Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution affords the right to association and the right to demonstrate but limits the exercise of these rights, including preventing workers from organizing or joining independent unions of their choice. While workers may choose whether to join a union and at which level (local or “grassroots,” provincial, or national), the law requires every union to be under the legal purview and control of the country’s only trade union confederation, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), a CPV-run organization. Only citizens may form or join labor unions.
The law gives the VGCL exclusive authority to recognize unions and confers on VGCL upper-level trade unions the responsibility to establish workplace unions. The VGCL’s charter establishes the VGCL as the head of the multilevel unitary trade union structure and carries the force of law. The law also stipulates that the VGCL answers directly to the CPV’s VFF, which does not protect trade unions from government interference in or control over union activity.
The law also limits freedom of association by not allowing trade unions full autonomy in administering their affairs. 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, an “immediate upper-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. For nonunionized workers to organize a strike, they must request that the strike “be organized and led by the upper-level trade union,” and if non-unionized workers wish to bargain collectively, the upper-level VGCL union must represent them.
The law stipulates that trade unions have the right and responsibility to organize and lead strikes, and establishes certain substantive and procedural restrictions on strikes. Strikes that do not arise from a collective labor dispute or do not adhere to the process outlined by law are illegal. Contrary to international standards, the law forbids strikes regarding “rights-based” disputes. This includes strikes arising out of economic and social policy measures that are not a part of a collective negotiation process, as they are both outside the law’s definition of protected “interest-based” strikes.
The law prohibits strikes by workers in businesses that serve the public or that the government considers essential to the national economy, defense, public health, and 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 prime minister the right to suspend a strike considered detrimental to the national economy or public safety.
The law prohibits strikes among workers across different employers, resulting in a ban on sector- and industry-level protests and prohibits workers and unions from calling for strikes in support of multiemployer contracts.
The law states that 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.
Laws stipulate an extensive and cumbersome process of mediation and arbitration before a lawful strike over an interest-based collective dispute 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 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.
The laws include provisions that prohibit antiunion discrimination and interference in union activities while imposing administrative sanctions and fines for violations. The laws do not distinguish between workers and managers, however, and fail to prohibit employers’ agents, such as managers who represent the interests of the employer, from participating or interfering in union activity. Penalties were not adequate to deter violations.
According to the VGCL, more than 73 percent of the 189 strikes that occurred in the first eight months of the year occurred in foreign direct-investment companies (mainly Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Chinese companies), and nearly 40 percent occurred in the southern economic zone area in Binh Duong, Dong Nai, Ba Ria Vung Tau provinces and Ho Chi Minh City. 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 and, on occasion, actively mediated agreements in the workers’ favor. In some cases the government imposed heavy fines on employers, especially of foreign-owned companies, that engaged in illegal practices that led to strikes.
Because it is illegal to establish or seek to establish independent labor unions, there were no government-sanctioned domestic labor NGOs involved in labor organizing. Local labor NGOs, however, supported efforts to raise awareness of worker rights and occupational safety and health issues and to support internal and external migrant workers. Multiple international labor NGOs collaborated with the VGCL to provide training to VGCL-affiliated union representatives on labor organizing, collective bargaining, and other trade union issues. The International Labor Organization (ILO)-International Finance Corporation (IFC) Better Work project reported management interference in the activities of the trade union was one of the most significant issues in garment factories in the country.
Labor activists and representatives of independent (non-VGCL) worker organizations faced antiunion discrimination. Independent labor activists seeking to form unions separate from the VGCL or inform workers of their labor rights sometimes faced government harassment. In February a court convicted and sentenced peaceful labor and environmental activist Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years’ imprisonment under vague articles of the penal code. Binh, who was arrested in 2017, advocated for compensation for fishermen affected by the 2016 Formosa spill, and posted online content about the government’s response to the spill that significantly affected workers (also see section 1.d.). In July a crowd attacked the house of Do Thi Minh Hanh, chairwoman of the independent Viet Labor Movement, pelting it with stones, fish sauce, and petrol bombs. In addition authorities continued to use foreign travel prohibitions against labor activists, including Do Thi Minh Hanh (also see section 2.d.).
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. In January penal code amendments entered into effect that criminalized all forms of labor trafficking of adults and prescribed penalties of five to 10 years’ imprisonment and fines of 20 to 100 million VND. The amendments also criminalized labor trafficking of children younger than age 16 and prescribed penalties of seven to 12 years’ imprisonment and fines of 50 to 200 million VND. The law does not provide any penalty for violation of the labor code provisions prohibiting forced labor. ,NGOs continued to report the occurrence of forced labor of men, women, and children within the country (see also section 7.c.).
Labor recruitment firms, most of which were affiliated with state-owned enterprises, and unlicensed brokers reportedly charged workers seeking international employment higher fees than the law allows, and they did so with impunity. Those workers incurred high debts and were thus more vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The constitution prohibits “the employment of persons below the minimum working age.” The law defines underage employees as anyone younger than age 18. The law prohibits children under 18 from working heavy, hazardous, and dangerous jobs. The law limits children between ages 15 and 18 to working a maximum of eight hours per day and 40 hours per week. Children between ages 13 and 15 may work only in light jobs, as defined by the Ministry of Labor, and considerations must be made for schooling, working conditions, labor safety, and hygiene. The law permits children to register at trade training centers, a form of vocational training, from age 14 without parental consent. While the law generally prohibits the employment of children under 13, it allows those under 13 to engage in sectors not deemed to be harmful as regulated by the ministry.
