Year of the Dragon: Time for social protection to take flight in Vietnam

March 15, 2024 | 03:16 pm PT
André Gama ILO manager
As the year of the Dragon approached, my grandfather's 91-year journey on this Earth came to an end, leaving me and my family to mourn and reminisce with sadness on a life of love and hard work.

As the bedrock of the family, and the breadwinner in a family with 4 children for decades, his departure leaves a hole too large to fill, or even completely to comprehend in the short run. In times like these, my family – as would any family around the world, from Portugal to Vietnam – came together to embrace and support one another.

Throughout this sad period however, there was something that was never on anyone’s mind: Money.

In such hard days, my family had the luxury of focusing on love. Focusing on being there for one another. What made that possible?

Well, social protection.

With a career of over four decades, and spending most of his life in a country with a comprehensive social protection system, my grandfather was entitled to a pension since the day he retired. My grandmother – who was a stay-at-home mother her whole life – will now be taken care of with her survivorship benefits. And there was even a funeral grant to help my family support the additional costs during such a hard time.

If I am being honest, I am not sure most of my family members thought about this at the time. At this point, social protection has become such a normal part of life in Portugal, that we take it almost for granted. Because we know most of those in need, will be supported and protected. My generation, and those coming after, have been raised in a culture of social protection. A culture where social protection is the rule, and not the exception.

So, as I look ahead, my wish is that in Vietnam, the Year of the Dragon is the year where social protection takes flight; the year that brings protection and comfort to all Vietnamese, especially in their hours of need; the year that makes Vietnam a country where a true culture of social protection – a culture where we all contribute together to protect one another – goes from being the exception to becoming the norm. So that when the children of today grow up, they too will only know of a Vietnam where social protection is there to protect us all.

Social protection in Vietnam is looking at a year of potential enormous progress and development.

On the heels of Party Resolution 42 on Social Policies promulgated in November 2023, social policies are poised to see renewed focus and development.

At the same time, the expected promulgation of the revised Social Insurance Law by the National Assembly in May will take important steps in continuing to cement the compulsory social insurance system as the key building block to provide sustainable protection to a large share of workers in Vietnam.

Equally important, the upcoming revision of the Employment Law will continue throughout 2024 to define the best ways to improve its unemployment insurance system. This will be vital to help those workers going through the ever more frequent labor market transitions have greater access to decent work, in particular during times where energy, demographic or technological macro transitions are set against a background of frequent global crisis such as pandemics and wars.

And, for those unable to participate in social insurance, Vietnam is also planning a revision of its Social Decree 20 on Social Assistance in 2024, in an effort to continue to provide more and better protection for those most in need in the society.

Illustrating all these efforts, Vietnam will continue to discuss the timeline to ratify ILO Convention 102 on Minimum Social Security Standards. This would make Vietnam the first ASEAN country to ratify the most important international treaty on social protection in the world.

And all these massive positive changes are planned upon a background of fast economic growth, as Vietnam continues to be projected to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world for the coming years.

Most importantly, they build on the great progress of Vietnamese social protection system over the past few decades. Looking at the available data, we see that there has been a significant increase in the number of people supported by social assistance over the last decade, from 2.2 million people in 2013 to 3.5 million people by 2023 (an increase of 60%). And simultaneously, social insurance coverage has grown at a rapid pace, from around 23% of the working labor force in 2015 to 39% in 2023.

Two women walk with a bicycle at Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square in downtown Hanoi, September 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Two women walk with a bicycle at Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square in downtown Hanoi, September 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

But, going forward, continuing to progress through such a successful path will not be without challenges.

The ongoing policy revisions must continue to be evaluated both against international labor standards, and also against international best practices, to ensure their design and implementation are the most suitable to reach their objectives.

But, at the same time, such alignment needs to be adjusted to Vietnam’s reality – one of fast economic growth, but one of a still middle income country nonetheless.

Throughout, efforts need to be strengthened to ensure more vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities or persons of ethnic minorities benefit from the different social protection programmes – as well as from Vietnam’s fast economic growth – and are not left behind.

To overcome these and other hurdles, it is of paramount importance that investment in social protection increases. This means not only more investment from state and province budgets, but also an increase in the number of workers and firms contributing and participating in compulsory social insurance. Because this is what social protection is all about. It is about societies as a whole contributing, pooling resources and funds together, to help those who need our support the most.

After three years in Vietnam, I cannot avoid but to be truly amazed by the constant and reinforced commitment of Vietnam to improve its social protection policies and broader dedication to social justice. And it is a privilege, not only to witness, but to – I hope – contribute to such a positive change.

At this point, readers might ask how many years would it take for Vietnam to catch up with other nations like, say Portugal, in terms of the development of its social protection system? But the truth is that Vietnam is following the same path as Portugal. Take unemployment insurance as an example. Unemployment insurance was first introduced in Portugal in 1984, 40 years ago. In Vietnam, unemployment insurance first came into effect in 2009, through the Social Insurance Law adopted in 2006 – less than 20 years ago.

So, the most important thing to understand is the parallel roads both countries have taken to develop social protection, even if starting at different points in time based on their historical context. Looking at that and taking into consideration Vietnam’s continued high level political commitment to the strengthening of its social protection system, I am confident that it will be only a matter of time, patience and investment before Vietnam’s social protection system gets closer and closer to international best practices.

And so, here I am sharing you my hope, and most of all my confidence, that Vietnam’s continued commitment to improve and expands its social protection policies will be accompanied by the necessary investments and budgets, to show the Vietnamese people in 2024 that Vietnam continues to have one of the most comprehensive and sustainable social protection systems in the region.

Let social protection become the dragon that flies above the country and protect all those in need from 2024 onwards.

Let the Year of the Dragon bring prosperity and good health for all.

*André Gama is the Social Protection Programme Manager of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Country Office for Vietnam.

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