May 4, 2009

I. Introduction: The Crackdown on Labor Activists 

Under the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam, ever since its founding, the Vietnamese trade unions have always been loyal to the interests of the working class and nation; and organized and mobilized workers, office employees and other working people to pioneer in the struggle for the independence and freedom of the homeland and the lawful and legitimate interests of the working people. —The Vietnam General Confederation of Labor[1]
While walking down the main street of Phu Nhuan District, I was approached by two policemen who asked me to come to the police station with them. When I refused, they beat me. I had been beaten many times before by people on the street. The police had told me that they were just locals who hated people who struggled against the government, but I believe that they were secret agents. I was scared so I never told anyone about the beatings. But this was the first time I had been beaten by policemen in uniform. —Le Tri Tue, a Vietnamese labor activist, describing an incident in Ho Chi Minh City in March 2007, two months before he went missing after fleeing to Cambodia

When more than 9,000 workers walked off the job in 2005 at a Hong Kong-owned factory in Vietnam that manufactures toys for McDonald’s, it made international headlines. It was not an isolated incident, however. An unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes in 2006 prompted the Vietnamese government to increase the minimum wage at foreign-owned companies in 2006 and again in 2007, with another wage hike put into place on May 1, 2009. Despite this, labor unrest continues to escalate in Vietnam.[2]

In 2008, at least 650 strikes took place20 percent more than during 2007.[3] In the midst of the global recession, the number of strikes is likely even higher now. 

Though permitted under international law, virtually none of these strikes is considered to be legal by the Vietnamese government. Though the rights of workers are a founding principle of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the government has enacted laws that prohibit workers from forming or joining unions of their choosing. All unions must be approved by and affiliated with the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), which is controlled by the Communist Party.

The government largely attributes the escalation in strikes to violations of Vietnam’s Labor Code by foreign-owned companies, and notes that the Confederation and local People’s Committees often intervene in labor disputes on the side of the workers.[4] At the same time, however, the government continues to wage a repressive campaign to ensure that Vietnamese workers do not organize independent trade unions, using the Confederation and other official institutions to prevent workers from gaining real rights.

This report focuses on the Vietnamese government’s suppression of activists who have been prominent in trying to form independent labor unions and promote workers’ rights in Vietnam. Vietnam’s emerging independent trade union movement was effectively brought to a grinding halt in 2006-2007, with the arrests of proponents and supporters of two independent trade unions who publicly announced their formation at that time. Since 2006, at least eight independent labor activists have been convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Other labor activists have been harassed, intimidated, and forced to cease their activities or flee the country. By arresting the most prominent leaders, the government has attempted to wipe out the independent trade union movement. It continues to target and harass independent labor activists, who are seen as a particular threat to the Communist Party because of their ability to attract and organize large numbers of people.

2006: False opening

For a brief period in 2006, the government of Vietnam—prior to entering the World Trade Organization and normalizing trade relations with the United States—tolerated a budding civil society. Opposition political parties, independent trade unions, underground newspapers, and Vietnam’s first independent human rights organization publicly emerged, a rare situation in the one-party state dominated by the Communist Party of Vietnam. The most well-known effort was by activists who formed a pro-democracy group, Block 8406, whose membership swelled into the thousands through an online petition.[5]

The government’s tolerance of peaceful dissent, however, proved to be short-lived. In the weeks leading up to Vietnam’s hosting of a major international conference in Hanoi in November 2006, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, the Vietnamese government launched a fresh crackdown on civil society, harassing, threatening, and arresting democracy advocates, labor activists, human rights defenders, opposition party members, and cyber-dissidents. The government also placed a number of activists under house arrest to prevent them from speaking to the international press corps covering the APEC summit.  Dozens of activists—including eight independent trade union advocates—were sentenced to prison in 2006-2007 on dubious national security charges, joining more than 350 persons imprisoned for political or religious activity in Vietnam since 2001.[6] 

This report does not attempt to cover the wide range of people imprisoned in Vietnam for their political or religious beliefs, but focuses on one critical area of concern: public proponents of labor rights who have been arrested and imprisoned by the Vietnamese government since 2006. In many cases, these activists have also been prominent democracy activists and members of opposition political parties, which are banned in Vietnam. Less well known and beyond the scope of this report are the hundreds of workers throughout Vietnam who have been harassed, detained, dismissed from their jobs, or detained for going on strike or otherwise protesting for better wages and working conditions. The plight of these workers goes largely unnoticed, as their storiesand especially their names and places of detentionare seldom reported by the Vietnamese state media.

