Vietnam Workers Protest Government Betrayal of Communist Values
New America Media, Commentary, Thi Lam, Posted: Mar 22, 2006
Editor's Note: In one of the largest recent public protests in Vietnam, workers are demanding fair labor practices and the worker-oriented values the country was founded on. That can't happen without democratic and economic reforms, writes Thi Lam, author of the memoir "The 25-Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Vietnam War." Lam resides in Milpitas, Calif., where he teaches high school.
In Vietnam, workers across the nation are organizing in numbers rarely seen since the communist takeover in 1975. Some 60,000 workers are demanding, among other things, the right to a decent salary, improved working conditions and, most important, to strike and to form their own union. The protests started at foreign-owned manufacturing plants in Ho Chi Minh City and the Binh Duong province in January. It quickly spread to central and northern cities, including Hue, Hanoi and Hai Phong. Preparations are now underway within the overseas Vietnamese communities to stage rallies in support of the national strike.
The great majority of the workers come from impoverished rural areas in search of job opportunities in urban centers. They earn an average wage of about $2 per day -- the lowest in Southeast Asia -- and can't pay for basic living needs. Urbanization, globalization and tourism have sent the cost of living skyward.
The Tieng Dan Keu (People's Voice) Web site published the workers' eight-point demands, reported the San Jose-based Vietnamese language daily Tin Viet (Viet News) on Feb. 18. "We have the right to meet privately...to form a union, to raise funds, to strike to demand our legitimate rights -- an appropriate salary commensurate with our labor...In case our eight-point demands are not realized, we will select one site to launch our struggle (and) seize the plant, the business of foreign capitalists, similarly to what the Communist Party has done in the past." It continued, "Wherever there is exploitation, oppression, people must rise up in mass to take over the ownership, overthrow the capitalist conglomerations, and seize control for the poor people."
The ultimatum-like declaration reflects the workers' determination to fight for their rights and also their anger at being marginalized and betrayed by a regime that is described by the Communist government of Vietnam's constitution as "the vanguard of the Vietnamese working class, faithful representative of the workers and laborers of the nation."
In reaction to this widespread labor unrest, the Communist government has promised to increase the workers' minimum wage. However, in the view of overseas Vietnamese economists, the solution to this problem requires more than just Band-Aid measures. It requires the eradication of corruption and the complete overhaul of the current labor relations structure. In the current set-up, workers can't negotiate directly with business owners. Instead they have to deal with three different layers of authority: the state, which often acts in collusion with foreign entrepreneurs to exploit its own workers; the business owners, who have to factor in the cost of government corruption in their cramped budgets and to squeeze the workers' salary in order to make a profit; and the state-controlled labor union, which in lieu of helping defend the legitimate rights of the workers, keeps instead a strict surveillance on them in order to neutralize the dissident elements within their ranks.
The problem of labor unrest is further compounded by the recent European Union's decision to slap tariffs of almost 20 percent on Vietnamese footwear and textiles. The EU is the largest importer of Vietnamese products, and this new tariff threatens to bankrupt many producers and exporters in Vietnam, making it more difficult for the government to satisfy the demands of the striking workers. Last December, the EU unanimously passed a resolution condemning Hanoi's poor human rights records. The above resolution also urged Vietnam's communist rulers to take immediate steps to build democratic institutions and to install the rule of law. The new increase in import tariffs may be a warning of more sanctions to come.
In a final analysis, the problem of labor unrest in Vietnam is but a part of a bigger problem. It can't be resolved as long as Hanoi is unwilling to undertake genuine economic and democratic reforms and do away with its exotic -- and largely discredited -- "free market economy with socialist orientation" policy.
History sometimes has a curious way of repeating itself. If the experience of the former Solidarity movement in Poland is any indication, don't be surprised to witness the fall of another communist regime by the hands of the very people it was supposed to defend and protect.