U.S. Department of State Human Rights Report, Labor Subsections
February 25, 2000

Section 6 Worker Rights The Right of Association

Unions are controlled by the Party and have only nominal independence; however, union leaders influence some key decisions, such as on health and safety issues and on minimum wage standards. Workers are not free to join or form unions of their choosing; such action requires approval from the local office of the Party-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL). The VGCL is the umbrella organization under which all local trade unions must operate, and it claims 4 million members in branches in each of the major cities and provinces. VGCL officers report that the VGCL represents 95 percent of public sector workers, 90 percent of workers in state-owned enterprises, and nearly 70 percent of private sector workers. The Labor Law requires provincial trade union organizations to establish unions within 6 months at all new enterprises with more than 10 employees as well as at existing enterprises that operate without trade unions. Management of those companies is required by law to accept and cooperate with those unions. In addition, while the Labor Code states that all enterprise level and professional trade unions are affiliated with the VGCL, in practice hundreds of unaffiliated "labor associations" have been organized in occupations such as those of taxi, motorcycle and cyclo drivers, cooks, and market porters. Foreign governments are providing technical assistance and training to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs and to the VGCL.

The Labor Law provides for the right to strike under certain circumstances. The law requires that management and labor resolve labor disputes through the enterprise's own labor conciliation council. In a recent report, the ILO stated that many labor organizations failed to establish labor conciliation councils, and that without one, or if one fails to resolve the matter, it is referred to the provincial Labor Arbitration Council, which does not exist in some provinces. If the Council's decision is unsatisfactory to the union or if the province does not have an arbitration council, unions have the right to appeal to the Provincial People's Labor Arbitration Council. Labor courts, which were established in 1996 within the People's Court System, heard approximately 500 cases; most cited wrongful dismissal and matters of labor discipline. Since January 1995, the Labor Ministry has organized 150 training courses on the Labor Code for its staff and for managers of large enterprises.

The government-controlled labor unions stipulate written procedures for managing labor disputes that permit unresolved disputes to be arbitrated before a court. Unions have the right to appeal a council decision to the provincial people's court and the right to strike.

There were approximately 60 private and public strikes during the year, primarily against foreign-owned or joint venture companies, but some also involved state-owned and private firms. The Government tolerated these strikes, even though most were spontaneous and supported by organized labor after the fact. Approximately 250 strikes were reported from January 1995 through September 1999. Of these, some 132 strikes were in enterprises with foreign investment, about 40 in state-owned enterprises, and 80 in private enterprises. The majority of these strikes took place in Ho Chi Minh City, Dong Nai province, and other southern provinces. The strikes mainly were caused by disputes over wages and related problems, including late payment of overtime pay and inappropriate labor disciple. Although most of the strikes did not follow an authorized conciliation and arbitration process, and thus were illegal, the Government tolerated the strikes and did not take action against the strikers. Although the VGCL or its affiliate unions did not sanction these strikes officially, they were supported unofficially at the local and provincial levels of the VGCL on an informal basis. The Labor Law prohibits retribution against strikers, and there were no credible reports of such retribution. In some cases, the Government disciplined employers for illegal practices that led to strikes. VGCL officials stated that their general policy was not to use strikes to settle investment disputes, but only as a last resort. They stressed the need to educate workers on lawful strike procedure.

The Labor Code prohibits strikes at enterprises that serve the public and at those considered by the Government to be important to the national economy and defense. A subsequent decree defined these enterprises to be those involved in: Electrical production; post and telecommunications; railway, maritime, and air transportation; banking; public works; and the oil and gas industry. The law also grants the Government the right to suspend a strike considered detrimental to the national economy or public safety. Strikes are prohibited in 54 occupational sectors and businesses, including public services, businesses producing "essential" goods, and businesses serving national defense under the Ministries of Public Security and National Defense. Individual unions legally are not free to affiliate with, join, or participate in, international labor bodies, and they do not do so in practice. However, the VGCL has relations with 95 labor organizations in 70 countries.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Workers must have the approval of the provincial or metropolitan branch of the VGCL in order to organize unions in their enterprises, but they also can bargain collectively through the Party-approved unions at their enterprises. During the year, many contracts were negotiated that ended the practice of annual renewal, as collective bargaining increased in importance. Multiyear contracts became more common despite initial resistance from foreign companies. Labor leaders became more active in supporting their workers by agreeing to place more workplace issues in collective bargaining agreements. Issues that are not in a contract, such as working on Sundays, have been spelled out so that companies cannot order workers to work a seventh day. Market forces also play a much more important role in determining wages. The Labor Law prohibits antiunion discrimination on the part of employers against employees seeking to organize.

