Workers' tragedy in Vietnam: Strike at the Hue Phong shoe factory in Ho Chi Minh City

After 14 years of "reform", with the introduction of the so-called "market economy under state control in a socialist direction", an economic boom is indeed taking place in Vietnam. However, its economy is obviously not immune from the financial crisis of its neighbours. Very few strikes have been reported, and most of them have attracted very few workers. However the strike of over 4,000 workers at the Hue Phong company (a joint-venture producing shoes) on 12-13th September may represent an important turning point in the workers' struggle in Vietnam.

After 14 years of "reform", with the introduction of the New Economic Paradigm, the so-called "market economy under state control in a socialist direction", compared to the stagnation and hardship of the past, an economic boom is indeed taking place in Vietnam. However, its economy is obviously not immune from the financial crisis of its neighbours. The regime is looking hopelessly for foreign investment. They are speeding up the process of so-called "equitisation" of state-owned enterprises, [another word for 'privatisation']. This year they allowed the sale of stocks of publicly owned companies and the setting up of joint-venture companies. They also auctioned off weak state-owned enterprises.

As soon as the foreign capitalists came into Vietnam, they applied every measure possible to maximise the exploitation and ill-treatment of the workers. For some years now the bosses from Korea, Taiwan and many other countries have used brutal methods against the workers. The trade unions, from the national leadership right down to the local bodies have very often been too slow to act and have revealed their inability to protect their own workers. Very few strikes have been reported, and most of them attracted very few workers. However the strike of over 4,000 workers at the Hue Phong company (a joint-venture producing shoes) on 12-13th September may represent an important turning point in the workers' struggle in Vietnam.

The repression of workers has reached unbearable levels

For a long time, the Hue Phong company has infringed labour laws, imposing its own ruthless rules on the workers, clearly violating their interests. "The investigations on the part of the relevant state institutions reveal that: the company has 3,200 workers (mostly migrant workers), but they are only allowed to sign temporary labour contracts. With this scheme the company eludes the responsibility of having to pay social insurance contributions and the minimum wage. It employs 130 children between the ages of 14 and 16. The workers did not possess any labour contracts after they were taken on." (Lao Dong, 16.10.00.)

"At the workers' compound, there are 20 workers living in each 36 square metre room, and the ceiling is only 3.3 metres high. Each worker only has 1.8 square metres. And the water is always insufficient," continues Lao Dong.

"After the strike on 12-13th September, the managers of the company have promised to deal with 28 of the workers' grievances. But the company actually did very little and ignored most of the workers' demands. Instead of abolishing the wage punishment rule, it modified the rule in a new guise in order to continue applying wage punishment to workers with even more severe and sophisticated regulations. For example, many workers who forget to carry their worker card while using the toilet will have a labour-efficiency bonus subtracted from their wages ranging from 70,000VND to 100,000VND (US$1 is equal to about 14,000 VND). (Before the strike the company deducted directly from the workers' wages). More seriously, on 3rd October the company made an announcement, code 51.TB-HP-00, in which it declared that it had to fire 1,500 workers to reduce the scale of production. Shortly afterwards, before the ink had even dried on that announcement, on 4th October it launched a recruitment drive for more workers and by the end of that day it had already taken some on."

With indignation against the betrayal, lies and defiance of the bosses and the impotency of the trade unions who compromise with the bosses, on the morning of 16th October over 500 workers of the Hue Phong company flooded on to the roads and blocked the traffic on Pham Van Chieu Road for hours.

"During this strike, for the first time, workers carrying many banners, asked for the Hue Phong company to be brought before the judge, demanded that the trade union be reorganised, and that the company be forced to improve wages, etc. Only when the institutions, local authorities and the police intervened, did the workers return to work. However, there were still 12 workers who refused to go back to work and they marched to the people's committee of precinct 12 of Go Vap district to present their petition," reported Lao Dong. (17.10.00)

The tragedy began in the days immediately following these events. These 12 workers who had made a personal sacrifice, who had dared to struggle by themselves for the workers' interests and for justice, became the victims of the merciless and inhumane treatment of the Hue Phong company. And the question is where were the labour union leaders and what did they do to prevent the following tragedy?

