Getting Ready (4) Vietnam is Not China

If all we know about labor in Asia is that Asia is where many “low-wage” countries produce garments, footwear, technology and just about everything else, that’s not enough. Especially, in order to for me to figure out how and what I can teach, I need to understand a lot more.

Today I will try to distinguish Vietnam from China. As a source, I am using a chapter by Anita Chan from her edited volume, Labour in Vietnam (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2011). In this chapter she compares strikes in Vietnam with strikes in China.

Both Vietnam and China have emerged from a planned socialist economy, are entering the global capitalist economy, and have one party communist rule. Neither country has any autonomous trade unions. China has the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions) and Vietnam has the VGCL (Vietnam General Confederation of Labor). Both China and Vietnam have a tri-partite framework for establishing economic policy: the state, the employers’ associations, and the trade union federation.

But these similarities do not mean that the experience of workers in each country is the same. The difference that Chan chooses to explain, which is visible to outsiders, is the number and character of strikes. Strikes are common in Vietnam and unusual in China. In Vietnam, there may be 200-400 strikes every year. In China, there may be a few dozen. (Chan notes that official statistics on strike are available for Vietnam but not for China.)

Understanding this difference is important for understanding the relationship between workers in Vietnam and their union. The generalizations in what follows are based on Chan’s research but certainly oversimplify what she writes.

How do strikes happen?

In China, workers seem to strike whenever anger at working conditions boils over, usually when conditions get suddenly worse. The strikes are not strategically organized. They are short, usually suppressed by police, and often end in violence.

In Vietnam, workers use wildcat strikes strategically. They happen often. These strikes appear to be leaderless.There appears to be a network of strike leaders who manage to be hard to identify. As wildcats, these strikes are not authorized by the union. Instead, they stop production and then the government or the union comes and talks with the boss, and things settle down, often to the benefit of workers.

Are strikes legal?


In Vietnam, the right to strike is recognized by the labor code but the procedure for getting authorization for legal strike is lengthy and complicated and, according to Chan, never followed. Therefore the wildcat strikes are technically all illegal strikes. But they are not violently suppressed.

In China, strikes are not mentioned in labor law. Therefore they are neither legal nor illegal. In fact, Chinese labor law does not recognize collective rights. All rights are treated as individual.

What do workers demand?

In China, workers who are striking usually demand the restoration of some work condition that they had become able to live with, even though it violated work standards. For example, they might demand the right to work overtime, or they might demand the reversal of some new productivity standard that reduced their wages. They strike over increases in deductions for their dormitory accommodations or the quality of food provided. Apparently do they do not strike in order to raise work standards; they do not strike to win something that they did not already have. They do not use strikes as part of bargaining; there is no collective bargaining.

In Vietnam, workers strike not for things they have lost, but for things they need. The minimum labor standards are usually the same as what employers agree to pay, so strikes are for something above the minumums. However, wage theft is extremely common and companies frequently bail out of Vietnam leaving wages and social insurance contributions unpaid.
To whom do the strikers appeal?

In China, where workers are often migrants from rural areas who come to industrial developed areas and live in dormitories, workers who strike are likely to go out of the factory into the street and seek the local government. Chan notes that the local government, which rents land to the factory owners, is not likely to support the workers. Police are often called. Strikes are suppressed by violence.

In Vietnam, strikes are allowed to take place unimpeded. Striking workers may block entrances to a factory, prevent other workers from entering, and wait for the government and the representatives from the union to appear. Then a discussion takes place among the government, the union and the employers. Often, issues are resolved in favor of the workers. Chan notes that workers live in private housing, not dormitories and are less likely to be migrants from long distances.

Elsewhere, I am also reading that workers in Vietnam are often migrants, like in China.

The Vietnamese Labor Code compared to the US National Labor Relations Act

In the US, we are used to working under a labor code that has been in place for over 75 years, with relatively moderate changes. Looking at it from enough distance to be able to compare it with the Vietnamese labor code, our code is very simple. Our Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes things like minimum wage, the 40 hour work week, regular paychecks and breaks, is modestly prescriptive. The National Labor Relations Act basically gives us two things: first, the right to organize a union (and along with that, right to concerted activity free from retaliation) and second, the power to bring the employer to the table and make them recognize the union and bargain in good faith. Both of these are permissions to do something, not prescriptions about how to do them. They are set forth in fine inspirational language, but the message is basically, “Go figure it out and get on with it.” Overall, the spirit has been that it is better to negotiate an agreement between workers’ representatives and the employer than to have it all nailed down as law.

Of course, this assumes that workers and employers come to the table as equals, which has never been true – but we pretend that it’s true.

The 2012 Vietnamese Labor Code is prescriptive beyond anything we are familiar with. Apparently there is an ILO office in Vietnam that consulted on writing it. For example, it contains details about scheduling overtime (Article 106) and annual leaves, including covering travel expenses (Article 111- 113). It includes what looks like a grievance procedure (Article 123) and maternity leave (Article 157). However, so far everything I’ve read says that it is largely unenforced. Thus the wildcat strikes.

Now I’m trying to understand a situation where a great deal is nailed down in law but doesn’t happen on the ground. The effective level of the union appears to be at the top, maybe national level, or at least at the regional level. There also appears to be considerable distrust of the union at the shop floor level. So what is going to be the role of the students in our classes at Ton Duc Thong? And what are we supposed to be teaching them?

Thanks to Anita Chan, author of:


Chan, A. 2011. Strikes in Vietnam and China in Taiwanese-owned Factories: Diverging Industrial Relations Patterns. Pages 211-251 in Chan, A. (Editor), Labour in Vietnam. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.