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The Vietnam Case: Workers versus the Global Supply Chain

By Ngoctran, Angie | Harvard International Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Vietnam Case: Workers versus the Global Supply Chain


Ngoctran, Angie, Harvard International Review


Vietnam--a socialist country integrating into the global capitalist system--can serve as a useful case study on labor and globalization because it reflects larger global trends. These include domestic and international labor migration with the increased mobility of capital, and the complex role of the government and recruitment companies in all types of migration. Workers--both inside and outside of Vietnam--have used their agency to fight for their rights and human dignity in this environment. Human rights advocates have forced open a small space in the multi-level global supply chain for the establishment of codes of conduct toward workers, and ethical consumers and investors try to speak and act on behalf of migrant workers worldwide. This article will discuss the causes and implications of these changes in Vietnam, as well as how they relate to a broader global framework of labor.

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Domestic Migration and Workers' Agency

Domestic labor migration is no longer a one-way workers' movement from rural to urban areas to work in manufacturing hubs. It also includes workers who return to their hometowns, villages, or provinces, as mobile global capital expands and sets up factories in poor provinces to take advantage of even lower wages. This circular rural-urban-rural labor migration has occurred in Vietnam, China, and other countries.

In Vietnam, as of 2009, about 47.7 million people worked in all economic sectors, while 6.85 million worked in manufacturing, second only to agriculture and forestry Most manufacturing workers were in textile/apparel and leather shoe factories in export processing zones (EPZs) and industrial zones (IZs); they earned very low wages, on average less than US$100 per month. Over 60 percent of the workforce in 140 EPZs and IZs nationwide are young females, around 20-35 years old, from poor provinces in the northern and central regions of Vietnam. Most domestic migrants found work through both informal channels (families and friends) and a formal recruitment process in which they had to pay (mostly state-owned) recruitment companies around US$50 to secure their jobs. Most foreign-owned suppliers are from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. Recent trends show that many suppliers have established factories in rural areas to get access to even cheaper labor in provinces such as Tra Vinh, Long An, Thanh Hoa, and Quang Ngai, far from the global cities such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, which now have developed labor shortages.

However, workers are not victims: they have agency and have been rising up against both management and governments to fight for their rights and human dignity. This is not exclusive to Vietnam: there have been protests in China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, and Mexico. In each country, workers develop strategies and tactics to fight for their rights and dignity that reflect the political and economic conditions of the factories' locations. In Vietnam, workers have developed strategies and tactics that reflect Vietnam's socialist past and market-oriented present.

The common reasons for strikes in those countries have concerned labor rights (pay, work hours, working conditions, labor contracts, overtime compensation, daily productivity targets, meals, fines as disciplinary action, apprenticeship period) and non-wage benefits (social security, health and unemployment insurance, paid leaves, meals at work). The Vietnamese workers invoked the bonus and benefits they used to receive under the socialist system, such as the 13 th month pay (usually given around the Vietnamese Lunar New Year), and demanded to be treated with dignity and respect. They have also exposed physical and verbal abuses by foreign experts, managers, and owners.

The minimum wage strike waves that started in the middle of the past decade galvanized the collective action of hundreds of thousands of workers in EPZs and IZs in Ho Chi Minh City In 2006, workers in three foreign-owned shoe factories in a Ho Chi Minh City export processing zone sparked a series of minimum wage strikes.

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