Fw [GLW]: VIETNAM: Workers in winning streak

Alan Bradley alanb at SPAMelf.brisnet.org.au
Sun Oct 8 08:29:38 MDT 2000

This was from _last week's_ issue of GLW.

VIETNAM: Workers in winning streak

HO CHI MINH CITY — When a canteen manager in the Taiwanese shoe company Hue
Phong physically attacked female Vietnamese workers, for “standing out of
line” at the dinner queue, the company was immediately confronted by the
wrath of the entire 4000-strong Vietnamese workforce, unaccustomed as they
were to these imported industrial tactics.

The September 12 incident in Ho Chi Minh City touched off a six hour
evening riot at the factory, followed by an all-out strike the next day
when the management board refused to meet the workers. The real issues soon
rose to the surface, the assault having been merely the catalyst.

For many Vietnamese, finding work in a foreign investor company is viewed
as a ticket to higher wages. While this is often the case for jobs as
accountants and salespeople, an entirely different story is here revealed
for industrial workers.

Workers' complaints

The workers issued a long string of complaints. They receive a monthly wage
of 230,000 dong (about A$25), less than half the average industrial wage
and about one-eighth of the wages paid to workers in certain better-off
state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Meanwhile, about half the factory
workforce, including many from poorer regions of the country, who live in
the workers' hostel, have to pay D210,000 for hostel accommodation and
food, leaving them D20,000 — about $A2 — in their pocket each month!

Female workers who get pregnant are immediately sacked. Those who arrive at
work a couple of minutes late have to pay a A$2 fine. A day off work
“without permission” costs one-third of the month's salary and even a day
off with a doctor's certificate costs the worker A$2 a day. Three times
late in a row means the sack. Only two “toilet passes” — each valid for
only 5 minutes — are available per 100 workers. Violating the 5 minute time
limit also costs A$2, as does not “standing in line” at meal times.

The district Labour Federation, the local branch of the Ministry of Labour,
Industry and Social Affairs (MOLISA) and the police entered the scene.
According to Pham Ngoc Duan, chairperson of the Labour Federation, the
three parties agreed that the workers' grievances were justified and the
company was in serious violation of the Vietnamese labour code. They called
on the Ho Chi Minh City authorities to rectify the situation.

The same company three years ago had forced 120 workers to sit outside in
the hot sun for many hours as punishment, an incident that had forced the
chairperson of the national Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL),
Nguyen Van Tu, to intervene against the rogue company.

In another recent incident in Ho Chi Minh City, 400 workers struck in a
garment factory which subcontracts for a Korean firm, following the
company's change to “productivity”-based payment. The problem was, the
workers would get less money for working more “productively”. Now each line
would have to complete 250 jackets per day, necessitating work from 7am
until at least 9pm, sometimes even 2am the next day, seven days a week.

For these 250 jackets, workers would receive a salary ranging from 450,000
to 850,000 dong per month. Given that in this “productivity” system, there
are no overtime rates, these wages represented “a significant reduction in
salary” for the hours worked, according to the September 6 Lao Dong
(“Worker”) newspaper.

In other words, for “productivity” wages to even catch up with their
previous wages, they would need to be working over 14 hours a day. Other
“Korean miracle” ideas included no social or health insurance, and no
contracts, as they might prejudice the company's ability to sack workers at

Again MOLISA, the Labour Federation and the police intervened against the
company's brazen violation of Vietnam's labour code. MOLISA district leader
Tran Ngoc Tuyet demanded the company redesign the form of payment and
submit it for her approval. Labour Federation head Vo Thi Thang Huong
demanded the company sign contracts, that it organise time for the workers
to be educated about the union and their rights under the labour laws, and
that it allow them to form their own union. These leaders insisted that if
the company pays according to productivity, the minimum must not be below
the previous level.

In these struggles against the imported industrial banditry of “miracle”
economies, both the Communist Party-run VGCL and ruling authorities
themselves came down on the side of the workers, despite the Vietnamese
government's all-out courting of foreign investors.