Formation of independent unions

The democratization progress in 2006 has focused on two hot spots: human rights and labor rights. As victims of exploitation and injustice, our brother laborers have refused to surrender. Instead, they choose to struggle for their rights and justice, not only for themselves but for the country as a whole. In their struggles, members of the younger generation are standing up as leaders of the democratic movement in Vietnam. The year 2006 will mark breakthroughs in the democratization progress...Activist Huynh Viet Lang in February 2006, before his arrest and imprisonment in August 2006[7]

In 2006, unprecedented numbers of workers began to join “wildcat” strikes (strikes without the approval of union officials) at foreign-owned factories around Ho Chi Minh City and in surrounding provinces in the south. The workers demanded wage increasesthe minimum wage for workers had not been raised for the previous six yearsand better working conditions. As the strikes quickly spread to Vietnam’s central and northern provinces, some workers called for broader labor rights such as the ability to form independent unions and the dissolution of the party-controlled labor confederation. More than 350,000 workers participated in 541 strikes during 2006, according to Vietnamese state media.[8]The strikes were deemed illegal, as workers are prohibited from organizing unions or conducting strikes not authorized by the official labor Confederation.

Despite such restrictions, in 2006 democracy and human rights activists inside Vietnam began to publicly advocate for workers’ rights. In February, representatives of striking workers in southern and central Vietnam sent an appeal to Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh outlining eight demands. They called for dissolution of all state-controlled labor unions and Communist Party-organized cells in factories and worksites and cessation of the practice of deducting mandatory contributions from workers’ wages to support the Confederation.[9] In March 2006, activists issued two public appeals in support of striking workers, calling on the Vietnamese government to release all workers arrested because of their participation in strikes and requesting assistance from the International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency, to organize independent labor unions.[10]

In October 2006, activists pressed further by announcing the formation of two independent trade unions. Their stated goals were to protect the rights of workers, including the right to form and join independent trade unions, engage in strikes, and collectively bargain with employers without being required to obtain government or party approval. They also planned to disseminate information about workers’ rights and exploitative and abusive labor conditions.

The formation of the first of the two independent unions, the United Worker-Farmers Organization of Vietnam, or UWFO (Hiep Hoi Doan Ket Cong Nong), was announced in September 2006 by Vietnamese-American activist Do Cong Thanh,[11] followed on October 30, 2006 by a public statement by four labor activists in Vietnam.[12]

On October 20, 2006, well-known dissident and former political prisoner Nguyen Khac Toan announced the formation of a second union, the Independent Worker’s Union of Vietnam, or IWUV (Cong Doan Doc Lap ),[13] along with other democracy activists, including Le Tri Tue and Tran Khai Thanh Thuy.

Both unions stressed the link between exploitation of workers and confiscation of farmers’ land in the countryside, noting that increasing landlessness is a factor forcing hundreds of thousands of farmers to urban areas and industrial zones in search of work. In a statement released on January 12, 2007, UWFO activist Tran Quoc Hien said:

Many farmers have lost everything after being forcibly deprived of their land, farms, and houses by corrupt government officials. Many farmers had left their villages for the metropolitan areas, where some have joined the class of labor workers in order to make their daily living, while others have petitioned the government for compensation for the land confiscated from them by corrupt officials.

