Written by David Hutt
There was greater than one cause for the European Union to have fun ratification of its free commerce settlement with Vietnam final 12 months. Aside from boosting commerce hyperlinks with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) additionally dedicated Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party to important progress in labor rights.
Central to those reforms are the creation of employees consultant organizations (WROs), impartial teams by which workers can for the primary time petition their employers with out interference from the communist authorities.
Vietnam’s reformed Labor Code that allows WROs got here into impact on January 1, while the Southeast Asian nation has signed as much as various International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions, together with No. 98 on the “Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.”
Yet optimism is fading as Vietnamese authorities have delayed introducing key reforms, together with laws to find out how WROs may be created, whereas analysts fear that Hanoi’s obvious dedication to reform has waned because the commerce pact was ratified final August.
‘False image’ of progress
“The EVFTA became a ‘fill in the blank’ exercise, with a few ILO ratifications off in the distance and whatever mechanism Vietnam dreamed up,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, informed DW.
“The problem is the European Commission didn’t want to drive a hard bargain, and the EU Parliament failed at the end to make the bureaucrats do better,” he added.
Several EU statements nonetheless consult with EVFTA as serving to to create “trade unions” in Vietnam, however WROs are completely different in some ways. They are solely allowed to collectively cut price and arrange strikes on the particular person enterprise stage, that means they’re restricted to particular person firms.
Unlike commerce unions, they’re unable to type sectoral or regional federations to characterize the pursuits of employees from completely different firms.
This reduces their bargaining talents to create equal working circumstances throughout sectors of the economic system. Worse, it injects competitors between employees of various firms.
The workers of one agency might be able to strike for higher rights, that are denied to employees of an analogous enterprise, stated two Vietnamese labor activists, who requested to stay nameless for security issues.
For them, the creation of WROs might be a step backwards by way of labor rights, making a “false image” of progress. Because WROs must stay small, they are going to be simply harassed by the authorities and employer teams.
And the difficult system of how WROs are regulated by the federal government, which nonetheless hasn’t been promulgated, will imply the authorities can simply disbar the teams in the event that they develop too forceful, whereas key labor activists will probably be banned from collaborating in them from the outset.
‘The start of a process’
Despite communist repression, a number of impartial (and due to this fact unlawful) commerce unions have been created through the years, though virtually all have been swiftly shut down by the authorities and their leaders arrested and jailed.
According to estimates by the 88Project, which displays political prisoners in Vietnam, there are at present 259 activists in jail and one other 229 in danger.
Joe Buckley, a specialist in Southeast Asian labor rights, informed DW that “one of the potential positive impacts is that the reforms act as an impetus for the state-led union, the VGCL, to try and become more representative of workers.”
On the opposite hand, Buckley added, it may additionally stymie the motion of wildcat strikes – “the single most important factor in improving workers’ wages and conditions,” he stated – and make collective bargaining much less impartial than it was beforehand.
Wildcat strikes have usually been tolerated by the communist authorities as they restrict calls for for impartial commerce unions.
A research revealed in 2017 by BetterWork, a joint ILO and World Bank intuitive, estimated that a minimum of 20% of corporations in Vietnam’s sprawling attire manufacturing sector, that are normally foreign-owned, have seen wildcat strikes lately, making it one of the very best strike charges on this planet, the research asserted.
“I don’t think anybody would have said that the proposals that were on the table were going to create a trade union paradise,” stated Judith Kirton-Darling, a former Member of European Parliament (MEP) who served as a shadow rapporteur for the commerce deal.
“MEPs weren’t naïve; they knew who they were dealing with, that it was a one-party state,” she informed DW. “In the months before, and at the time of the ratification, it was a judgement call by MEPs whether the commitments made by the Vietnamese government, which were more substantive than the EU had had from other partner governments, were enough.”
She describes it as a glass half-full or half-empty determination. “There were some MEPs who would have voted for the EVFTA without any commitments at all.” However, Kirton-Darling stresses the Vietnamese authorities’s roadmap laid out to the European politicians was substantial and that many noticed it as the beginning of a course of, not the tip.
An excellent deal for Hanoi and Brussels
For Hanoi, ratification of a free-trade settlement with the EU was of main political significance, a means of diversifying its commerce hyperlinks away from China, its largest buying and selling companion but in addition a key risk as each nations conflict over disputed territory within the South China Sea.
The worth of Vietnamese exports to the EU rose from €8.3 billion ($10.07 billion) in 2010 to €34.4 billion in 2019.
For the EU, the commerce pact was a method of build up its affect in Southeast Asia, after Brussels and Singapore had agreed a free commerce deal in 2019. Last December the EU was lastly named a “strategic partner” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc.
But EVFTA negotiations have been marred by controversies inside Brussels. Jan Zahradil, MEP and vice chairman of the European Parliament’s worldwide commerce committee, was compelled to resign as rapporteur for the EVFTA in December 2019 after he was revealed to be a member of a Vietnam-European friendship group with hyperlinks to the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Dozens of Vietnamese civil society teams wrote to the European Parliament earlier than its closing vote on the commerce pact in February 2020, calling on it to delay proceedings till Hanoi handed various key reforms, relatively than merely pledged to take action. The arrest of Pham Chi Dung, a famed impartial journalist, simply months forward of the vote additionally muddied the waters over how dedicated Hanoi was to progressive change.
Kirton-Darling says that she felt Vietnam’s acceptance of progress in labor rights was a means of avoiding the larger subject of human rights, whereas the European Commission “didn’t engage concretely to say how they will be following up this roadmap to make sure [Vietnam’s] commitments were followed in the timeframe they were laid out.”
Indeed, the reformed Labor Code that permits WROs to function got here into impact on January 1, but laws to find out how WROs can register and are regulated hasn’t but been handed, though it was alleged to be applied by the tip of 2020. “So, in practice WROs cannot operate,” stated Buckley.
A misplaced alternative?
Robertson of Human Rights Watch believes that Vietnam will now “run rings around the EU on these labor issues, undermining any sort of meaningful change that leads to real independent worker empowerment.”
“What’s so aggravating and sad is the lost opportunity here is substantial and Vietnamese workers will pay the price for this failure,” he added.
According to EU Commission sources, “the Commission is closely monitoring progress under each commitment that Vietnam has taken on labor rights, and the role assigned by the Free Trade Agreement on civil society.”
They added that the EU’s government can also be carefully observing the adoption of the mandatory implementing decrees that can enable WROs to function.
A big a part of this activity will fall on Kirton-Darling, who was lately named chair of the EU’s Domestic Advisory Group on the EVFTA, which is able to meet for the primary time on March 8. “We will be scrutinizing delays in the timetable, how the change in the labor law actually plays out on the ground,” she stated.
“We were never expecting independent trade unions to mushroom,” she added, “but we will be watching very carefully how Vietnamese authorities deal with independent worker bodies and the climate around application” of different ILO conventions.