Other victories

Such victories by striking workers have indeed been the norm throughout
this year:

* The Taiwanese Magnicon company in Ho Chi Minh City has been ordered to
pay compensation to workers it had laid off before the end of their

* Three hundred workers at the Korean Konam plant struck when the company
deducted 12% of their July salaries. The local Labour Federation instructed
the company to repay the workers.

* The Hanoi People's Labour Tribunal has ruled that the
transformer-producing joint venture VNTRA must re-employ 56 workers whom it
had sacked on the grounds that they “couldn't use the new technology” it
had installed.

* A wildcat strike by 500 workers at the Fatimex cashew nut processing
plant in the central province of Binh Thuan over low salaries and
management misconduct was resolved in the workers' favour following the
intervention of the provincial Labour Federation.

* Vinacoal, the state-run coal company in Quang Ninh province, was ordered
to re-employ over 50,000 laid-off miners, following an all-out strike.
“There are few other jobs in the province, and everyone wishes to avoid
violence and social instability”, explained a mine manager.

Independent trade union movement

While under the control of the same party that rules Vietnam, Vietnam's
Labour Federation and its newspaper Lao Dong (probably the most widely read
newspaper in the country) are quite open about the fact that their role in
defending workers' interests may at times not coincide with government
priorities. When the VGCL was campaigning to raise the minimum wage, Lao
Dong reported that this may be “rebuffed by the government because of its
concern for the country's competitiveness”.

Conversely, however, it is clear that the Vietnamese government has allowed
this space for more independent trade union organisation, allowing party
cadres in the unions to play their proper role of defending workers from
the ravages of the government's own increasingly “free market” policies.

The Vietnamese labour code allows the right to strike, places considerable
emphasis on collective bargaining and allows the spontaneous formation of
new unions. All these and other rights were thrashed out over many months
of discussion on the factory floor, leading up to the adoption of the
labour code after 30 drafts in 1994.

The Vietnamese communists' approach to industrial relations is this at
variance with the relative lack of union autonomy in neighbouring China, a
country going through similar economic processes.

Of the hundreds of strikes that have taken place in Vietnam over the last
few years, some 70% have occurred in private firms, many of whom brazenly
violate the labour laws and force workers to work horrendously long hours
in appalling conditions. Some 70% of the dramatically rising number of
industrial accidents, which killed 174 and injured 1300 in the first half
of 2000, also occur in private firms, both foreign- or domestically-owned.

While some foreign firms bring in newer and allegedly safer technology,
injuries often occur due to the far greater intensity of work and lack of
rest. The Municipal Health, Labour and Environmental Control Centre in Ho
Chi Minh City found that nearly half the private enterprises in the city
did not adhere to temperature standards and in a quarter of them noise
levels were far higher than stipulated. By contrast, most SOEs were found
to be well-equipped with standard safety and hygiene facilities and
protective gear.

However, not all is well with the SOEs which, 14 years into the doi moi
economic renovation process, still dominate the industrial sector.
Inefficiencies due to the bloated and opaque management of these
enterprises is pushing them towards “equitisation” — the
share-privatisation of a portion of their equity, with the state retaining
the dominant share, rather than towards democratic workers' and community

While the Vietnamese government has so far resisted the World Bank's SOE
“reform” program, which would retrench half a million workers, its own
“equitisation” program expects to shed some 200,000 jobs. A fund of one
billion dong has been set up to provide jobs for these workers, but this is
only half of what the government says will be necessary.

For some time, the economic liberals have been in apparent ascendancy.
However, the recently released draft political report for the Communist
Party's upcoming 9th congress has reaffirmed that state-owned companies and
cooperatives will remain the dominant sector in Vietnam's “multi-sector”
economy, and that the state will continue to play an overall planning role
within the country's partially marketised economy.

Whether this becomes reality will depend on how much grassroots democratic
control enters the SOEs. But it appears the Vietnamese working class is not
only unwilling to pay for the blunders of incompetent or corrupt SOE
managers or the shameless greed of “miracle” investors, but is also
determined to get a better cut from Vietnam's impressive economic growth.

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