Vietnamese human rights advocates living abroad have supported the work of trade unionists inside Vietnam. In 2006, members of the Vietnamese diaspora in Europe and North America created the Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers (CPVW). The group’s website provides Vietnamese-language information about workers’ rights and international human rights law and news stories about strikes and labor conditions throughout the country. It contains articles such as, “CPVW can help you to take your bad employer to court,” “The right to strike under current Vietnamese law,” “Sue the Boss?” and instructions for how to send images to CPVW and use proxy servers to scale government-imposed firewalls in Vietnam.[14] 

Democracy and labor rights activist Le Thi Cong Nhan, who was prohibited from attending a conference in Warsaw in 2006 on labor rights issues in Vietnam, at her trial in May 2007. © 2007 Reuters

Union activists arrested

The Vietnamese government responded to the surge in strikes and labor activism in 2006 with threats, legal sanctions, and arrests—as well as some reforms, such as wage increases for workers at state- and foreign-invested enterprises as well as government employees.

Fearful of political instability and upsetting foreign investors in advance of the APEC summit, during the latter part of 2006 the Vietnamese government took steps to shut down independent union activities in Vietnam, as well as contacts between Vietnamese activists and their supporters abroad. In August 2006 police in Ho Chi Minh City arrested Huynh Viet Lang, a member of the opposition People’s Democratic Party who had issued a lengthy critique of Vietnam’s violations of labor rights. In October 2006, democracy activist Le Thi Cong Nhan was denied a passport and barred from traveling to Warsaw, Poland to attend a conference on workers’ rights in Vietnam organized by CPVW, where she was to present a paper.

In November 2006 police arrested all of UWFO’s known members in Vietnam, including Doan Huy Chuong, Doan Van Dien, Tran Thi Le Hang, Nguyen Th Tuyet, Le Ba Triet, Nguyen Tuan, and Ly Van Sy. Police prevented other activists, including Le Thi Cong Nhan and IWUV leaders Nguyen Khac Toan and Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, from leaving their homes or receiving visitors. Police padlocked the back door to Nguyen Khac Toan’s house and guarded the front door, where they placed an English-language sign stating, “Security area. No foreigner allowed.”

Labor activist Doan Van Dien is currently serving a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence in Dong Nai Province on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms.” © 2009 Private

The arrests and detention of the labor activists were followed by trials in which at least eight were convicted and sentenced to prison for violating national security provisions of Vietnam’s penal code. These prosecutions violated Vietnam’s obligations under international human rights law to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

In December 2007, the Dong Nai Province Peoples’ Court sentenced UWFO leaders Doan Van Dien, Doan Huy Chuong, Tran Thi Le Hong, and Nguyen Thi Tuyet to prison sentences ranging from 18 months to four-and-a-half years under penal code article 258, “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state.”[15] They were accused of slandering the Vietnamese government by alleging that it violated workers’ rights and illegally confiscated farmers’ land through articles disseminated on “reactionary” websites and interviews with western news sources.[16]

On January 14, 2007, the authorities arrested UWFO activist Tran Quoc Hien, just two days after he issued an appeal on behalf of the jailed labor activists and publicly emerged as UWFO’s spokesperson. The jailing of other labor activists followed, with Tran Khai Thanh Thuy arrested in March 2007 and Le Thi Cong Nhan in April 2007.

 

Summary of recommendations

As a first step towards addressing inadequate workers’ rights protections in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch urges the Vietnamese government to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all persons detained for peaceful activities to promote workers’ rights.
  • Uphold its international obligations as a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and under international covenants to which Vietnam is a party to respect and promote freedom of association and the rights of workers to form independent labor unions, conduct strikes, and collectively bargain with employers.
  • Recognize independent labor unions under Vietnamese law.
  • Invite ILO officials to investigate and discuss protection and promotion of workers’ rights in Vietnam.

For more detailed recommendations, see Section IV, below.

[1] “Statutes of the Vietnamese Trade Unions,” Vietnam General Confederation of Labor website, http://www.gcongdoanvn.org.vn/english/listnews2.asp?c=226&c2=240&l=1 (accessed March 12, 2009).

[2] At least 2,600 labor strikes have taken place between 1995 and 2008 in Vietnam, according to state media. “Investment: Headaches for Vietnam Top FDI Investor-Media,” Vietnam News Brief Service, Toan Viet Limited Company, November 11, 2008. “Wave of Labor Strikes Surge in Vietnam,” Vietnam News Briefs, January 21, 2008.

