Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers who are citizens to form and join unions under the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), a CPV-run organization. The VGCL, however, answered directly to the VFF, which did not protect trade unions from government interference in or control over union activity. The new labor code, which came into force in January, allows workers to form or join an independent employee representative organization of their choosing (workers’ representative organization) that does not have to be affiliated with the VGCL; however, some of the implementing decrees needed to operationalize the new code remained pending.
The Trade Union Law limits freedom of association by not allowing trade unions full autonomy in administering their affairs. All unions must follow the organizational and operational guidelines prescribed by the CPV and law. The law confers on the VGCL ownership of all trade-union property and gives it the right to represent lower-level unions. By law trade union leaders and officials are not elected by union members but are appointed.
The law requires that if a workplace trade union does not exist, the next level “trade union” must perform the tasks of a grassroots union, even where workers have not so requested or have voluntarily elected not to organize.
The new labor code includes provisions for collective bargaining on any matter of concern to both parties in order to regulate working conditions and relationships between the parties and to develop progressive, harmonious, and stable labor relations. The law requires bargaining to commence within seven days of a party’s request and provides 90 days to reach an agreement.
Collective bargaining is allowed at the enterprise, multienterprise, and sectoral levels but has additional requirements, such as establishment of the collective bargaining council by the people’s committee of the province where the headquarters of the enterprise is located, or in the case of multiple enterprises, in the province they select.
The law prohibits strikes by workers in businesses the government considers essential to the national economy, defense, or public order. “Essential services” include electricity production; post and telecommunications; maritime and air transportation; navigation; public works; and oil and gas production. The law also grants the chairmen of provincial people’s committees the right to suspend a strike considered detrimental to the national economy or public safety.
The new labor code provides workers who have the right to collective bargaining through the VGCL or their workers’ representative organization with the right to strike with substantive and procedural restrictions. The law limits strikes to cases that arise from a collective labor dispute and cases when collective bargaining is not undertaken within the legal timeframes or when a labor arbitration board has not been established. Workers must also provide five days’ prior notification to the employer and the provincial and district level people’s committee labor agents before a strike. Strikes that do not adhere to the process outlined by law are illegal.
The law states the executive committee of a trade union may issue a decision to go on strike only when at least 50 percent of workers support it. Workers must request and exhaust an extensive and cumbersome process of mediation and arbitration before a lawful strike may occur. Unions or workers’ representatives may either appeal decisions of provincial arbitration councils to provincial people’s courts or strike. The law stipulates strikers may not be paid wages while they are not at work. The law prohibits retribution against legal strikers. By law individuals participating in strikes declared illegal by a people’s court and found to have caused damage to their employer are liable for damages, although this has never been enforced.
The law includes provisions that prohibit antiunion discrimination and imposes administrative sanctions and fines for violations. The law does not distinguish between workers and managers, however, and fails to prohibit employers’ agents, such as managers, from participating as union leadership or interfering in union activity.
The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Penalties were not commensurate with similar laws.
There were few strikes due to COVID-19 restrictions on movement and gatherings. None of the strikes followed the authorized conciliation and arbitration process and thus authorities considered them illegal “wildcat” strikes. The government, however, took no action against the strikers.
Because it was illegal to establish or seek to establish independent labor unions prior to the new labor code, there were no registered domestic NGOs involved in labor organizing. Local, unregistered labor NGOs, however, supported efforts to raise awareness of worker rights and occupational safety and health matters and to support internal and external migrant workers. Multiple international labor NGOs collaborated with the VGCL to train VGCL-affiliated union representatives in labor organizing, collective bargaining, and other trade union issues. The International Labor Organization (ILO)-International Finance Corporation (IFC) Better Work project reported management participation in trade union activities was a significant concern in apparel and footwear factories.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The constitution and law prohibit forced or compulsory labor. The labor code’s definition of forced labor, however, does not explicitly include debt bondage. The law criminalizes all forms of labor trafficking of adults and children younger than 16. The government does not effectively enforce the law. The penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes; in fact, the law does not provide any penalty for violating provisions prohibiting forced labor. NGOs continued to report the occurrence of forced labor of men, women, and children (see also section 7.c.).
Labor recruitment firms, most affiliated with state-owned enterprises, and unlicensed brokers reportedly charged workers seeking overseas employment higher fees than the law allows. In 2020 the Ministry of Labor inspected 84 enterprises sending workers abroad, fined 32 for administrative violations, and revoked six licenses for violations. Despite these actions and ministry awareness-raising workshops, problems continued. Workers seeking overseas employment incurred high debts and were thus more vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage, in the receiving countries. In addition there continued to be reports indicating forced labor in the informal apparel industry.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The new labor code states a worker older than 15 and younger than 18 shall not perform work that might damage the physical or intellectual development and dignity of the minor, such as lifting heavy objects or dealing with alcohol or dangerous chemicals or gases. A minor worker from ages 13 to 15 may perform light jobs included in a list from the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs. Children younger than age 13 may work in art and sports in certain circumstances for no more than 20 hours per week. Minor workers must have the permission of their parents.
The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes.
Illegal child labor was reported in labor-intensive sectors, such as construction, garments and textiles, bricks, fish, furniture, footwear, and leather goods, agriculture, and some other manufacturing. Local media also reported children working as beggars in gangs whose leaders abused the children and took most of their income. Some children started work as young as 12, and nearly 55 percent of child workers did not attend school.
