Hanoi Conversations (3, ILO)

ILO meeting 1

Nguyen Thi Hai Yen, Director Chang-Hee Lee, Philip Hazelton, and two women whose names I did not get

After the meeting with the VGCL, we met with people from the ILO, but in the VGCL offices since some kind of construction was going on at the ILO office. Present were Nguyen Thi Hai Yen, the Project Coordinator for the Vietnam Industrial Relations Project, whom we had a long talk with last time we were in Hanoi, Philip Hazelton, IR Director who made many connections for us and gave us a long conversation last time and their Director, Chang-Hee Lee, a Korean, was there. He comes with a very positive reputation and we were eager to meet him in person.

Kent asked them to open with their priorities and their current projects. Director Lee responded. This is a summary from my handwritten notes:

The IR project, which went from 2002-2012, was about major law reform. For the future, the four years from 2012-2016 will focus on implementation of the new Labor Code and Trade Union Law. The reform included 20 different decrees, of which the ILO working with both the union and employers, supported 15.

Sixteen of the new laws involve new ways of operating and concern the relevance of the VGCL in the context of a market economy. In this transition, the VGCL will experiment with different ways of organizing and engaging in collective bargaining. Up until now it has been a social and political organization under the Communist Party. It is a large structure, big and slow to reform, with 9 million members in provincial federations and 20 industrial sectors. But workers are requiring it to perform a more representational role.

The ILO has been working in 5 different industrial zones – in the South, Central and North – to implement four pilot programs focusing on different ways of organizing and doing representation. They have also started a multi-employer collective bargaining pilot. These are difficult but exciting. They are in hotels, in an electronics company in Haiphong, in a Japanese electronics company in Dong Ngai.

The process undertaken with these reflects the practice of social dialog and is not fully bottom-up. It may be hard to scale up. There has been considerable interference by employers.

The ILO has also supported the National Wage Council, supported Business Associations in three provinces, and given workshops on Conventions #87, #98 and #105.

One member of the delegation asked about “autonomous, independent unions.”

Philip responded that it will be two years (2018) before the structure is set up to allow the possibility of registering new unions. After 2018, independent unions will be allowed. In 2032 they will be allowed to federate at the national level. The ILO won’t be able to work with independent unions until registration is possible. Even this is a short schedule. However, some new organizing may take place before registration is possible. The pending competition with the VGCL causes concern. Right now there is an 8 month period before the reform law goes into effect, so this bridge period is quite complex. The goal is to have labor that is strong, not fragmented; democratic not bureaucratic.

Viet Nam’s entry into TPP may be delayed if reform is not available.

In 2008, there were 1020 wildcat strikes. Right now, collective disputes usually turn into wildcats. A committee of government, VGCL, MOLISA comes in and gets a result. But this is a very sensitive area.

Three potential types of organizing might take place:

  1. The VGCL reforms quickly and develops a range of unions and representational processes;
  2. Some international unions and others outside Viet Nam present themselves and offer alternatives;
  3. Some employers may set up private unions which will block the organizing of new unions.

Overall, the social dialog mediation system has not done well. Referrals are not being made to the appropriate people to ask them to come and mediate disputes. This is partly because the Union isn’t taking cases and doesn’t bring cases to mediation. But the Union also has more challenges than just representing workers.

The Director summarized: there are lots of individual contracts out there, very few collective contracts, and a lack of understanding of how collective bargaining is different from social dialog.

We asked where the distinction between “rights” and “interests” came from. The reason for asking is that under the current law it is legal to strike over “rights,” although the process to get a permit to strike is too cumbersome to be practical. This is what encourages wildcats, which are strikes without a permit and no official union leadership. The problem is that since “rights” are what is in the law, and since 70% of the agreements (not really CBA’s, since there are so few of those) between union and employers just copy the law into the agreement, there is no steady platform for the union to strike for “interests” the  conditions of workers significantly higher than “rights”. Things that are defined as “interests” are the concerns that significantly improve the conditions of workers above the legal minimum and also increase the power of the union as a collective representative.

The Director responded that before 2000, the distinction was between legal and illegal and that the terms “rights” and “interests” were an attempt to create a different set of alternatives.

Then we went to the Vietnam Women’s Academy (formerly the Central Women’s Training School), run by the Vietnam Women’s Union. Leanna and Hollis have been working there for the past two weeks.






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.

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