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Vietnam likely to permit worker unions to appease EU critics

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Labor reform was one of the main conditions Brussels attached when negotiating a free trade agreement with Vietnam.

The National Assembly in Vietnam will debate and most likely ratify the UN International Labor Organization’s Convention 87, which mandates the free establishment of labor organizations, in October, according to sources who spoke with DW. 

Although Hanoi had vowed to ratify the convention by the end of 2023, European officials are confident it will do so by the end of this year in order to avoid potential sanctions from Western partners who are growing frustrated by Vietnam’s foot-dragging over labor reform.

There has been concerted pressure from the European Union and Canada on Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party to realize the promises it made toward labor reform when signing the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an 11-member trade pact, and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement, a deal that entered into force in 2020. 

Bernd Lange, chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, who visited Hanoi in January for cross-parliamentary talks, said the documents needed to ratify the UN convention will be sent to Vietnam’s National Assembly by October. Lange said he has been given assurances by his Vietnamese counterparts that they will honor their commitment to reform.

“This step is indicative of Vietnam’s commitment to enhancing labor rights, a move I believe is not only beneficial for the Vietnamese workforce but also pivotal in strengthening our bilateral trade relations,” Lange told DW.

Plans for cracking down on independent labor groups

But not everyone is so sanguine. Some sources reckon Vietnam will continue to delay post-ratification when it comes to implementing the convention’s requirements, while others have said some Western politicians may be, perhaps intentionally, misunderstanding exactly what Hanoi has promised.

“Ratification is only the beginning of implementation,” said Judith Kirton-Darling​​​​, general secretary of industriAll, a European trade union, and a former member of European Parliament who served as a shadow rapporteur for the EU-Vietnam free trade deal.

Hanoi ratified UN Convention 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining in 2019, but implementation “has been extremely slow and repeatedly delayed,” she added.

As a one-party communist state, the only trade unions that are legally permitted at the moment belong to the party-run Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, and so are not independent.

Labor reform was one of the main conditions Brussels attached when negotiating the free trade agreement with Vietnam. Both sides even created a forum in which independent Vietnamese experts were supposed to assess Hanoi’s progress on these reforms . But several of these experts have been arrested and imprisoned on what human rights groups have said are politically motivated charges.  

Even if the Communist Party permits some form of independent labor representation, it has recently adopted a “strategy” to further restrict such groups from “getting a foothold” in society, which was laid out in a directive agreed by the Communist Party’s Politburo last year, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

Directive 24, which was leaked to the media last month by a Bangkok-based human rights organization, appears to suggest the Vietnamese Communist Party is preparing to repress the independent labor organizations it has promised to permit as part of international trade deals. 

“The comprehensive and deep international integration and implementation of trade agreements has created new difficulties and challenges for national security,” the directive stated, according to an unofficial translation.

This, it added, has allowed “hostile and reactionary forces” to the communist government to “increase their sabotage and internal political transformation activities [by] forming ‘civil society’ alliances and networks, ‘independent trade unions,’ creating the premise for the formation of domestic political opposition groups.”

Vietnam distinguishes between trade unions, labor organizations

The directive also explicitly called on all Communist Party cells and local-level bodies to “prevent the establishment of labor organizations on the basis of ethnicity or religion.”

Robertson said this shows the Vietnamese government is “putting up window dressing while trying to avoid the core premise of trade union pluralism that would finally give workers their rights and an opportunity to represent themselves in seeking a better future.”

“The last thing in the world the Vietnamese government wants is an active, independent trade union movement intent on pressing grievances against foreign investors and the VCP elite,” he added, referring to the Communist Party.

Most media reports and commentaries contend Vietnam agreed to permit independent trade unions when signing international trade deals, including the free trade deal with the EU. However, Vietnam distinguishes between trade unions and labor organizations, explained Joe Buckley, a researcher specializing in labor and development in Southeast Asia.

Under Vietnamese laws, trade unions will still only be allowed to exist under the Communist Party-run Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, so aren’t independent. Instead, under the new Labor Code, which became law in January 2021, it has agreed to allow independent workers’ organizations, which are “more limited in what they can do compared to trade unions,” said Buckley.

“To most people, ‘workers’ organizations’ means trade unions, but Vietnam has created a separate legal category of ‘worker organizations,’ which are different,” he said. 

For instance, they will not be able to expand to represent all workers within an industry, which will considerably weaken their collective bargaining abilities. Moreover, they will be regulated differently, and more strictly, than trade unions under the Labor Code, according to analysts. 

“I cannot foresee independent workers’ organizations becoming a strong or serious force in Vietnamese politics and society, at least in the short term,” said Buckely.

A repressive state

Vietnam remains one of the most repressive states in Southeast Asia. It has imprisoned an increasing number of activists since 2016, when Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong consolidated his power.

Just last week, several prominent pro-democracy and human rights activists, including Nguyen Chi Tuyen and Nguyen Vu Binh, were arrested for “conducting propaganda against the state” in what Human Rights Watch has called a “new wave” of crackdowns. This came days after Hanoi announced it intends to run for another term on the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Nonetheless, sources who spoke with DW said ratification of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 87 will likely be enough to again forestall Western criticism of Vietnam for not abiding by its reform promises. 

Vietnam is one of the EU’s most important partners in the Indo-Pacific region, and bilateral trade increased from €43.3 billion ($47.3 billion) in 2019 to €64.3 billion in 2022. However, trade barely expanded last year and Vietnamese exports to the EU fell by 6.7% year-on-year.

Canada is currently evaluating Vietnam’s labor standards to ascertain their alignment with the CPTPP, the Pacific-rim trade pact.

“Hanoi had assured Ottawa of its commitment to ratify Convention 87 by January 2024, a deadline that has now elapsed,” said Anne Cox, senior business lecturer at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

“Failure to meet this deadline might provide Canada with grounds to bring Vietnam before the dispute resolution panel of the CPTPP, potentially resulting in sanctions and penalties against Vietnam,” she added.

Ratification of the Convention 87 will likely also appease some of Vietnam’s critics in Europe and make it easier for those European officials who are keen to push EU-Vietnam relations even further.

According to Lange, the head of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, ratification of the convention “represents a significant advance in ensuring fair and transparent labor practices, crucial for uplifting trade volumes and fostering a conducive environment for investment.”

By David Hutt – Deutsche Welle – March 13, 2024

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