Workers see strikes as only end to miserable working conditions

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With no money and no help from labor unions, workers use wildcat strikes as an inevitable last resort

Around 18,000 workers on strike at the Pouchen Company in Dong Nai Province early this month. (Photo by Hoang Tuan)

Hai says the strike he and thousands of shoe workers went on early this month was the result of several years of suffering low income and mistreatment.

"Many workers working for low pay for more than a year at the factory merely hoped their salary would be better under the annual salary increase policy," said the worker at the Taiwan-invested Pouchen Company which owns one of the most crowded factories in Dong Nai Province, where nearly 20,000 punch in and out everyday.

Vietnamese law states that companies must increase workers' salaries every year. But Hai said Pouchen saw no wage hikes in 2009 and has yet to make good on a promise to raise wages in 2010.

Hai, who lives in a makeshift shack for rent near the factory with two other laborers, said that strike was the "last straw."

Hai said that after not being able to buy enough food due to price hikes, he neither knew nor cared if the strike was legal or not.

"I just followed many others. Finally, the company had to increase our salaries in line with our work experience," he said.

Another Pouchen worker, Nghia, said most workers weren't aware of labor laws, they just wanted enough money to live.

He said many new workers had the lowest salaries and were struggling to cope with inflation.

"My salary is around VND4 million a month after 15 years working at the factory. New workers are paid between VND1.2 million and VND1.8 million a month, depending on their job."

Although he was aware that the strike was illegal, Nghia said he didn't trust the firm's labor union to represent the workers and stand up for their rights. The only legal way to strike in Vietnam is to do so after consulting with labor unions, who are beholden to the companies they are supposed to defend workers against.

The strike at Pouchen lasted for around a week beginning on April 1. The average monthly salary for the 18,000 workers is only $70.

The demonstration was just one of 95 wildcat strikes held across the country so far this year. In 2009, 216 wildcat strikes were held, with more than 70 percent happening at foreign-invested firms, according to the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor.

Low pay, no benefits

Although strikes occur in various fields, from textiles and garments to footwear and steel, they all seem to happen for the same reason: unfair treatment.

The workers constantly cite the same causes for their dissatisfaction: salaries that are too low compared to rising consumer prices.

Many laborers said their average monthly salaries of just dozens of dollars were not enough to support their families, even on a minimal basis. At the same time, they have to work 10 or even 12 hours a day. Harsh treatment by management and broken promises of wage hikes and bonuses only strengthen the resolve to strike, workers told Thanh Nien Weekly.

The government has recently decided to raise the minimum wage. Accordingly, employees at state-owned companies and agencies will have their monthly minimum salary increased from VND650,000 ($34) to VND730,000 ($38) from May 1. Foreign companies were also ordered to increase their minimum wages to between VND1.04-1.34 million.

Le Thi My Phuong, director of the Department of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs of Dong Nai Province, 35 kilometers to the northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, said the highly-anticipated minimum salary hike would be a foundation for employees to earn more money. She said higher salaries would be likely to counter the urge to strike.

However, Chau Van Ro, head of the Bureau of Labor and Jobs at the Department of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs in Long An Province, said the minimum wage increase would not end the strikes. The salaries of laborers who participated in the strikes are already higher than the regulated minimum rates, he said.

"The most important is firms' treatment of employees. Working conditions and benefits offered by many companies are below those regulated by law," he added.

Indeed, Pouchen employees cited poor quality company lunches, which they said cost the firm only VND4,000 apiece, were another reason they were striking. Others said the lack of benefits prompted them to strike.

Workers at other companies have also said that their employers refused to pay insurance and welfare fees as regulated by law.

Labor expert Bui Kien Thanh said many foreign direct investment (FDI) firms collude with importers in other countries to export shoes for between $10-15 per pair. The collaborator then sells to a third country for up to $100 per pair and shares the profits with the Vietnamese firms.

Workers gain little from the company's profits because firms register the lower prices with Vietnamese agencies, enabling them to offer low salaries, he said.

Legal issues

Although reasons for the strikes are justified, they are still illegal.

Mai Duc Chinh, vice chairman of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, said the laws governing strikes had many shortcomings that guaranteed that all strikes would be deemed illegal.

The Labor Code, which has seen three amendments in its 15-year history, does not lay out any guidelines for dealing with strikes, he said.

Dang Nhu Loi, vice chairman of the parlimentary Commission on Social Affairs, said that in theory, lawful strikes are recognized only after workers and employers undergo a formal discussion process. However, such discussions are pretty much unheard of because the very grassroots mediators meant to speak on behalf the workers look out for company interests instead.

Most trade unions at enterprises are run by employees that answer to the firms.

They represent the workers only in theory because they are managed by the company, said Loi.

If they oppose their employers, they face the risk of being fired. Thus, laborers logically pin little hope on trade unions.

When strikes happen, local leaders often discuss the problem with the company in question.

"Firms often listen to the opinions of local leaders, and actively solve the problem," said Phuong from the labor department.

However, the solutions do not have long-term effects, and strikes often occur again at the same place, Phuong said.

Phuong said laborers have the right to negotiate salaries when they are hired and she suggested the industrial parks establish policies on wages, benefits and working conditions that don't allow companies to rent land unless they meet minimum requirements on these issues.

Asked whether she would join a strike through the labor union, Thuy, a worker at Pouchen who joined the wildcat strike early this month said the union would never help workers get better salaries and benefits.

She said she would join others to go on strike again if the firm failed to follow through on its commitments.

"The strike was effective. At least they agreed to increase our salary properly," she said.

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