In early April, 21,000 Vietnamese workers at the Ching Luh factory, which makes Nike sneakers, walked off the job, demanding a 20 per cent pay rise and better food in the company cafeteria. After several days of discussions, the ruling party-controlled trade union brokered a deal for 10 per cent and a promise of better food. This failed to impress angry workers, who blocked the factory gates amid minor scuffles, prompting the Taiwanese managers to keep the factory closed for another few days. Four workers who passed out leaflets urging colleagues to reject the deal were interrogated and detained by the authorities, and 20 leaders of the ‘rejection’ movement were forced to resign, according to the Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers (CPVW), a group with offices in Poland and Australia.

Nike is the largest indirect employer of Vietnamese workers. Last December, the company said that there had been 10 strikes in its 35 supplier factories; since that time, 31,000 more have gone on strike in two other factories. Indeed, fully 85 per cent of strikes in Vietnam have taken place in factories supplying foreign corporations, according to Government figures. Yet these are supposed to be the ‘best’ workplaces; certified, inspected, monitored and otherwise ‘socially responsible’.

There are no independent labour rights organizations in Vietnam, but despite the possible repercussions, strikes and resistance have become increasingly common. In December, four leaders of the banned United Workers & Farmers’ Organization (UFWO) were convicted for posting to a ‘reactionary’ website, ‘abusing democracy’ and ‘spreading distorted information to undermine the state’. In the export processing zones around Ho Chi Minh City, strikes have gone up by over 400 per cent in the past three years, due mainly to inflationary price rises.

Industrial relations are proving to be a tricky issue for the Vietnamese Government and there seems to be little room for manœuvre. Foreign investors began to complain after the minimum wage was raised in 2006, even though it had stayed at US$42 per month for the previous 10 years. The strengthening of the Vietnamese dong against the greenback meant real-wage losses for most of that time, yet foreign employers still found the pay rise excessive and made threatening noises about curtailing future investment or moving out altogether.

The Government countered with draconian decrees which would hold workers liable for company losses incurred during an ‘illegal’ strike (although it’s hard to find anyone who remembers a legal strike). Local officials have been empowered to order workers back to work. Despite the minimum wage rises and the decrees, the strike wave continues unabated.

In response to the disruption in April, Trung Doan, the CPVW General Secretary, says: ‘When my people talked to Ching Luh workers and their relatives, they heard angry words about low wages. This is typical, not just of Nike workers but all workers we talk to.’

Jeff Ballinger