There are a number of export processing zones and industrial zones, which are governed by the same labor laws as the rest of the country.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Labor Law prohibits all forms of forced and bonded labor, including such labor by children; however, there were reports that thousands of children work in exploitative child labor. Some women are forced into prostitution, and trafficking in women for the purpose of forced prostitution is a problem (see Sections 5 and 6.f.). A study of child labor in Ho Chi Minh City found cases in which poor families had entered into "verbal agreements" with employers, who put the families' children to work; their salaries generally are sent to their parents. Officials state that juveniles in reeducation camps, which function much as reform schools or juvenile detention centers do elsewhere, are assigned work for educational purposes that does not generate income. Children were trafficked both domestically and internationally and forced to work as prostitutes (see Sections 5 and 6.f.).

During the year, the Government suspended the practice of required labor in the construction of national infrastructure projects; however, there is a long local tradition under which persons living along flood-prone levees voluntarily help to build or repair their critical flood control system. In 1998 the Government denied the use of prison labor without compensation, and there were no reports of this practice during the year.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The Labor Law prohibits most child labor but allows exceptions for certain types of work. The Labor Law sets the minimum age for employment at 18 years of age, but enterprises may hire children between the ages of 15 and 18, as long as the firm obtains special permission from their parents and the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs. The firm also must ensure that these young workers do not undertake hazardous work or work that would harm their physical or mental development. These occupations are specified in the Labor Law. Children may work a maximum of 7 hours per day and 42 hours per week and must receive special health care. It is not clear whether authorities have the resources to enforce these regulations. Children as young as 13 years of age can register at trade training centers, which are a form of vocational training. There were no reports that state-owned enterprises or companies with foreign investors used child labor.

Restrictions on working in hazardous operations apply to persons under the age of 18. The Labor Code permits the vocational training of children at the age of 13.

In rural areas, children work primarily on family farms and in other agricultural activities. They often begin working at the age of 6 and are expected to work as adults by the time they are 15 years of age. In urban areas, children work in family-owned small businesses. There are compulsory education laws that are not enforced effectively in rural areas, where children are needed to work in agriculture. However, the culture's strong emphasis on education leads parents who can afford to send their children to school to do so rather than allow them to work. Many urban schools operate two sessions, allowing children to attend classes and to work.

In 1997 the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) announced that Children below the age of 16 face increased risk of economic exploitation. The Government estimated in 1997 that approximately 29,000 children below the age of 15 were victims of exploitative labor. That estimate may have been low, since most of these children are working in the informal sector. In 1997 UNICEF cited evidence of children working in gold mines and as domestic servants, or working up to 14 hours a day in hazardous conditions for meager pay or no payment.

The Government did not commit sufficient resources to enforce its laws providing for children's labor safety, especially for children working in coal mines and as domestic servants. The ILO stated that street children both in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi usually participate in night education courses.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Labor Law requires the government to set a minimum wage, which is adjusted for inflation and other economic changes. The official monthly minimum wage for foreign-investment joint ventures is $45 (621,000 dong) in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and $40 (552,000 dong) elsewhere. The Government can exempt temporarily certain joint ventures from paying the minimum wage during the first months of an enterprise's operations, or if the enterprise is located in a very remote area, but the minimum wage in these cases can be no lower than $30 (414,000 dong). These minimum wage rates are inadequate to provide a worker and family with a decent standard of living. However, many workers receive bonuses and supplement their incomes by engaging in entrepreneurial activities, and households often include more than one wage earner. A decreasing number of workers receive government-subsidized housing. The Government enforces the minimum wage only at foreign and major Vietnamese firms.

