Sunday, September 17, 2006

Workers in Winning Streak - 2000

VIETNAM: Workers in winning streak

(originally published in Green Left Weekly

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 whim.

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 contracts.
* 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 threat. “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 control.

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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