After the strike on 16th October, the company managers refused to allow these 12 workers back to work and they were not even allowed to come back to their accommodation in the workers' compound. They had no place to sleep that night and at about midnight of 16th October these workers called the Lao Dong journalists and told them: "we wanted to come back to the compound, but the company guards seized our worker cards, slammed the gate, and forced us out".

"If we were allowed to take up accommodation outside the compound, when the company fired us we would at least have a place to live. But the rules say that we have to live inside the compound. The bosses know the 12 of us very well. Most of us are from the North, and came here without any family. If we are not allowed into the compound we will have nowhere to live. That long night, we wandered around the streets, without money and luggage, without having a bath... They mercilessly threw us onto the streets and forgot about us as wanderers," female worker Huynh Thu Yen said indignantly.

The trade union and government were too slow to act in relation to these events. Thus the tragedy was inevitable.

Let me summarise here the details of the tragedy that as reported in Lao Dong (19.10.00). Twelve workers exposed themselves under the sun and went on hunger strike asking to be given their jobs.

As we (Lao Dong journalists) reported in a series of reports previously, 12 workers, who dared to represent the workers, have been on strike and have exposed the ill-treatment meted out by the Hue Phong company managers (in Go Vap district, Ho Chi Minh City). Between 16th and 17th October, 2000, these 12 workers were forced to leave their accommodation, and were prevented from entering the factory to resume work. After two days of being without food, without shelter, without having a bath, etc., their plight pushed them into a blind alley. On the morning of 18th October, they came to the factory to ask for their jobs back, but the company refused. Thus for the first time in Ho Chi Minh City and the whole of the South, 12 workers lay down in the road in the front of the gate of the Hue Phong company, went on a hunger strike and exposed themselves under the sun, in order to protest against the severe ill-treatment of the labourers by the company managers. At 11.30am that day, when we (the journalists of Lao Dong) came to the factory gates we saw the following scene.

Hundreds of people crossing Pham Van Chieu Road, seeing the workers exposed under the sun, gathered to witness the strike. Many were not able to hold back their tears when they witnessed male worker Dang Van Khoai becoming the first to become exhausted and faint. Some female workers, seeing their friend exhausted, embraced each other and cried out but continued to expose themselves under the sun. By 1pm that day, seven of them had fainted from hunger and heat exposure. And yet, still no one from the authorities had turned up. The company guards kept the gate closed and reacted to the mob who wanted to smash the gate down. Bui Van Nho, who witnessed this tragedy, deeply aggrieved, gave the workers who had fainted 100,000VND and he said "this company has lost all its humanity, how could it be so indifferent to the plight of its workers?".

Although the company has two 12-seater cars, it did not offer to take the workers who had fainted to the hospital to save them. About 1.30pm the local police came to re-establish order and Nguyen thi Gai - a cadre of the Labour-Invalid-Social office in the district of Go Vap - called three taxis to take the workers to hospital. At 2pm, officers and representatives of the Go Vap local authorities had an irregular meeting with the company managers about the strike; but when we asked to attend this meeting, the company guards prevented us from getting in.

At Go Vap hospital, doctor Bui Doan Tien said "after several days without food or sleep, and with the exposure to the heat of the sun, their condition has worsened".

Is this the end of the tragedy?

Late on 19th October, the general manager of the company began to make concessions to these workers by giving them a small sum of money. On the night of 19th October these workers found their own accommodation, ending three nights of wandering.

Painfully and ironically, 20th October is the Vietnamese women's day, but we have seen that some of the victims of this tragedy are women. While other women in many parts of the country celebrate their day, they may not be aware of these brave women who fought consistently for the interests of the workers.

For decades, Vietnam had never experienced a strike like this one. It had only experienced very small disputes. As I am writing this article VTV1, the main government television channel, has not reported this strike. Perhaps this is because if millions of people have the chance to see this tragedy, the government fears waves of ferment that could lead to the destabilisation of society.

They have hidden many details of the ill-treatment of workers in joint-venture companies over many years, and long ago they mastered the art of dealing with all political dissidence, but these events may open up a new struggle of the workers against the age-old bureaucratism and corruption.