While Vietnam has experienced rapid economic growth in the past decades, issues with international labor rights (ILR) compliance have left workers vulnerable to discrimination and hindered further economic and social progress. The continued revisions to its Labor Code to increase protection for employees is reflective of Vietnam’s focus on its international outlook for economic growth, including participating in global free trade agreements and becoming a member of the International Labour Organization. To this end, Kenan Foundation Asia and the Center for Studies and Applied Sciences in Gender-Family-Women and Adolescents (CSAGA) partnered to develop the project, Strengthening the Awareness and Practice of International Labor Rights in Vietnam (SAP-ILR), to improve the understanding of international workers’ rights and how these rights can be applied to improve labor conditions in Vietnam.
With changes in policy and legislation come questions regarding implementation. How are these changes to be applied in the relevant enterprises, and what can be done to support enterprises as they make the necessary changes to improve their labor practices? To promote safe and ethical factory work environments, Kenan spent 2017 to 2020 working with factories in Bac Ninh industrial zones, located close to Hanoi, raising awareness of labor rights, implementing a sustainable mechanism to monitor the practice of ILR, and strengthening the practice of ILR through constructive dialogue between civil society organizations and workers, enterprises and government.
Initiating meaningful change often meets with obstacles. Trust is needed for an external organization like Kenan to build buy-in from enterprises to gain access to their workers and talk about their rights. In this, factory management must understand how a project like SAP-ILR benefits both the workers and the enterprise. SAP-ILR illustrates how better labor practices and open and constructive social dialogue improve the relationship between workers and enterprise management, leading to more engaged, productive, and efficient workers.
“Where there is mutual agreement, dialogues can work”
Creating an environment for constructive dialogue: building trust
To gain trust from the enterprises and explain the project’s aims and design, Kenan held meetings with factory management and the government before project implementation. One of the prevalent misconceptions was that conducting “real” dialogue or collective bargaining meetings would make workers more demanding and create more costs for the factories. It was challenging to get CEOs of enterprises to accept meetings with middle managers and workers. In instances when meetings are with workers, there is hesitation in disclosing information on worker compliance. Workers’ rights, for example, could not be spoken about directly. One of the ways Kenan rectified the situation was involving the head of Labor-Management of Bac Ninh industrial zones in organizing training on social dialogue and collective bargaining agreement development and invited representatives from high-performing factories to share success stories.
Another factor that built trust between Kenan and enterprises is continuous communication about how the project can help enterprises succeed. Phone calls and trips to Bac Ninh province were made to discuss with enterprise managers at different levels about the benefits of employee engagement and improvements in working conditions and companion commitments of the project. The project made progress in raising enterprise managers’ awareness about labor rights compliance. By the second quarter of 2018, seven enterprises indicated that they were very interested in the project and agreed to collaborate with Kenan. Ten enterprises also agreed to participate in the baseline project evaluation. However, cultivating an environment for communication alone is insufficient; building the knowledge necessary for effective communication is vital. This was achieved by raising awareness of ILR for key actors and using checklists to monitor ILR compliance.
Building knowledge for constructive dialogue: communication events
Before project implementation, there was a varying level of knowledge among workers about their labor rights. Communication events were one of the most effective ways of raising awareness of international labor rights for factory workers. They cover topics such as workplace dialogue, collective bargaining, collective bargaining agreements, wages, working hours and rest periods, occupational safety and health, separate provisions concerning female employees, and labor issues, including protecting the rights of vulnerable groups. To better understand workers’ daily activities after work and design appropriate communication activities, the project team met with workers near their accommodation. The information collected enabled Kenan to develop communication activities that met workers’ needs.
There were two kinds of communication events, online and offline, and some offline events were conducted in the factories, while some were conducted in the community. Notably, results from the pre-and post-event tests showed that 100% of the participants increased their understanding of ILR. An event participant commented: “Thanks to the project for providing ILR information. This helps to protect myself and other workers in my factory.” Overall, awareness of ILR was raised for 2,486 workers through 15 communication events inside factories. The communication events conducted in the factories raised awareness about ILR. They built trust between management-level staff and factory workers, thereby getting buy-in from both parties for the project activities.
This trust was crucial to implementing checklists to monitor ILR compliance in factories, which were developed with the support and advice of project experts and key actors. These checklists were used to inform social dialogue, as they helped identify the most urgent issues that need to be addressed and agreed upon. Participating workers were guided to complete the checklist during the events, and 25 labor rights issues were identified based on the checklists. This included separate provisions concerning female employees, discrimination, working hours and rest periods, contracts and insurance, wages and compensation, workplace dialogue, and collective bargaining agreements. This data was used to prioritize ILR issues in factories and select factories to receive project support to hold social dialogue and negotiation meetings.
Project results showed that integrating checklist completion into external communication events was effective, and using these checklists is a sustainable method to monitor ILR compliance in factories. In this way, the project provided the knowledge and tools for constructive social dialogue between civil society organizations, enterprise management, and workers, ensuring that ILR practice will continue to be strengthened far into the future.
“The communication events under the project that I have participated in are really necessary and useful for workers, especially workers working in factories in industrial zones. For this reason, we are more than willing to participate in the communication activities of the project. In addition, we also want companies, factories, authorities, and related agencies to pay more attention to the life and working conditions of workers like us.”
Life beyond the project: signed agreements and Labor Code 2019
Based on the observations made during the project implementation and the analysis of the project’s monitoring checklists, Kenan submitted the recommendations for Labor Code reforms to the Ministry of Labour – Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), the primary agency responsible for the revision. The recommendations addressed discrimination, workplace dialogue, collective bargaining, and employees with disabilities and were integrated into the Labor Code No. 45/2019/QH14. The new Labor Code was ratified by the XIV National Assembly on November 20, 2019, and will become effective on January 1, 2021.
It is a source of great encouragement for the workers, the stakeholders, and the project team to confirm that by bringing workers and managers together through a constructive approach based on understanding, improved relationships and working conditions can be achieved. Groups of factories have shown that, while there is insufficient understanding of social dialogue and collective bargaining agreements, there is also a desire to develop knowledge and capacity. With the proper training and support, factories can achieve working conditions that exceed what is required by law. For instance, one enterprise successfully signed a collective bargaining agreement in which four items related to working conditions are agreed at a standard higher than Vietnamese labor law. As one worker had wished for above, factories are now paying more attention to their workers’ lives and working conditions.