In October the Government reduced the length of the workweek for government employees and employees of companies in the state sector from 48 hours to 40 hours; it intends to encourage the private business sector and foreign and international organizations that employ Vietnamese workers to implement a 40-hour week.

The Labor Law sets working hours at a maximum of 8 hours per day, with a mandatory 24-hour break each week. Additional hours require overtime pay at 1.5 times the regular wage and 2 times the regular wage on holidays. The law limits compulsory overtime to 4 hours per week and 200 days per year. Annual leave with full pay for various types of work is also prescribed by the law. In a recent report, the ILO pointed out that the limit of 200 hours a year of overtime work is too low, and that workers and employers should have the right to agree to a greater amount of overtime work. It is uncertain how well the Government enforces these provisions.

According to the law, a female employee who is to be married, is pregnant, is on maternity leave, or is raising a child under 1 year of age cannot be dismissed unless the enterprise is closed. Female employees who are at least 7 months pregnant or are raising a child under 1 year of age cannot work overtime, at night, or in distant locations.

The Labor Law requires the Government to promulgate rules and regulations that ensure worker safety. The Ministry of Labor, in coordination with local people's committees and labor unions, is charged with enforcing the regulations. In practice, enforcement is inadequate because of the ministry's inadequate funding and a shortage of trained enforcement personnel. The VGCL reported that there are 300 labor inspectors in the country but that at least 600 are needed. There is growing evidence that workers, through labor unions, have been effective in improving working conditions.

Some foreign companies with operations in the country have established independent monitoring of problems at their factories. In some instances, they used NGO's and other nonprofit organizations to monitor workplace conditions and report abuses to the Ministry of Labor.

f. Trafficking in Persons

The Penal Code prescribes harsh punishment for persons convicted of trafficking in women and children; however, some women are forced to work as prostitutes, and trafficking in women for the purpose of forced prostitution, both domestically and internationally, is a serious problem.

The Government, international NGO's, and the press reported an increase in recent years in trafficking in women. Women and girls are trafficked from the southern delta and highland provinces into Cambodia and from northern provinces into China. Women and girls frequently are misled by promises of well-paying jobs in those countries.

Prostitution, although officially illegal, appears to be widely tolerated. The Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee recently acknowledged that more than 10,000 women in the city engaged in prostitution. Hanoi and the port cities of Danang and Haiphong also have large numbers of women engaged in prostitution. There are reports that some persons in Ho Chi Minh City addicted young girls to heroin, then forced them to work as prostitutes to earn money to support their drug addiction. Many more women are compelled to work as prostitutes because of poverty, a lack of other employment opportunities, or because they are victimized by false promises of lucrative work. The Vietnam Women's Union and Youth Union, as well as international and domestic NGO's, are engaged actively in education and rehabilitation programs to combat these abuses.

The Government is working with international NGO's to supplement law enforcement measures and is cooperating with other national governments to prevent trafficking. NGO's reported that the problem appeared to grow during the year. Organized groups lure poor, often rural, women with promises of jobs or marriage and force them to work as prostitutes (see Sections 5 and 6.c.). Press and NGO reports noted that some women were kidnaped and transported to China and other countries against their will, where they were sold into forced marriages. The Government took measures to address this problem.

There is reported trafficking in women to the Macau Special Administrative Region of China with the assistance of organizations in China that are ostensibly marriage service bureaus, international labor organizations, and travel agencies. After arrival, many women are forced into conditions similar to indentured servitude; some may be forced into prostitution.

Children also are trafficked domestically and overseas to work as prostitutes. Government agencies were engaged in efforts to combat this abuse. One NGO advocate estimated that, among trafficked girl children, the average age was from 15 through 17 years; many were trafficked to Cambodia and China.

Government agencies and mass organizations are engaged to combat this problem. Some traffickers have been convicted and imprisoned. The Vietnam Women's Union and Youth Union's programs, as well as state-owned media, publicized the problem. Women's union advocacy and rehabilitation efforts help women and girls who have been trafficked.

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