[3] “Vietnam Labor News Summary for December 2008,” Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers, January 25, 2009, http://www.vitudoweb.com/read.asp?Fl=1/20090201141717.txt&lang=en (accessed March 12, 2009).

[4] People’s Committees, established at the provincial, district, and commune levels, are administrative units accountable to the central government and the National Assembly that serve as part of the state apparatus outlined in Vietnam’s 1992 Constitution. David W.H. Koh, Wards of Hanoi (Singapore: ISEAS Publications, 2006), p. 33.

[5] The group was named after the date of its founding, April 4, 2006. “Vietnam: Fledgling Democracy Movement Under Threat; Hundreds Join Groundbreaking Campaign Calling for Basic Rights,” Human Rights Watch press release, May 10, 2006. To read “Manifesto 2006 on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam” by democracy activists in Vietnam, see: http://www.hrw.org/legacy/pub/2006/manifesto_040606.pdf.

[6] “The United States and Vietnam: Examining the Bilateral Relationship,” Human Rights Watch testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, March 11, 2008, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/03/11/united-states-and-vietnam-examining-bilateral-relationship.

[7] Huynh Viet Lang, “Stand Up for Democracy in Vietnam,” February 14, 2006, http://www.ddcnd.org/main/index.php?Itemid=44&catid=16:news&id=199:workers-and-laborers-stand-up-for-democracy-in-vietnam&option=com_content&view=article (accessed April 19, 2009).

[8] “Investment: Headaches for Vietnam Top FDI Investor-Media,” Vietnam News Brief Service, Toan Viet Limited Company, November 11, 2008; “Wave of Labor Strikes Surge in Vietnam,” Vietnam News Briefs, January 21, 2008.

[9]Pho Van Pham, “Violations of Basic Labor Rights,” December 28, 2006, http://freedom4vietnam.org/eng/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=80&Itemid=43 (accessed April 15, 2009).

[10]In addition, on March 30, in advance of the Communist Party’s Tenth National Congress, Thich Quang Do, leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, issued a public letter calling on the Vietnamese government to respect workers’ rights, including the right to form independent trade unions. “Buddhist leader Thich Quang Do Calls for the Creation of aFree Trade Union to Protect Worker Rights in Vietnam,” press release by International Buddhist Information Bureau, March 30, 2006;“Statement on Vietnamese Workers’ Rights,” signed by 33 Vietnamese democracy activists in Vietnam and 63 Vietnamese activists abroad, March 24, 2006; “Vietnamese from All over the World Support Workers in Vietnam,” Vietnam Human Rights Network press release, March 24,2006, http://www.vietnamhumanrights.net/website/VNHRN_032406.htm (accessed March 16, 2009).

[11]On August 14, 2006, US citizen Do Cong Thanh, representative of the People’s Democracy Party (Dang Dan Chu Nhan Dan)—which like all opposition parties is banned in Vietnam—was arrested and detained for three weeks in Vietnam on charges of disseminating anti-government information. He was expelled from Vietnam on September 21, 2006. Three other PDP members arrested at the same time as Thanh¾including labor rights activist Huynh Nguyen Dao, profiled in section III below¾were sentenced to prison.

[12]The activists were identified as Nguyen Tan Hoang, Nguyen Thi Le Hong, Hoang Huy Chuong, and Nguyen Th Tuyet, though most observers now believe that Nguyen Tan Hoanh and Hoang Huy Chuong are the same person.

[13] The Independent Worker’s Union of Vietnam is also known as the Independent Labor Union of Vietnam (IWUV).

[14] See http://www.vitudoweb.com/readfolder.asp?Fldr=1&lang=en (accessed March 12, 2009).

[15] Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, “Political Stability vs Democratic Freedom: Economic Crisis and Political Repression in Vietnam,” Hearing on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Sub-commission on Human Rights, European Parliament, August 25, 2008.

[16] “Vietnam jails four labor activists: report,” Agence France-Presse, December 11, 2007.