Getting Ready 16

Getting Ready 16

Reading about youth employment yesterday was an eye-opener.

I know that when I land, I will be overwhelmed with what I see. I am trying to prepare my expectations so that I will be able to make sense of what I’m looking at quickly. Or at least get started in the right direction.

This morning, when I saw an article on-line from a website forwarded by Bill Creighton, that described a new street in Ho Chi Minh City that has been closed to traffic and now holds cafes, art exhibitions and clubs – the picture showed well-dressed teenagers dancing – I thought, “I know something about these kids.” As well as something about the kids who are not going to clubs and dancing in the street.

I also read two chapters of a Verso book given to Joe by Steve Hiatt last week, Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants. The author, Hsiao-Hung Pai, has been traveling in rural China. The news, for me, is the vastness of the waves of migration as very poor people, who farm plots of land too small to survive on, seek any kind of job that will pay them. They migrate not just to big cities. There are apparently factories everywhere. One chapter that I read described a brick kiln in the north, outside of Tianjin, where 150 workers make mud bricks by hand, shaping them, burning them, and setting them out to dry. These workers, men and women, sleep on piles of bricks in brick shacks and are not allowed to leave the worksite except for 3 months in the winter, when they return to their homes. They are prisoners of the kiln. This kiln, and four others like it, is owned by the village chief who is also the richest man in the village. Hsiao-Hun Pai’s book puts the desperate lives of migrant workers in front of you more vividly than even that Canadian film I saw, “The Last Train.”

Vietnam is not China. Vietnam is trying to hang on to socialist ideals – I think. But Vietnam has internal migration, too.

Today’s reading is Better Work Vietnam: Garment Industry 5th Compliance Synthesis Report, produced on 10th October, 2012. It comes from the International Finance Corporation, the ILO and an Australian Agency for International Development. The research method was 137 factories, four on-site person days at each factory, management interviews, union and worker interviews, document reviews, and factory observation.

As usual, I find out things that I should have been clear about a long time ago: There were two important laws, not one, adopted in June 2012, the revised Labor Code and the revised Law on Trade Unions. Apparently, at the time of the writing of this report, there was serious discussion of increasing the minimum wage by 35%. The new Labor Code covers collective bargaining, unfair labor practices and “opens the possibility for establishing grassroots trade unions for groups of enterprises collectively.” (See that ILO article about concessions and enterprise bargaining.)

Overall, the garment industry “provides jobs for nearly 2 million people” and increased in size 38% between 2010 and 2011 (p 3)

The factories covered in this report employ 179,740 workers. On average, each factory employs 1,300 workers. Seventy seven percent of the workers are women. Most of them are young women migrants from rural areas – girls.

Better Work investigates in two main areas, fundamental rights (freedom of association and effective recognition of the right to CB; elimination of forced or compulsory labor; abolition of child labor and discrimination); and national labor laws (working conditions – compensation, contracts and HR, OSH and work hours).

The most common areas of non-compliance in national labor law continue to be in occupational health and safety, overtime hours, paid leave, and failure to hire enough people with disabilities.


129 factories were out of compliance in providing toilets, drinking water, lockers, etc. 99 were out of compliance with labeling chemicals and hazardous substances. OSH management (things like PPE and training) was at 75% – non-compliance. There was 94% non-compliance in overtime. Among the factories that were assessed a second or third time, overtime non-compliance (NC) was worsening.

The Do Quyng Chi article on Employee Participation that I read yesterday said that the cases where there were grassroots unions, with worker-chosen representatives, were the ones that had the greatest capacity to push for compliance.


The Better Work program also found several additional instance of child labor, nine factories in which workers under 18 years old were working more than 7 hours per day or 42 hours per week.

What do they do when they find children in factories? It seems that we’re talking about 12-15 year olds. They try to get a local organization to put the child into a vocational training program. In the meantime, the factory is supposed to pay the child’s wages and for training. So far, no success. One girl acquired new documents saying she was of age. The youth employment paper I read yesterday noted the lack of vocational training programs.

In Core Labor Standards, non-compliance findings relate primarily to differences between Vietnamese national law and international conventions in the area of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

For the Core Standard of CB, non-compliance was 38%. At 27 factories, there was no Labor Conciliation Council (p. 15). All 137 factories have enterprise level unions associated with the VGCL. However, no factories allowed access of the union representatives to workers in the workplace. None paid their 2% (domestic) or 1% (foreign) contribution to the union fund. At 70 out of 137 factories, workers could not meet outside the presence of management. The Better Work report says that this “stems from the historical issue that most union officials at the enterprise level in Vietnam are also part of the management of the enterprise (p 12)” This is the union president/HR officer overlap. Paying into Social Security and Other Benefits had a non-compliance rate of 19%.

However, for the 77 factories which had previously been assessed, there was some improvement in freedom of association and collective bargaining compliance and handling of grievances and disputes. There also appeared to be improvement in payment of minimum wage although there is widespread use of multiple payroll records.

“Factories that have made the most significant changes are those in which management and union have been working with Better Work to improve social dialogue and workplace cooperation.” There seem to be management-union committees and worker involvement in these instances.

The factories investigated are listed by name on page 26. I don’t recognize any of the names. They are not brands; they are manufacturers.

I continue to be looking for the structures, whether existing or just mandated but not existing, where freedom of association is necessary, worker representation is possible and where a group of workers might be expected to self-organize.

Everything I read notes that the capacity of the local (enterprise) unions to negotiated or enforce labor standards is no good. Everything mentions the need to develop strength, trust and structure at the grassroots level (although those are my words). Of course, I am reading what comes my way. But there’s a pretty general consensus, even in conversation, that “freedom of association” is something that is needed and it’s the direction that things need to move in.

Not so simple, I expect. But I have not yet seen how this will play out.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

2 thoughts on “Getting Ready 16

  1. Hello from Da Nang! Let me know if I can help you out in any way. I have a feeling this transition will be smoother than you imagine. HCMC and Hanoi have become modern cities with everything you could possibly need or want available 24 hours per day. Da Nang is smaller and slower, but still startlingly modern. We should Skype before you leave the US if possible. bquick520 I have some good information on labor and life in general I’d love to pass along.

    Hope to see you soon!

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