Behind the strikes in central Vietnam

By Phan Duong, Duc Hung   February 21, 2022 | 01:06 am PT
Pham Thi Tuoi rushed into the kitchen after parking her bike in front of the door at around 8 p.m. to grab some rice.

She was famished after not eating for eight hours.

When she saw her mother-in-law walk over, she said, "I was cold and hungry, my hands were shaking, and I thought I could not make it home."

The older woman, no stranger to this scene, said: "The hot water is already on. Take a shower and then eat."

The 28-year-old worker at Viet Glory Co. in Nghe An Province is often too hungry to work efficiently: the company prohibits eating during working hours even if it is before the start of overtime (5-7 p.m.).

Tuoi has worked at Viet Glory, based in Dien Chau District, since 2019, not long after the 100 percent foreign-owned company opened.

She was getting a salary of VND5 million ($217). "It was the same after three years," she said.

The failure to give raises was one of 11 reasons why nearly 5,000 workers went on strike from Feb. 7-14.

Authorities meet with leaders of Viet Glory in Nghe An February 8, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/ M Le

Authorities meet with leaders of Viet Glory in Nghe An February 8, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/ M Le

Besides the 11 main grievances the company's leadership has been informed about, other things that frustrate Tuoi and many of her colleagues include the requirement to be present 10 minutes before the start of the shift daily, attend meetings where they are not allowed to express their opinions and receiving a warning for a faulty fingerprint scanner.

"They were like small flames that sparked this strike," the female worker said.

She said the footwear company gives employees a day off every month and they must use it in the same month.

She said the attitudes of the foreign managers make "the workers’ resentment grow bigger and bigger.

"They curse us. If we do something wrong, we could have a shoe thrown in the face."

One time someone sneaked in some sticky rice while working overtime, and was scolded and dismissed as a warning to all, she said.

Other companies have a break of 5-10 minutes for workers to grab a quick bite.

"It's exhausting to work on the sewing machine all day. We eat at midday, and so everyone is starving and weak by the end of the afternoon shift. Many people have fainted due to hunger."

Her colleague said the company's remuneration packages are not comparable to those of other places, with unreasonable deductions, but there are work pressure and high sales targets even though wages remain unchanged.

So far this year there have been around 30 strikes across the country, fewer than that of the same period last year.

According to statistics from the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, the number of strikes has decreased steadily in recent years, falling from 329 in 2017 to 120 in 2019.

"This year's strikes have not been significant in scale, but there are numerous potential issues," Phan Van Anh, deputy president of confederation, said.

Workers disagree with the wage payment format and salary raises, which is the main reason for striking work and labor conflicts, he said.

Some also stem from the management's inappropriate attitude toward workers, rigid regulations, poor quality of meals, and others, he said.

Hong, 30, who works in the goods inspection department at Haivina Hong Linh in central Ha Tinh province, joined 500 other workers to strike work on February 15.

She get a total income of around VND4.5 million a month, but this has remained unchanged for nearly two years despite repeated demands by workers to the union.

On February 16, a day after the strike, the company agreed to hike wages for people who have worked for more than three years but only by a maximum of 5 percent.

She had said: "I have worked at several companies in the north in the past, and they increased workers' salaries twice a year. This company's salary system is far too mechanical."

Besides salary, the workers also have a slew of grievances that have been piling up for a long time.

Hong counts some 1,300 pairs of gloves in a day, which is deemed sufficient, yet her paycheck always has a deduction of tens of thousands of dong (VND23,000=$1) every month without any reason being given.

The shift is supposed start at 7:30 a.m., but the workers have to sign in by 7:25 a.m., and anyone who is late by even a minute has VND180,000 deducted from their monthly salary.

Hong called it unreasonable and said people would accept a cut in the allowance if they are late three times a month or something similar.

There are some things even she cannot stand, such as not being able to decide when to take her annual leave. A worker is entitled to 15 days of leave, but except for one or two of those days the rest is decided by their manager.

Last year, when the commune where her company is situated was locked down due to Covid-19, Hong was allowed to stay at home.

But when she and her coworkers returned to work, they were furious to find out the company had reduced those days from their annual leave.

Workers of Haivina Hong Linh in central Ha Tinh Province leave after about 30 minutes of strike. Photo by VnExpress/ Duc Hung

Workers of Haivina Hong Linh in central Ha Tinh Province leave after about 30 minutes of strike. Photo by VnExpress/ Duc Hung

Nguyen Duc Loc, director of social sciences research organization Sociallife, said wildcat strikes have decreased and rational dialogue has become common.

Workers are known to use interlocutors and invoke legal policies while striking to begin negotiations.

But Loc is worried the recent strike could cancel this achievement.

Anh said during the two years of the pandemic employees shared the sufferings of their businesses by accepting salary cuts, reducing working hours, rotating breaks, performing multiple tasks, working overtime, and not returning to their hometown to celebrate Tet (Lunar New Year) so that delivery schedules could be met.

With the situation improving now, businesses should use a portion of their revenues for their workers' welfare, he said.

Tuoi's company finally decided to raise wages by 6 percent from February 1 after six days of strikes and countless negotiations.

"After three years my salary was increased by VND220,000," Tuoi said, adding she is somewhat satisfied.

Her husband is a driver, and so the couple's combined income is reasonably high for the countryside.

Hong’s husband on the other hand is a freelance worker with an irregular income. Thus, with her monthly salary of around VND4 million, the mother of three always has to save up.

She said if her company pays her even a tiny bonus, she would try twice as hard. But it has no such plans.

* Names of some people have been changed.

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