Unions and Labor Protections in Vietnam

Community Organizing Organizer Training Organizers Forum

P1010021Ho Chi Minh City One of the real thrills of the Organizers’ Forum dialogue experience is being part of a diverse and talented group of organizers coming together for the first time in a foreign setting and trying to each on their own and all collectively get their arms around the illusive uniqueness of other organizational experiences and cultures.  We all learn to immensely value the search, because the quarry – the facts, the truth, whatever you might call it – if very hard to grasp across so many barriers.

We have a strong delegation this year, as usual, with representatives from SEIU, BCGEU, United Labor Unions, Gameliel, ACORN Canada, Tides, Social Policy, and ACORN International.  Two of the most interesting meetings on the  first formal day of the Forum were with top representatives of the Ho Chi Minh City Labor Federation, headed by their vice-chair, and with the head of DoLISA, the Department of Laborers, Invalids and Social Affairs.

The hard problem in one-party regimes, like Vietnam, where the space between government and governing party is narrow, and where labor is part of the ideological foundation of the government and unions are an operating part of the ruling partnership through one single labor federation is parsing how much autonomy of action and independence of thought and initiative unions really have in such an alignment.  Even with the Cold War long over and the George Meany and Lane Kirkland wing long out of power at the AFL-CIO this is still a contentious issue with some of our friends still arguing relationships should be avoided with such unions, and others arguing their size and stature, and frankly in my view their sincerity and authenticity, mean it is necessary to engage them  deeply.  Kent Wong, a much valued colleague from the UCLA Labor Center, made the passionate case to me of the importance of the Vietnamese labor federations and full engagement from his many trips to this country.

Our early hours with Truong Lam Danh, vice president of the HCM City Confederation of Labor, and his staff were fascinating.  He described an array of programs under their hand for their 880,000 members, and couldn’t have been more accommodating of our questions.   For a minute though we could see the steel, when I asked how the federation would respond to a situation like the wild cat strikes in China:  would they embrace the workers and their cause or feel compelled essentially to shutdown the strike.  His answers were snappish here.  First he claimed to have no knowledge of any such problem among Chinese workers and insisted that this was the first he had heard of such situations.  Unlikely.  Secondly, he was brusque in indicating that the local union representative in such a situation would be replaced as ineffective and not satisfactory to the workers.  The mood then changed as suddenly with Danh asking more questions, more open, and more flexible.  We had hit a nerve perhaps, and then he was able to return to the interests of the dialogue.  These where obviously questions much on his mind as well.

It’s not hard to see the tension.  Outbreaks from workers would indicate impotence by the union.  The government is resting a lot of its economic program on foreign investment and labor unrest would be an issue.  There have surely been debates and instructions from every level.

Our labor friends insisted that membership was voluntary, and at about 25 cents per month dues, we suspected that they were right when talking about the vast majority of informal workers (my guess is 80% of the workforce in HCM City on a back-of-the-envelope), but though not compulsory they said where represented, the legal requirements are such that unions need to be recognized within 6 months of operations.  Later at the DoLISA meeting when we got down to brass tacks here there were admissions that foreign multi-nationals were giving them fits.  Vice-President Danh also was less than satisfied to hear how impotent our unions were when companies went bankrupt and left workers holding the bag, so these are issues we share.

There’s a lot more we have to learn to be able to say, but the questions are moving us in interesting directions so far.