In the informal garment sector, children as young as age six reportedly worked in conditions of forced labor. The most recently available information from government raids, NGOs, and media reports indicated this was most common in small, privately owned informal garment factories and workshops.
The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws and policies. Government officials may fine and, in cases of criminal violations, prosecute employers who violate child labor laws.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, disability, color, social class, marital status, belief, religion, HIV status, and membership in a trade union or participation in trade union activities in employment and labor relationships, but not explicitly in all aspects of employment and occupation. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on political opinion, age, language, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Companies with a workforce composed of at least 51 percent employees with disabilities may qualify for special government-subsidized loans. Penalties for discrimination were not commensurate with those under laws related to civil rights. The government did not effectively enforce the laws.
No laws prohibit employers from asking about family or marital status during job interviews.
The new labor code includes a definition of sexual harassment and assigns employer responsibility for its prevention. Employers must implement regulations against sexual harassment in the workplace and include it as possible grounds for dismissal.
Discriminatory hiring practices existed, including discrimination related to gender, age, disability, and marital status. Under the new labor code, the retirement ages for employees in normal working conditions is 60 years and three months for men, and 55 years and four months for women, and increases by three months for men and four months for women each succeeding year.
Enterprises led by women had limited access to credit and international markets. Female workers earned, per year, an average of one month’s income less than male workers. Many women older than 35 found it difficult to find a job, and there were reports of women receiving termination letters at the age of 35. Legal restrictions exist against women in certain occupations and tasks, including jobs deemed “hazardous” in industries such as mining, construction, and transportation.
Social barriers and the limited accessibility of many workplaces remained problems in the employment of persons with disabilities.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: The minimum wage varies by region. In all regions the minimum wage exceeds the World Bank official poverty income level.
The law provides for a 48-hour regular workweek, with overtime payment for additional hours worked. The new labor code limits overtime to 40 hours per month, an increase from 30 hours per month. The new code limits overtime to 200 hours per year, but provides for an exception in special cases, with a maximum of 300 overtime hours annually, subject to advance approval by the government after consultations with the VGCL and employer representatives.
The new labor code broadens the definition of “employment relationship” so that a legally valid employment relationship exists where two parties agree to a document that includes a description of the job, salary, management, and supervision conditions. This may include a contract with an “independent contractor,” “service provider,” “freelancer,” or other informal agreement with employment-like terms. The new labor code also limits the repeated use of limited-term contracts. The law extends protection to part-time and domestic workers.
Occupational Safety and Health: The law provides for occupational safety and health standards, describes procedures for persons who are victims of labor accidents and occupational diseases, and delineates the responsibilities of organizations and individuals in the occupational safety and health fields. The law provides for the right of workers to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. Migrant workers, including internal economic migrants, and workers without contracts were among the most vulnerable workers, and employers routinely subjected them to hazardous working conditions.
The Ministry of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs is the principal labor authority, and it oversees the enforcement of labor law. The Labor Inspections Department is responsible for workplace inspections to confirm compliance with labor laws and occupational safety and health standards.
From April through October most companies in the main production areas in the south temporarily or permanently closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown, halting inspections for approximately six months. The lockdown required labor inspection staff to stay at home which also prevented them from conducting inspections in provinces not under the lockdown.
Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. Inspectors may use sanctions, fines, withdrawal of operating licenses or registrations, closures of enterprises, and mandatory training in response to labor law violations. Inspectors may take immediate measures where they have reason to believe there is an imminent and serious danger to the health or safety of workers, including temporarily suspending operations, although such measures were rare. Penalties for wage and hour and occupational safety and health violations were commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.
The number of inspectors was not sufficient to enforce compliance. The government did not effectively enforce labor laws, particularly in the informal economy.
Credible reports, including from the ILO-IFC Better Work 2020 Annual Report, indicated many apparel and footwear factories exceeded legal overtime thresholds. The ILO-IFC report stated that, while a majority of factories in the program complied with the daily limit of four hours overtime, 76 percent still failed to enforce monthly limits (40 hours).
During a severe COVID-19 outbreak, authorities in the southern part of the country imposed strict manufacturing protocols, requiring factories to create protective “bubbles” by housing workers onsite in order to stay in operation. This policy resulted in tens of thousands of workers living for more than three months in factories that were not designed to house people, with ad hoc shelters and limited hygiene facilities that posed risks to employee safety and well-being, particularly for female workers.
On-the-job injuries due to poor health and safety conditions and inadequate employee training remained a problem. Work-related injuries and deaths remained at approximately the same level in 2020 (most recent data) and 2019. In 2020 the government reported 8,380 occupational accidents with 8,610 victims, including 919 fatal incidents with 966 deaths. Among the deaths, 661 involved contracted laborers, while 305 involved workers without contracts.
Informal Sector: The informal sector includes small household businesses, individual vendors in traditional markets, streetside or online, and gig workers for transportation and delivery. In 2020 reports indicated 20.3 million persons worked in the informal economy.
Members of ethnic minority groups often worked in the informal economy and, according to the ILO, informal workers typically had low and irregular incomes, endured long working hours, and lacked protection by labor market institutions. Additionally, workers in the informal sector were only eligible to pay into a voluntary social insurance fund covering only retirement and survivors’ allowances. Workers in the formal sector and their employers contributed to a system that covers sickness, maternity, labor accidents, and occupational disease as well as retirement and survivors’ allowances.