Starting in 2021, Vietnam will allow the creation of new worker representative not affiliated with the official trade union. Joe Buckley examines what this change could mean for both Vietnam’s workers & the main actors currently involved in labour

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Vietnamese metal worker. Image from ILO Asia-Pacific. Creative Commons Licence.

January 2021 will see significant changes in Vietnamese labour politics, when a New Labour Code comes into effect. Perhaps the biggest change is Chapter 13; this allows, for the first time, “worker representative at the enterprise level” (tổ chức thay mặt người lao hễ tại doanh nghiệp, WROs), not affiliated with the state-led Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL). 

WROs are not unions; only VGCL-affiliated are unions, and they are legislated differently, by the Trade Union Law. WROs are allowed to engage in collective bargaining và strikes at the individual enterprise level, but there is nothing in the New Labour Code allowing them to size sectoral or regional federations beyond this level. Although Article 174 makes a vague reference to lớn members of WROs being able lớn decide about mergers và linkages of the, this is not elaborated upon. While the Trade Union Law is clear about how the VGCL gets its funding - union dues, a union tax on enterprises, state support, & profits from VGCL-owned enterprises - there is no such clear legislation for how WROs will be funded, beyond members’ dues. Chapter 13 also gives the government power to lớn register và dissolve WROs, và they must also be dissolved if the enterprise shuts down.

The VGCL retains the privilege of being the only legal union federation in the country, và the Labour Code says that if WROs want lớn become unions, they can affiliate to the VGCL & will then be legislated by the Trade Union Law. Nevertheless, allowing WROs represents a significant legal change. Let’s take a look at some of the key players who have a stake in the freedom of association reforms:


The state-led VGCL is part of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, the group of mass led by the Communist tiệc nhỏ of Vietnam, which also includes such as the Farmer’s Union, the Women’s Union, and the Youth Union. The VGCL’s functions, as stated in its charter, are fourfold: khổng lồ help increase productivity and development; lớn protect workers’ rights và interests; to lớn take part in economic & social management; và to propagate buổi tiệc nhỏ directions và mobilise workers. As with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, this is in the mode of Leninist dual-functioning unions, a doctrine that emerged from the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist các buổi party in 1921, in which the role of unions in socialist societies is to encourage productivity while also protecting workers from harsh treatment.

The VGCL is often dismissed as a tool of the Communist Party, useless when it comes khổng lồ protecting workers’ rights và interests. To some extent this is true, and there is no doubt that the VGCL is not genuinely representative of workers. There have, though, been experiments in collective bargaining, bottom-up, và providing better legal representation for labour disputes. The Trade Union Law is currently being revised khổng lồ make it more appropriate khổng lồ “the new situation” (tình hình mới). Considerations include the trade union structure, union financing, and the role of unions at different levels in managing conflicts.

There is also a progressive wing within the VGCL, which wants the to lớn become genuinely representative of workers, & has been calling for more autonomy and for the to lớn shift from a service-based model to an active, model. They see the freedom of association reforms as a welcome catalyst khổng lồ reform the VGCL. Due to the VGCL’s practice of democratic centralism, it is difficult to know how big và influential this wing of the is, but it is definitely present. Recently, for example, Dang Ngoc Tung, a former VGCL president, has been pushing to make funding for WROs fairer. Currently, enterprises have to pay two percent of their basic wage bill as a union tax. There is no mention of any of this going to WROs — at enterprises which will have them — in the Labour Law. Tung has been pushing the idea that this money should be split between unions and WROs, based on their membership numbers.

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Viet Labour and Viet Labour Movement

These are hardened, battle-scarred dissident activist The two groups, which split towards the over of 2016, are the descendants of a number of independent labour rights that popped up in the mid-2000s as Vietnam was preparing to join the World Trade As they themselves recognise, these are not unions; they are not founded and led by workers. Rather, they are groups of activists campaigning for labour rights & freedom of association. Much of their activity has consisted of giving advice khổng lồ workers about their rights and the Labour Law. Viet Labour and Viet Labour Movement are antagonistic towards the VGCL. A number of their members are in jail or exile, & their overt activity, at least, has significantly declined over the past couple of years. The reforms are not expected to open up much space, if any at all, lớn allow these to lớn operate freely, as the government sees them as “political” with concerns beyond bread và butter issues of wages và conditions at the enterprise level.

The Vietnamese Independent Union (VIU)

The VIU is the new kid on the block. Launching in June 2020 with a flashy website và social media presence, the group says that it wants lớn establish independent unions. It also says, however, that it wants a constructive relationship with the VGCL, & hopes they can work together to protect the rights and interests of workers and fulfil the labour obligations of miễn phí Trade Agreements. This approach is very different from Viet Labour and Viet Labour Movement, who entirely reject the VGCL. On the one hand, the VIU’s tactic seems lượt thích it could be pragmatic, sensible politics; whatever one thinks of the VGCL, they are not going away, & will have khổng lồ be engaged with somehow. On the other hand, Viet Labour thinks the VIU is not a genuine union. They released a statement claiming that VIU is actually connected lớn the Communist Party, disguising itself as independent. They also claim that lots of kém chất lượng independent union will appear given current reforms, và that workers need to be on guard. workers’ struggles

The one phenomenon that has had the greatest impact in improving workers’ pay and conditions over the last 15 to đôi mươi years, however, is not one particular but workers’ struggles. There have been hundreds of strikes every year, especially since the mid-2000s. While strikes are legal, launching one requires workers to lớn follow a complex set of bureaucratic procedures, including the condition that it is led by the VGCL. This has never happened. Every strike is technically an illegal, wildcat strike. in decentralised ways with few identifiable leaders and largely detached from any of the thus far mentioned, they are difficult for employers lớn predict & prepare for in advance. These struggles have led lớn significant wins, và not just at the enterprise-level. Strikes have, for example, forced the development of a system for annual minimum wage rises, và forced the VGCL và other parts of the government khổng lồ attempt lớn reform labour relations institutions. 

Indeed, the aim of building & reforming labour relations institutions has been lớn create “harmonious labour relations” (quan hệ lao hễ hài hoà); meaning, primarily, to lớn stop strikes. The current reforms can be read largely as an attempt to vị just that. And it may be working, as recorded strike numbers have fallen significantly over the last couple of years (they picked up in the first few months of 2020 due to lớn the Covid-19 crisis). 

The impact that WROs will have for workers is as yet unknown. There are a few possibilities. Workers could totally ignore them & continue employing types of wildcat militancy. Alternatively, WROs could become a way of co-opting & institutionalising worker grievances without leading lớn many real gains for labour. A third possibility is that WROs vị become effective ways for workers to lớn make demands on employers, or that they lead to further freedom of association reforms. Finally, the threat of workers forming and joining WROs may force the VGCL to lớn become a more genuinely representative union.

Joe Buckley holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, & runs the Vietnam Labour Update Newsletter.

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