Starting in 2021, Vietnam will allow the creation of new worker representative organizations not affiliated with the official trade union. Joe Buckley examines what this change could mean for both Vietnam’s workers and the main actors currently involved in labour organizing.
Vietnamese metal worker. Image from ILO Asia-Pacific. Creative Commons Licence.
January 2021 will see significant changes in Vietnamese labour politics, when a New Labour Code comes into effect. Perhaps the biggest change is Chapter 13; this allows, for the first time, “worker representative organisations at the enterprise level” (tổ chức đại diện người lao động tại doanh nghiệp, WROs), not affiliated with the state-led Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL).
WROs are not unions; only VGCL-affiliated organisations are unions, and they are legislated differently, by the Trade Union Law. WROs are allowed to engage in collective bargaining and organising strikes at the individual enterprise level, but there is nothing in the New Labour Code allowing them to form sectoral or regional federations beyond this level. Although Article 174 makes a vague reference to members of WROs being able to decide about mergers and linkages of the organisation, this is not elaborated upon. While the Trade Union Law is clear about how the VGCL gets its funding - union dues, a union tax on enterprises, state support, and profits from VGCL-owned enterprises - there is no such clear legislation for how WROs will be funded, beyond members’ dues. Chapter 13 also gives the government power to register and dissolve WROs, and they must also be dissolved if the enterprise shuts down.
The VGCL retains the privilege of being the only legal union federation in the country, and the Labour Code says that if WROs want to become unions, they can affiliate to the VGCL and will then be legislated by the Trade Union Law. Nevertheless, allowing WROs represents a significant legal change. Let’s take a look at some of the key players who have a stake in the freedom of association reforms:
The state-led VGCL is part of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, the group of mass organisations led by the Communist Party of Vietnam, which also includes organisations such as the Farmer’s Union, the Women’s Union, and the Youth Union. The VGCL’s functions, as stated in its charter, are fourfold: to help increase productivity and development; to protect workers’ rights and interests; to take part in economic and social management; and to propagate Party directions and mobilise workers. As with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, this is in the mode of Leninist dual-functioning unions, a doctrine that emerged from the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1921, in which the role of unions in socialist societies is to encourage productivity while also protecting workers from harsh treatment.
The VGCL is often dismissed as a tool of the Communist Party, useless when it comes to protecting workers’ rights and interests. To some extent this is true, and there is no doubt that the VGCL is not genuinely representative of workers. There have, though, been experiments in collective bargaining, bottom-up organising, and providing better legal representation for labour disputes. The Trade Union Law is currently being revised to make it more appropriate to “the new situation” (tình hình mới). Considerations include the trade union structure, union financing, and the role of unions at different levels in managing conflicts.
There is also a progressive wing within the VGCL, which wants the organisation to become genuinely representative of workers, and has been calling for more autonomy and for the organisation to shift from a service-based model to an active, organising model. They see the freedom of association reforms as a welcome catalyst to reform the VGCL. Due to the VGCL’s practice of democratic centralism, it is difficult to know how big and influential this wing of the organisation is, but it is definitely present. Recently, for example, Dang Ngoc Tung, a former VGCL president, has been pushing to make funding for WROs fairer. Currently, enterprises have to pay two percent of their basic wage bill as a union tax. There is no mention of any of this going to WROs — at enterprises which will have them — in the Labour Law. Tung has been pushing the idea that this money should be split between unions and WROs, based on their membership numbers.
Viet Labour and Viet Labour Movement
These are hardened, battle-scarred dissident activist organizations. The two groups, which split towards the end of 2016, are the descendants of a number of independent labour rights organisations that popped up in the mid-2000s as Vietnam was preparing to join the World Trade Organisation. As they themselves recognise, these organisations are not unions; they are not founded and led by workers. Rather, they are groups of activists campaigning for labour rights and freedom of association. Much of their activity has consisted of giving advice to workers about their rights and the Labour Law. Viet Labour and Viet Labour Movement are antagonistic towards the VGCL. A number of their members are in jail or exile, and their overt activity, at least, has significantly declined over the past couple of years. The reforms are not expected to open up much space, if any at all, to allow these organisations to operate freely, as the government sees them as “political” organisations with concerns beyond bread and butter issues of wages and conditions at the enterprise level.
The Vietnamese Independent Union (VIU)
The VIU is the new kid on the block. Launching in June 2020 with a flashy website and social media presence, the group says that it wants to establish independent unions. It also says, however, that it wants a constructive relationship with the VGCL, and hopes they can work together to protect the rights and interests of workers and fulfil the labour obligations of Free Trade Agreements. This approach is very different from Viet Labour and Viet Labour Movement, who entirely reject the VGCL. On the one hand, the VIU’s tactic seems like it could be pragmatic, sensible politics; whatever one thinks of the VGCL, they are not going away, and will have to be engaged with somehow. On the other hand, Viet Labour thinks the VIU is not a genuine union. They released a statement claiming that VIU is actually connected to the Communist Party, disguising itself as independent. They also claim that lots of fake independent union organisations will appear given current reforms, and that workers need to be on guard.
Self-organised workers’ struggles
The one phenomenon that has had the greatest impact in improving workers’ pay and conditions over the last 15 to 20 years, however, is not one particular organization but workers’ self-organised struggles. There have been hundreds of strikes every year, especially since the mid-2000s. While strikes are legal, launching one requires workers to follow a complex set of bureaucratic procedures, including the condition that it is led by the VGCL. This has never happened. Every strike is technically an illegal, wildcat strike. Organised in decentralised ways with few identifiable leaders and largely detached from any of the organisations thus far mentioned, they are difficult for employers to predict and prepare for in advance. These struggles have led to significant wins, and not just at the enterprise-level. Strikes have, for example, forced the development of a system for annual minimum wage rises, and forced the VGCL and other parts of the government to attempt to reform labour relations institutions.
Indeed, the aim of building and reforming labour relations institutions has been to create “harmonious labour relations” (quan hệ lao động hài hoà); meaning, primarily, to stop strikes. The current reforms can be read largely as an attempt to do just that. And it may be working, as recorded strike numbers have fallen significantly over the last couple of years (they picked up in the first few months of 2020 due to the Covid-19 crisis).
The impact that WROs will have for workers is as yet unknown. There are a few possibilities. Workers could totally ignore them and continue employing types of wildcat militancy. Alternatively, WROs could become a way of co-opting and institutionalising worker grievances without leading to many real gains for labour. A third possibility is that WROs do become effective ways for workers to make demands on employers, or that they lead to further freedom of association reforms. Finally, the threat of workers forming and joining WROs may force the VGCL to become a more genuinely representative union.
Joe Buckley holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and runs the Vietnam Labour Update Newsletter.
This article is part of an occasional series commissioned by CLB designed to examine the influence of Chinese capital around the world and foster worker solidarity in the Global South.