Benefit Dinner to Protect Vietnamese Workers
By Jackie Bong Wright
Labor Conditions in Vietnam
One year ago, Vietnamese civil rights advocates held a Conference in Warsaw, where years before, Polish Solidarity workers prevailed over the ruling Communist party. They established the Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers (CPVW) as a voice and an arm for Vietnam’s 44.5 million-person labor force. The population of Vietnam is 84 million and an estimated 1.2 million people enter the job market each year.
“We work 10 to 12 hours a day, without overtime; if not, we lose our jobs,” complained Vietnamese workers in 2005 at a Danang company called KeyHinge, which makes toys for McDonalds’ Happy Meals. Workers at Song Da Building Company had similar complaints in 2006. “We weigh only 110 to120 pounds, yet the bosses make us carry bags as heavy as 130 lbs.” “Many of us get a dollar a day, or if lucky, a dollar and a half. We haven’t had a pay raise in years. We cannot afford to feed our children.”
Aaron Glantz, in his Wildcat Strikes Pay Off, wrote about Huong, a 23-year old Vietnamese, who worked for Freetrend, a Taiwanese company, for five years and still earned only the minimum wage of $45 a month. She said that that was barely enough to pay for her boarding house near the factory. “Low wages aren’t the only thing making workers unhappy. The work is very tiring and the food the company serves us is not enough…so the workers do not have enough energy to work The officials yell and swear at us and mistreat us.”
IPS News Agency reports that the Vietnamese government has not raised the minimum wage for the past six years. Vietnam has become a popular place for foreign producers of footwear, textiles, garments, electronics and automobiles because of its low production costs. Workers have demanded pay raises, 8-hour days, paid overtime, rest periods, and sick leave in addition to social security and health insurance, but in vain.
In 2005, there began a wave of wildcat strikes, as many as 150 so far, crippling various industrial enterprises. Tens of thousands of workers in foreign-owned factories have stopped work in the country’s industrial parks, export-processing zones and semi-rural areas in the South as well as in small cities in the North.
“Most strikes are due to encroachments upon workers’ benefits,” says Mr. Mai Duc Chinh, Vice Chairman of the independent Labor Federation of Ho Chi Minh City, where nearly half of all strikes have taken place. He wants to solve the problem at its source by correcting violations by employers. For this affront, many independent union leaders have been put in jail, including many women.
Arbitration mechanisms to settle labor disputes are currently lacking in Vietnam. It was Vietnam’s General Confederation of Labor, the Communist government-run trade-union, that asks that foreign companies increase workers’ wages by 40 percent, still less than $2 an hour. But “foreign investors asked the government to defer the wage rise until the end of January, after the new year holiday, because they ‘couldn’t afford’ to pay both the wage rise and the 13th month bonus that the workers were legally entitled to,” according to a Nov. 2006 article in the Asia Times.
Thus, Japanese and Korean companies were hit by 43 labor strikes in the first three months of 2007, and, last October alone, 30,000 workers at 38 foreign and locally-owned companies marched out of their work places. Increasing pressure by the workers led the ruling party to raise the minimum monthly earnings, starting April 1, from $50 to $55 in the two largest cities of Saigon and Hanoi, from $45 to $50 in mid-size cities, and from $35 to $45 for the rest of the country.
At the same time, in the name of the national interest and economic development, the Hanoi regime passed 3 laws to prevent strikes and punish strikers. It decreed that “illegal” strikers must pay compensation to employers, that the People’s Committees – local Communist committees at the district level – have the power to force strikers back to work, and that workers at industries including irrigation, housing administration, and travel service agencies, are not allowed to go on strike.
In compensation for pay raises, companies have cut workers’ stipends and bonuses. Therefore, protests have continued, with the police suppressing them by, again, jailing some labor leaders who demand their own independent unions. Nguyen Van Thua, a Communist cadre from a provincial trade union, said that the workers were asking too much.
On the other hand, the Most Reverend Thich Quang Do, head of the Unified Buddhist Federation, went to visit the strikers and declared, “I ask our compatriots all over the world and all religious practitioners overseas to liaise with international organizations and local government bodies to raise support for and to protect the desperate and suffering laborers in Vietnam.”
