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Persisting Issues In The Vietnamese Garment Industry

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Workers at the Esquel Group garment factory in Thuan An, Vietnam. Photo: Bloomberg News.

In March 2015, workers from Ho Chi Minh City gathered in protest. Despite a heavy police presence, they continued marching along Highway 1, blocking traffic along this main thoroughfare. The workers occupied a factory owned by Pou Yuen Vietnam, a firm that produces footwear for brands such as Nike, Adidas, Lacoste, Converse, and Reebok. 

These disgruntled workers were airing out their grievances against an upcoming social insurance law that would affect their lump-sum separation pay if they quit their jobs. 

This new law stated that those who resign earlier than the mandated age of retirement had to wait until they reached the actual retirement age to access their compensation. This demonstration led to the temporary closure of other factories in the area for safety purposes and led to local city officials engaging in dialogue with the workers.

In the ensuing dialogue, former vice-minister for Labor, Doan Mau Diep, stated that his department would submit a proposal that would let the workers choose between getting one-time social insurance benefits when they quit or opting to receive benefits upon retirement.

In a country infamous for its draconian policies that criminalize most forms of dissent, to even get government officials to address the issue is a small victory in itself. However, this situation is an outlier, and, sadly, other scenarios do not end in adequate or bloodless resolutions; Vietnamese laborers who work in the apparel or footwear industries face a slew of other hardships as well. 

In May 2013, the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) released a paper that discussed the many workers’ rights issues present in the garment industry in Vietnam. 

The report stated that the government did not respect the right of Vietnamese workers to freedom of association and that the State had prosecuted those who attempted to form unions. The paper also argued that workers suffered from several forms of forced labor and were compelled to spend excessive hours at their jobs. Several also experienced some form of gender discrimination and were also paid inadequate wages. The report added that workers  also had to deal with a lack of job security because most were hired on a contractual basis rather than fully employed. 

The WRC report also highlighted several illegal or questionable practices present in the Vietnamese manufacturing industry. The authors claimed that some companies employed child labor and that some factories did not have safety measures that met minimum standards. 

Hence, WRC also stated that the Vietnamese government’s failure to “enforce labor laws leaves workers vulnerable to unlawful employment practices that deny workers earned wages and access to social insurance benefits.”

Sadly, in the time that has passed since the release of the WRC paper, not much has changed in terms of the protection of workers’ rights. However, the same cannot be said about the evolution of the garments industry. 

In recent years, Vietnam has entered into several international trade agreements, 13 of which “were signed between 2013 and 2019, with more than 50 partners across Asia, Europe, and Latin America.” 

Currently, Vietnam is the world’s 4th largest garments exporter and the 2nd largest footwear exporter. Nearly 6,000 apparel and 3,000 footwear companies comprise these industries, with approximately 80 percent of the workers employed in them being women and migrants from regional areas with no vocational training.

Vietnam’s apparel and footwear industries continue to prosper and grow alongside the country’s general economy. Yet, while this may bring employment, poverty alleviation, and infrastructure development, it also comes with additional challenges to labor rights.

On April 15, 2021, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in collaboration with Australian Aid, and the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) published a set of guidelines in a primer entitled “Responsible business conduct and the apparel and footwear industry” to help these two industries in their operations in Vietnam. 

Their goal in releasing these rules was to “highlight some of the human rights challenges and issues that arise in the apparel and footwear industry in [Vietnam] and [to] provide practical steps grounded in international frameworks and principles.” These guidelines “[have]  been designed to assist businesses operating in [Vietnam] to understand and meet their responsibility to respect human rights.”

These guidelines are based on UN Guiding Principles, which “operate on a three-pillar framework,” also known as the Protect, Respect, Remedy Framework. The three main tenets are: 

1. The duty of the State to protect human rights 

2. Corporate responsibility to respect human rights 

3. Access to an appropriate and effective remedy for victims of business-related abuse

The UN Guiding Principles are intended to serve as “a global standard for preventing and addressing adverse human rights impacts related to business.” This primer serves as an attempt to apply these standards to Vietnam’s apparel and footwear industries.

However, implementation is often much harder in practice.

While there is a noticeable difference in overall choice of words and tone, both the WRC report and the AHRC’s primer discuss the same labor rights issues in Vietnam, despite being published eight years apart. Severe problems, such as child labor, restrictions on the right of freedom of association, and having unsafe working conditions, remain to this day. 

The AHRC’s guidelines also include several Vietnamese laws, which, at least on paper, show the government’s effort to address these persistent problems. 

All in all, the guidelines penned by the AHRC and the other organizations who contributed to the primer seem to be genuine; those involved seem to have the best interests of Vietnam and the garment workers in mind. 

In reality, however, this primer lacks any real force. It clearly states that this guide provides general information only and is not legally binding. The guidance is not intended to constitute legal advice. 

It goes on to say that “Organizations or individuals should seek their own legal advice if they have concerns regarding their compliance with domestic legislation or international standards. Any case studies or examples are included for educational purposes and do not constitute an endorsement of a company or organization.”

In short, companies and businesses who are part of the apparel and footwear industries have no obligation to follow these guidelines aside from the threat of government intervention if they violate any existing statutes. Yet, with corruption being so widespread and rampant in Vietnamese society, it’s very easy to bribe the government to make officials look the other way.

For there to be any real and tangible developments regarding labor and human rights in the apparel and footwear industries, change has to come from both directions, it has to come from both the business sector and the State. 

The guidance provided by the AHRC is a step in the right direction; there’s no contesting that. However, without shifts in the policies and the foundation of the government, no semblance of progress or improvement will ever be fully attained. 

Granted, the Vietnamese government has passed many laws which aim to tackle the working conditions in the garment industry. Yet, proper implementation is an entirely different beast compared to the simple passage of a law. And it is in the implementation itself that the Vietnamese State struggles the most as it is actively hindered by corruption and the short-sighted selfishness of politicians and the Party itself. 

Throughout the years, the Vietnamese apparel and footwear industries have grown to be very lucrative ventures for entrepreneurs, investors, and owners. However, it continues to come at the cost of its workers’ rights, lives, and liberties. 

Genuine change will only come if society, as a whole, wills it to happen. It would include not only the private and government sectors but also the people themselves.

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