Vietnam: When Workers’ Rights Face Resistance From A Socialist Government

Quynh-Vi Tran
Quynh-Vi Tran

Vietnam’s dismal human rights records in 2017 and 2018 could play a role in delaying the ratification of the much anticipated European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EV-FTA) this year.

A group of MEPs from across the EU Parliament’s political spectrum has repeatedly demanded that Vietnam improves its human rights conditions before they would vote on the trade deal.

The latest demand was a joint letter to President Nguyen Phu Trong on February 1, 2019, sent by nine MEPs on the case of Hoang Duc Binh, an environmental and labor rights activist who was sentenced to 14-year-imprisonment in 2018.

Releasing political dissidents and activists would indeed be a sensitive issue for the communist regime to compromise, even for the sake of clinching the ambitious EV-FTA deal where Vietnam could expect a 15% GDP gain.

But there has always been another human rights condition which one would assume that it should have received natural cooperation from the socialists in Hanoi: the ratification of the remaining three ILO (International Labor Organization) conventions.

That, however, has not been the case.

Vietnam, while rejoined the ILO since 1993, to date, has yet to ratify the following three conventions:
ILO Convention No. 87 – Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No. 87)ILO Convention No. 98 – Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98)ILO Convention No. 105 – Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105)

In late 2018, Vietnam ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CP-TPP) where a specific clause (Article 19) also addresses similar conditions regarding labor and workers’ rights.

On the ground, the Vietnamese government is proposing a roadmap that could take almost five years to get all three ILO conventions ratified.

It is not fast enough for the EU’s MEPs, and as of right now, these ILO conventions continue to be part of the obstacles to move the EV-FTA forward.

Vietnam maintains that its current Labor Code and legal framework would protect the rights of workers in the country while waiting for the Draft of the amended Labor Code to be reviewed and passed by its Congress later in 2019, paving the way for the ratification of the ILO conventions to take place between now and 2023.

In reality, impracticality contradicts the government’s claim.

For example, it is not meaningful to discuss the right of association and the protection of the right to organize according to ILO Convention No. 87 when Vietnam, to date, has refused to pass laws on the freedom of association and the right to assemble and demonstrate although their Constitution of 2013 guarantees these rights to all of its people.

Participation in demonstrations, moreover, could likely lead to arrest, detention, and conviction for “inciting public disorder” in Vietnam.

In June 2018, mass protests broke out in a few major cities against the then pending draft bills of the cybersecurity law and the development of three special economic zones in Vietnam. In response, the police arrested and detained hundreds of people.

One of the “hot spots” considered by the police of Ho Chi Minh City as reported by state-owned media at the time, was near the Taiwanese Pou Yuen factory in Binh Tan District where some workers did join in the protests between June 9 and June 13, 2018.

According to the organization The 88 Project, more than 60 people were arrested, tried, and sentenced to between 24-36 months imprisonment due to their participation in those demonstrations. Some of them are believed to be factory workers from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.

The legal system continues to create hurdles in the registration processes for independent organizations. It is an issue which the UN Human Rights Committee has brought up with Vietnam before its upcoming CCPR (Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) review in March 2019.

At the end of 2016, Vietnam had attempted – but failed – to pass the Law on Association when it faced a defiant opposition from civil society organizations, both registered and unregistered.

One of the reasons which caused the majority of NGO workers in Vietnam to go against the proposed bill then, was because it attempted to criminalize the receiving of foreign funding and gave preferential treatment to GONGO(s) (Government-organized non-governmental organizations).

The Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) – the only labor union in Vietnam right now – is not only a GONGO but also takes directives from the Vietnamese Communist Party.

During his speech in front of the National Assembly on November 2, 2018, the Vice-Chairman of the VGCL, Ngo Duy Hieu, cautiously reaffirmed that the ratification of the CP-TPP requires Vietnam to recognize independent unions while tried to cast doubts on their credibility.

At the same time, the government has yet to legally recognize any organization – large or small – formed by private citizens that could remotely represent an independent union for workers.

Vietnam, in 2017, reported an estimated population of approximately 26M workers in a variety of different industries.

The possibility of getting arrested and jailed under the current legal scheme, however, did not seem to deter a portion of these Vietnamese workers from exercising their rights.

Protests organized by workers continued to happen in Vietnam regardless, with the most common reason often linked to improving wages and working conditions – which ILO Convention 97 on collective bargaining could help.

Indeed, the government probably has already anticipated that the ratification of the ILO conventions would encourage even more workers to come together and organize themselves, independent from the VGCL in the future, once the legal landscape changes.

It is a slippery slope that Hanoi fears as it may spread to other sectors in society, which could explain the cautious approach in their proposed roadmap for the ratification of the three ILO conventions.

Accordingly, Vietnam proposed that they will present the National Assembly with the Draft of the amended Labor Code in May 2019 and expected the new law would pass at the next congressional meeting in October 2019. Also in 2019, the President will present ILO Convention No. 98 to the National Assembly for ratification. Next, it would be ILO Convention 105 in 2020, and finally ILO Convention No. 87 to be presented in 2023.

The proposed roadmap by the Vietnamese government, however, seems to have failed to convince the EU Parliament that workers’ rights are being protected, enough to move the EV-FTA forward.

The European Council has delayed their vote for EV-FTA last month. With the deadline for amendments also get postponed indefinitely, it is unlikely that the current EU Parliament will vote on the EV-FTA before their upcoming election in May 2019.

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Quynh-Vi Tran

Quynh-Vi was a litigation lawyer in California before becoming a democracy advocate and journalist in 2015. She is also a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty.