Against the backdrop of the heightening competition between global brands producing in Asia, the changing power balance in global supply chains has enabled multinational corporations to impose low production prices on their suppliers leading to low wages, harsh working conditions and insufficient safety standards.
This intensifying pressure on supply companies can especially be seen in the ready-made garment, footwear and consumer electronics industries where workers are exploited without the right to voice concerns or to negotiate for better labour rights.
Do Quynh Chi, director and chief researcher of the Research Center for Employment and Relations based in Hanoi has been working with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on a recently published study on trade regimes and labour standards in the garments, footwear and electronics supply chains in Vietnam.* FES Connect spoke to Ms. Chi on the current labour situation in Vietnam and into her personal motivation to start working as researcher on labour issues.
Connect: You head the Research Center for Employment and Relations and are an expert on labour issues, especially on global supply chains in Vietnam. Can you tell us more about the Center, your work and about the current situation in Vietnam with labour rights?
Chi: Our Center was established in 2007 and we conduct research on issues of labour relations, trade unions and migrant workers. In our work, we also provide legal counselling and training for company staff, for managers and workers equally. At the same time, we also provide long-term solutions to companies that encounter wildcat strikes.
Vietnam’s economy has experienced over 5.000 wildcat strikes since 1995;70 percent of them happened in the foreign-owned companies supplying to global brands. None of the strikes follow the legal procedures, so it shows the gap between the legislation and practice. And it also shows the weaknesses of the current trade union system.
This is the reason why, throughout the last year and this year, and within the framework of the CLS+ project we have predominantly been focusing on global value chains in our research, especially on the American and European value chains in footwear, ready-made garment, food and seafood processing and electronics where these strikes occur. Since Vietnam is deeply integrated into the global economy and is very export-oriented, the export-sector plays a crucial role for our GDP-growth.
Can you tell us a bit about your motivation behind your research? What took you down this way?
Chi: Well, I started dealing with labour issues when I was working for the International Relations Department of the Ministry of Labour where I worked on labour projects. At that time, I never thought of becoming a labour activist or labour researcher at all.
It was only three years after I had started working in the Ministry that, for the first time ever, I went into footwear and garment factories together with ILO experts in Ho Chi Minh city and Binh Duong [location of a big industrial park]. That was the first time for me to really see the workers who are behind the economic “miracle” of Vietnam.
What struck me the most, was the image of a female worker. I think she was only around 20 years old. She had to stand for ten hours a day, doing one simple action. Cutting a thread. Just continuously cutting a thread, with a laser light! I thought, this must be terrible and in what state of despair they must have been to accept such a job. During the visit, I was accompanying ILO experts, and after it, I thought this was something I really needed to know more about.
So, what did you do then?
Chi: I took a secondment from the Ministry to have the time to do research.
Living in Binh Duong for one month, I walked with workers to the factories in the mornings, talking and having breakfast together with them in the street. In the evenings, I had to wait until 9pm for the workers to return from the factories because they always do overtime.
One evening, I was interviewing this female garment worker who had a very young son, only nine-month-old. I was carrying him while she was cooking dinner. We were sitting in the room which was about 10m2, including the kitchen and together with the open toilet. She lived there with her husband, her husband’s brother and her little son.
That evening, it happened to be about 42 degrees [Celsius]; it was always very hot in Binh Duong throughout the whole year. We were sitting in that little room with no window and while we were talking, I suddenly lost consciousness. Eventually, I woke up on the pavement outside her house. She had pulled me by the legs and dragged me from her little apartment out onto the pavement, stating that I obviously was not used to their living conditions. I still remember, walking home after that and the whole night I thought about the terrible conditions. This totally exceeded my imagination!
This motivated me to get involved even more and thereupon I made the decision to apply for a PhD at the University of Sydney. At that time, when I was in Sydney, my son was only 18 months old.
What worries me the most, is that there are so many women like her, so many! They must choose between losing their job or leaving their very little babies in their hometowns with the grandparents, and be separated from them for one or two years, depending on whether they can afford to visit home.
What are some of your advices? How do we avoid tragic life stories of this kind?
Chi: I mean, this is such a huge problem, not only for Vietnam, but for other developing countries too. If you look at it as a big picture, then you quickly feel discouraged because it seems too big, too complicated.
My view is that maybe it really is too big and it takes a lot more to deal with it. But as individuals, organisations and NGOs like us, we do think that we can manage it. It might be beneficial for just one or two people, but for us that’s enough for a day.
So, what we do right now, is to deal with groups of workers and to look at migrants’ issues for example. We have what we call the “M-Net,” a network of all NGOs working on migrant issues. We try to work together, do lobbying for better legislation and do better counselling for the workers. I also do a lot of training for the companies to make them aware of labour issues. Here, you can see the impact so well, because when one company changes its strategy, this can immediately benefit hundreds or even thousands of workers which is in fact very heartening.
Another aspect is research which is very important as they raise awareness of so many people, and they in turn can raise awareness of so many other people.
We just do what we can, in the most meaningful way. We go step by step. Whatever we can, we try. And I think, that’s what we all have to do.
See here and free for download, Do Quynh Chi, The missing link in the chain? Trade Regimes and Labour Standards in the Garments, Footwear and Electronics Supply Chains in Vietnam (Hanoi: FES Vietnam, 2017).
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