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. As part of the government’s 2016-20 National Plan of Action for Children and National Program for Child Protection, the government continued efforts to prevent child labor and specifically targeted children in rural areas, disadvantaged children, and children at risk of exposure to hazardous work conditions.
Per the Vietnam National Child Labor Survey 2012, the most recent data available, 1.75 million working children were categorized as “child laborers”, accounting for 9.6 percent of the national child population or 62 percent of children engaged in economic activities. Of child laborers, 40 percent were girls, nearly 85 percent of these children lived in the rural areas and 60 percent belonged to the 15-17 age group. Some children started work as young as age 12 and nearly 55 percent did not attend school (5 percent of whom would never attend school). Agriculture was the most common field for child laborers, with 67 percent of the total population, while 15.7 percent worked in construction/manufacturing and 16.7 percent in services.
There were reports of children between ages 10 and 18–and some as young as six–producing garments under conditions of forced labor. The most recently available information from government raids, NGOs, and media reports indicated that groups of children were laboring in small, privately owned garment factories and informal garment workshops. Reports indicated that these employers were beating or threatening the children with physical violence. In addition, there was evidence that children as young as 12 were working while confined in government-run rehabilitation centers. Employers forced these children to sew garments without pay under threat of physical or other punishments.
International and domestic NGOs noted successful partnerships with provincial governments to implement national-level policies combatting child labor.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination in employment, labor relationships, and work but not explicitly in all aspects of 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. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on political opinion, age, language, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
No laws prohibit employers from asking about family or marital status during job interviews.
The government did not effectively enforce laws related to employment discrimination. The government took some action to address employment discrimination against persons with disabilities. Companies with a workforce composed of at least 51 percent employees with disabilities may qualify for special government-subsidized loans.
Discriminatory hiring practices existed, including discrimination related to gender, age, disability, and marital status. Women in the public sector were expected to retire at age 55, compared with age 60 for men, affecting women’s ability to rise to managerial ranks and have higher incomes and pensions.
Women-led enterprises continued to have limited access to credit and international markets. A 2017 report by Oxfam estimated male workers earned on average 33 percent more than their female counterparts. Skilled female workers with university degrees earned 80 percent of male university graduates’ wages. Many women older than age 35 found it difficult to find a job, and there were reports of women receiving termination letters at age 35. The VGCL’s Institute of Workers and Trade Unions noted that women older than age 35 accounted for roughly half of all unemployed workers in the country.
Social and attitudinal barriers and limited access to the workplace remained problems in the employment of persons with disabilities.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The minimum wage for enterprises ranged from 2.76 million VND ($117) per month to 3.98 million VND ($170) per month, depending on the region. In August the National Wages Council agreed to a 5.3 percent increase in the minimum wage, to take effect in 2019, raising the minimum wage range to 2.92 million VND ($124) – 4.18 million VND ($178). The minimum wage exceeds the General Statistics Office-World Bank official poverty income level.
The law limits overtime to 50 percent of normal working hours per day, 30 hours per month, and 200 hours per year, but it provides for an exception in special cases, with a maximum of 300 overtime hours annually, subject to stipulation by the government after consulting with the VGCL and employer representatives.
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. The law protects “labor subleasing”, a pattern of employment, and thus extends protection to part-time and domestic workers.
The Ministry of Labor is the principal labor authority, and it oversees the enforcement of the labor law, administers labor relations policy, and promotes job creation. The Labor Inspections Department is responsible for workplace inspections to confirm compliance with labor laws and occupational safety and health standards. Inspectors may use sanctions, fines, withdrawal of operating licenses or registrations, closures of enterprises, and mandatory training. 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. The ministry acknowledged shortcomings in its labor inspection system and emphasized the number of labor inspectors countrywide was insufficient.
Government enforcement of labor laws and standards, including in the informal economy, was irregular for many reasons, including low funding and a shortage of trained enforcement personnel.
Credible reports, including from the ILO-IFC Better Work 2017 Annual Report, indicated that factories exceeded legal overtime thresholds and did not meet legal requirements for rest days. The ILO-IFC report stated that, while a majority of factories in the program complied with the daily limit of four hours overtime, 77 percent still failed to meet monthly limits (30 hours) and 72 percent exceeded annual limits (300 hours). In addition and due to the high prevalence of Sunday work, 44 percent of factories failed to provide at least four days of rest per month to all workers.
Migrant workers, including internal economic migrants, were among the most vulnerable workers, and employers routinely subjected them to hazardous working conditions. 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. On-the-job injuries due to poor health and safety conditions and inadequate employee training remained a problem. In 2017, the government reported 8,956 occupational accidents with 9,173 victims, including 898 fatal incidents with 928 deaths.