Vietnamese workers celebrate Tet with strikes demanding pay raises

Laborers took action at nearly 30 sites over five weeks, not always with success.
2022.02.18
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Vietnamese factory workers in various locations wage strikes demanding salary increases and other benefits following Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday, February 2022.22
Photos courtesy of Vietnemese state media

Thousands of workers staged nearly 30 strikes throughout Vietnam ahead of and over the Lunar New Year celebration, demanding higher wages and other benefits, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) said Wednesday.

The holiday known as Tet is the most important festival in Vietnamese culture. It fell on Feb. 1 this year. VGCL, Vietnam’s main trade union, said businesses and factories closed for nine days, from Jan. 29 to Feb. 6, to celebrate.

Workers in Vietnam often receive a holiday bonus and pay raises for the new year before Tet. But if they are not happy with the modest bonus and new salary, they post their grievances on social media or take to the streets waging strikes.

The 28 strikes took place in 12 provinces, including Thai Binh, Ninh Binh, Bac Ninh and Nghe An, from Jan. 1 to early February, the VGCL said.

Besides seeking higher pay, workers demanded more allowances for food and fuel and new benefits like seniority pay and support for workers who have contracted the COVID-19 virus.

Some workers returned to their jobs after employers met at least a few of their demands.

For example, employees at Viet Glory Co., Ltd., a Taiwanese-owned footwear manufacturer in central Vietnam’s Nghe An province, returned to work this week after the company agreed to give its 5,000-strong workforce a 6 percent salary increase and extra pay for long-term workers.

But in other cases, company managers only made relatively minor concessions while putting bigger demands like pay raises on hold. VGCL said that companies should clearly explain to employees why they are not able to meet specific demands.

A worker at an apparel factory in central Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province told RFA that most laborers were striking for higher pay. Employers have used the adverse economic impact from COVID to justify not increasing salary levels.

“Companies often increase their base salary at the beginning of a year,” said the woman, who works for South Korea-owned Haivina Hai Duong Co., Ltd. “However, I heard that due to the epidemic, no companies have given a pay rise to their workers, and they have only met some of workers’ demands, not all.”

A second Haivina worker, who also declined to give her name so as to speak freely, said the Viet Glory strike had inspired and encouraged employees in other places to stand up, though it was unlikely that the strikes were coordinated.

“The workers did it spontaneously,” she said. “They did not contact each other.”

Lingering discontent

Nearly all the companies told striking workers they did not increase pay because they were already paying wages higher than regional minimum wages stipulated by law.

Vietnam’s labor laws allow companies to make their own decisions regarding additional allowances. But some workers told RFA that the base salaries set by Vietnam’s labor laws are too low, particularly as the cost of food and other essentials have increased.

On average, most factory laborers earn about 6 million dong (U.S. $256) a month with little or no pay differential for overtime work, workers said.

“We went on strike in hopes of getting a pay raise as our current salary is too low,” said the second Haivina worker. “Even though we take night shifts, we only can earn 7 million dong a month.”

Vietnam sets four regional wage levels, with the highest minimum wage at 4.2 million dong a month and the lowest at about 3 million dong a month. The base wage for workers in Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces is 3.4 million dong a month.

Employees at factories in Nghe An province staged at least three strikes following the Tet holiday week.

More than 1,700 workers at a factory run by Em-Tech Vietnam Co., Ltd., in central Vietnam’s Nghe An province who went on strike on Tuesday resumed work the following day after the company agreed to pay each employee 50,000 dong (U.S. $2) for COVID-19 virus testing support. The company also pledged to improve meal allowances and virus preventive measures next month, in accordance with government regulations.

Not everyone was pleased about the outcome because the company did not agree to any wage increases.

“If they don’t give us a pay raise, they should tell us why,” said a factory worker. “They haven’t given any explanations so far.”

“Although the pay raise issue has not been resolved, we still have to get back to work; otherwise, we will be fired,” she added.

Also on Wednesday, about 700 workers from Nam Thuan Nghe An Joint Stock Company, an apparel and garment maker and exporter, returned to work after a one-day strike. Other employees remained off the job because they were not satisfied with the company’s response to their demands.

Workers asked managers to address 14 issues, including unequal pay increases, a small gasoline allowance and unreasonable salary reductions.

‘Labor union is useless’

Some trade union activists expressed frustration not only at their employer but with VGCL and its regional branches, which they do not think have fought hard enough for worker interests.

The first worker at Haivina said she has always paid her monthly labor union fee, even though the labor group has not been an effective ally.

“During the last strike, the provincial labor union came to negotiate with the company but to no avail,” she said. “Our labor union hasn’t resolved anything. I don’t know about other companies, but at this company the labor union is useless.”

Bui Thien Tri, chairman of the Vietnam Independent Union, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve workers’ rights, told RFA via email that the workers themselves remain their best advocates.

“Almost all the strikes in Vietnam so far have been spontaneous and not led by labor unions which are grassroots-level representatives of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor,” he said.

“This shows the very small role of government trade unions in representing workers’ rights at the grassroots level, as well as the irresponsibility of government trade union leaders in not fulfilling their responsibility while still being paid by the workers’ contributions,” Tri said.

Vietnam’s new labor law that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2021, permits the creation of worker organizations not affiliated with the VGCL. But the lack of additional government guidance has meant workers have yet to establish their own representative organizations.

District and provincial branches of the government labor union do not intervene in worker demands until strikes occur, at which stage they act together with local government officials and police to resolve the conflict and get workers back on the job as soon as possible, Tri said.

“They attribute the strikes to the grassroots-level labor unions being new and inexperienced, even non-existent in some companies, so workers have nowhere to turn,” he said.

Translated by Anna Vu for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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