southern Vietnam in 2007

In early 2007, Tuoi Tre reported: “Close to 3,000 workers across seven companies in southern Vietnam went on strike Tuesday demanding pay rises. The largest strike was in Long An Province, where around 1,500 workers downed tools at SH Vina Company, a sewing company. [Source: Tuoi Tre, January 11, 2007 \^\]

“Another three strikes hit the Tan Thuan export processing zone in Ho Chi Minh City, where some 1,000 workers in total staged a walkout. The three companies involved are all 100 percent foreign-owned: Wonderful Saigon Garment Co. Ltd. (Japan), Semo Vina Co. Ltd. (Korea), and CX Tech Company (Taiwan). Another small strike took place at Viet Thang Jeans Co. in HCMC’s District 9 involving 100 workers. \^\

“Meanwhile, in Dong Nai Province, the Korea-owned Unipax Company and Vietnam Nippon Company also suffered from industrial action. Since Tuesday, the management boards of SH Vina, Semo Vina, CX Tech and Unipax have agreed to meet their workers’ demands. However, workers at Wonderful Saigon and Vietnam Nippon have yet to agree to the proposed solutions of their employers. \^\

10,000 Workers on Strike in Vietnam Toy Factory

In early 2008, AFP reported: “Nearly 10,000 workers went on strike at a Hong Kong-owned Vietnam toy factory, the latest in a rash of labor disputes amid double-digit inflation ahead of the Tet lunar New Year, state media said. The workers at the Keyhinge Toy plant in the central city of Danang walked off the job, demanding higher bonuses and longer holidays for Tet, the country's most important festival next week, one of the workers told AFP. "Many of us live very far away, as far north as Thai Nguyen province," another worker reportedly told the Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper. "With this low bonus and short holiday, we can't even manage to go home for Tet." [Source: Agence France Presse, February 1, 2008 //\\]

“The plant run by the Keyhinge Industrial Company was criticised in the late 1990s by international labor rights activists who charged its factory, then making Disney promotional toys for McDonalds, exploited workers. The industrial action there this week was one of several strikes in foreign-owned plants in Vietnam, a low-wage economy of 86 million and also a major exporter of textiles, footwear, electronics and food products. //\\

“Also thousands of laborers downed tools at a Hyundai-Vinashin shipbuilding plant in southern Khanh Hoa province and a Vietnamese seafood plant in Hau Giang province, the Tien Phong (Pioneer) daily reported. The recent spate of industrial disputes has hit mostly foreign owned factories in the main industrial region around southern Ho Chi Minh City. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has issued a directive that groups and individuals who strike must compensate their employers if a court later finds they violated Vietnamese labor laws, the official government website said. //\\

“Vietnam on January 1 raised the monthly minimum wage for laborers to 540,000 dong (about 34 dollars) and at least 800,000 dong for workers in foreign-invested enterprises, the state-run Vietnam News Agency reported. But workers have complained the wage rise has not kept pace with spiralling food, fuel and other consumer prices that have hit the poor the hardest. The government-run General Statistics Office this week estimated that consumer prices rose by over 14 percent in January from a year earlier. //\\

Thousands Strike at Japanese Company in Vietnam

In February 2008, Deutsche Presse Agentur: “Nearly 5,000 factory workers have gone on strike at a Japanese company in the port city of Haiphong, about 100 kilometers southeast of Hanoi, a company official said Thursday. The employees of Yazaki Haiphong Vietnam Co, which produces electrical wiring for cars, began a wildcat strike Wednesday morning, demanding higher salaries and shorter hours, according to Dao Xuan Thu, chairman of the company’s chapter of the official state-run trade union. [Source: Deutsche Presse Agentur - February 14, 2008 *~*]

“‘The workers are claiming that the salary they are paid is not enough to live on,’ Thu said. ‘Some of them claim they have to work two shifts a day.’ Thu said the minimum monthly salary at the company is 1.2 million dong (about 75 dollars), among the highest of any company in the industrial park where it is located. ‘They haven’t returned to work today and I don’t know yet when they will,’ Thu said. Vietnam’s government-affiliated trade union generally plays a mediating role between management and workers, rather than leading strikes. City labor officials and representatives of the company are meeting to try to resolve the strike. *~*

“More than 10,000 Vietnamese went on strike last month, mostly in southern provinces. The period around Tet, the lunar New Year, which fell on February 7, has become a flashpoint for strikes in recent years. Vietnamese face extra expenses for holiday gifts and travel, as well as rapid inflation, which ran at over 10 percent in 2007. Vietnam’s official trade union says there were 541 strikes nationwide last year, involving 350,000 workers. Most of the strikes occurred at foreign-invested enterprises. *~*

Workers Strike at Nike Contract Factory

In April 2008, “Vu Tien Hong of Associated Press wrote: “More than 20,000 Vietnamese workers have walked off the job at a Taiwanese-owned plant that makes shoes for Nike Inc., demanding higher pay to keep pace with skyrocketing prices, officials said Tuesday. The workers at Ching Luh plant, in southern Long An province, went on strike Monday. They want a 20 percent bump to their $59 average monthly salaries along with better lunches at the company cafeteria, said Nguyen Van Thua, an official with the province's trade union. [Source: Vu Tien Hong, AP, April 1, 2008 /=\]

“The plant has been making sneakers since 2002 and employs about 21,000 workers, most of them young rural women. The company is paying the workers 14 percent more than minimum wage, but soaring inflation is eroding their earnings, Thua said. "The company has followed the Vietnamese laws in paying their workers, but given the fact that consumer prices are soaring day by day, the workers have had troubles with their daily expenses," Thua said. /=\

“Ching Luh plant is one of 10 factories that contract with Nike to produce sneakers in Vietnam. Nike's contractors in Vietnam make about 75 million pairs of shoes each year, and the Ching Luh plant accounts for about 12 percent, said Nike spokesman Chris Helzer. "We recognize the impact that rising inflation has had on the people of Vietnam, and hope the situation will be resolved quickly and amicably," he said. Consumer prices in Vietnam are 19 percent higher than they were a year ago, according to government figures. Hanoi responded in January by increasing the minimum wage foreign-owned companies are required to pay by roughly 13 percent. As inflation has picked up in recent years, strikes have become more common, with workers demanding higher pay and better working conditions. /=\

Workers Building Samsung Factory in Vietnam Battle Police; 11 Injured

In January 2014, the Canadian Press reported: “Workers building a massive Samsung factory in Vietnam battled police and torched motorbikes in a rare outbreak of labour violence in the tightly controlled country. Eleven people were injured in the incident, which Samsung said occurred after a disagreement between workers and security guards over safety protocols at the site. [Source: Canadian Press, January 9, 2014]

Bystanders took video footage of the riot at the complex under construction in Thai Nguyen province and posted it on YouTube. Motorbikes and containers housing security guards were set alight, sending thick smoke over the complex. People threw rocks at police in riot gear who huddled together. Local official Duong Ngoc Long said police restored order after three hours.

One police officer was among the injured, who were hospitalized with wounds from knife attacks and flying rocks, said a doctor from a nearby military hospital who didn't give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "We will do our utmost to prevent any such incidents from recurring in the future," Samsung said in a statement. It said construction was unaffected.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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