Meanwhile, the workers are facing other counter-pressures. Another Asia Times article reports that the “American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam – representing Nike, Federal Express, Coca-Cola, Time Warner, and Pfizer – and European corporations are constantly bullying countries such as Vietnam with the threat of moving to China unless they clamp down on the labor force. But these very same corporations are using identical scare tactics in China by threatening to move to countries such as Vietnam if the government raises wages or improves working conditions.”
Efforts by global employers to drive down labor costs in developing countries caused Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) to declare, “It is challenging enough for hard-working Americans to compete in the new global economy without U.S. corporate leaders seeking to play them off against the least-protected and lowest-wage workers in the world.”
Launch of Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers (CPVW-USA)
The CPVW, with its headquarters in Warsaw where Mr. Tran Ngoc Thanh is the President, and branches in Europe, Australia, and the U.S., endorses the independent labor movements of Vietnam and gives them an international voice. The organization also supports workers’ freedom of association and the right to strike. Its website, managed by Mr. Doan Viet Trung in Australia, reports on the conditions of workers in Vietnam. It also educates Vietnamese workers regarding their civil and labor rights, citing international and Vietnamese legal decrees. Finally, CPVW raises funds to send money to help Vietnamese workers who have been jailed or injured.
On November 16, the CPVW in the U.S. held a benefit dinner at Lucky Three restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia. “Profits will go to support Vietnamese workers and farmers jailed for demanding fair compensation, and the same safe and healthy working environment currently enjoyed by their colleagues in East and South East Asia,” announced Mr. Nguyen Quoc Khai, chairman of the Board. Speaking to the event’s 400 guests, Nguyen Cao Quyen, Vice-Chairman in charge of Internal Affairs, strongly condemned the Hanoi regime and its state-run trade union – the Vietnam General Confederation of Workers – for supporting employers and for harassing, terrorizing and imprisoning workers. He asked for the immediate release of workers wrongfully jailed and the restoration of their jobs as well as the right for them to form independent unions.
Jackie Bong-Wright, Vice Chairman in charge of External Affairs, was more concerned with the fate of working women and children. She said that in a country where women and children account for two-thirds of the population, the majority of girl teenagers from the countryside drop out of school and move to cities to seek jobs. These unskilled girls work in such menial jobs as street vendors and domestics. Many become prostitutes. Others are “sold” as brides to foreign men who rape, beat them, and sometimes force them into prostitution as well. Those who find work in factories overseas are often abused in the same ways.
The Department of Management of Overseas Laborers in Vietnam has set a target of sending 80,000 workers abroad this year, and 100,000 annually by 2010. Last year, 400,000 Vietnamese working in more than 40 countries – Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and the Middle East – earned an estimated 1.6 billion dollars. The workers paid large fees and taxes to government-run employment agencies and Vietnam’s Internal Revenue Service, respectfully.
Professor Daniele Belanger, director of the Population Studies Centre at the University of Western Ontario, said that the workers, borrowing money to pay employment agencies end up in a “no-rights zone” and many find themselves paying costs including medical and criminal background checks, training courses, living expenses and taxes. She added that some migrants she interviewed had been cheated and became victims of human trafficking.
Ms. Wright also referred to the estimated 50,000 abandoned children who are roaming the streets of Vietnam in search for food and work, becoming prey to all kinds of exploitation. She said that as many as 3,000 to 5,000 Vietnamese children, as young as six, have been kidnapped or sold by their own parents to work in the red light districts of Cambodia. The story was also reported by NBC Dateline News.
Ms. Wright concluded, “The CPVW hopes that the public will support the cause of these Vietnamese workers who are demanding that their labor rights be observed in Vietnam in accordance with international laws as endorsed by the UN.” This is happening in Europe. On Labor Day, May 1, 2006, French unionists demonstrated in Paris, demanding free association and labor rights for Vietnamese workers.
The benefit dinner featured a seven-course Vietnamese meal, a full program with popular songs, traditional music and western line dances, an auction of paintings by well-known Vietnamese artists, and raffle prizes including a flat TV, a digital camera and other items donated by businesses, friends and guests.