Life in Vietnam factory: forced overtime and €25 a week

In globalised world, country has proved to be a strong ally of foreign capital

Time is measured in many ways in the multistory warehouse that houses Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd in Bac Ninh’s Tien Son Industrial Zone.

It is counted out in the clicks of a conveyor belt as units move from worker to worker every few seconds. It is totted up by the machines counting the number of pieces finished every minute, measuring levels of productivity. It is defined by payday (€25.50 a week), overtime (finished when targets are reached), and starting time (5.45am, 1.45pm or 9.45pm).

Nghe Thuong (18) had been on a work trial at the Japanese electronics factory for just over a month when we caught her among a wave of workers leaving the park one afternoon. The work is difficult, she tells us in a cafe in the nearby Kim Chung commune, and the company pays less than others in the area. Her production line is expected to assemble 700 units an hour.

But other workers, speaking to us on the side of shop floors, are more reserved in conversation. Securing press approval to visit factories is not easy in Vietnam. Early correspondences with the "press co-ordinator" assigned to me by the ministry of foreign affairs made it clear that visits to state-owned factories would not be permitted. Samsung and Nokia both cancelled pre-arranged tours of their Bac Ninh factories with a few days' notice. Other companies wanted to approve interview questions in advance. A senior manager at Flexcom's Bac Ninh factory read out pre-prepared answers to all of these, refusing to answer follow-up questions.


Cautious responses

In those factories where employees are allowed to speak to us, managers invariably stand or sit beside them, listening in on cautious responses. The three employees selected to speak to us at Hoya Disk’s Bac Ninh factory were all managers; composed women in matching uniforms ushered in to meet us in the boardroom where we sat beside the factory’s general manager.

At Canon’s Tien Son factory, three employees meet us with the company director’s assistant. My interpreter tells me they are not comfortable discussing rates of pay. Around us in the factory foyer, display panels show happy workers at staff recreation and family days.

It is women who make, assemble and check the clothes, cameras, phones, and electronic components that leave parks like Tien Son to be shipped or flown to cities all over the world. Female employees are estimated to make up 80-90 per cent of Vietnam’s factory workforce.

Even in highly feminised workplaces, however, there are gender-based hierarchies. Differences start to become clear when you look at the division of labour, says Nguyen Hong Ha, programme manager of Better Work Vietnam. “Women tend to be sewers and helpers, while men are usually in higher paid occupations working as cutters and mechanics. Men are also three times more likely than women to be supervisors.”

While factory workers are typically paid more than employees in the informal and public sectors, they are expected to work long hours to reach strict daily production targets. Several of the factory workers we spoke to described overtime as a choice, but in some cases employees are coerced into working extra hours.

Maternity benefits

Nearly 38 per cent are forced to work overtime on top of the standard eight-hour day, according to ActionAid Vietnam research. The

International Labour Organisation

(ILO) has estimated that nearly 60 per cent of factories fail to provide workers with their legally required four days off per month.

While private sector companies are required to pay maternity leave benefits, few factories provide on-site childcare facilities. Most female factory workers have restricted access to public childcare as a result of their migrant status and so most women have to leave their children with grandparents at home.

Frustration over the ineffectiveness of Vietnam’s official union structure has led to workers in the private sector increasingly resorting to unauthorised “wildcat strikes” organised by informal networks of workers. The Communist Party-led Vietnam General Confederation of Labour is the only legal trade union for workers and is widely regarded as having failed to take on the issues of poor pay and working conditions.

Most factory workers in Vietnam are members of the federation’s corporate affiliates, but these official company unions are typically dominated by factory managers who are likely not to represent the interests of workers.

“Our research has found that 80 per cent of workers don’t trust their company union,” says Duong Thi Viet Anh, managing director of the Center for Development and Integration, a Hanoi-based development initiative working with migrant female workers.

A Samsung office worker, who agrees to be interviewed about the company’s official union on condition of anonymity, tells us that each department in its Bac Ninh factory “selects one representative who collects all comments, feedbacks and possible complaints from the workers”.

Monthly salary

Union fees of 100,000 Vietnamese dong (€3.60) are taken out of their monthly salary of 3.4 million dong (€122.25), he says. Trade union representatives “hold regular meeting to solve possible problems” and “give workers presents and money on special occasions”.

However, the factory leaders who make up the company union’s board would “never do anything harmful to themselves such as encouraging strikes”.

Nearly three decades after its Doi Moi reforms, Vietnam has proved itself to be an ally of foreign capital. As of October 2013, there were 184 industrial parks, employing nearly two million workers, operating in the country, according to figures from Vietnam’s ministry of planning and development.

The buoyant business section of Viet Nam News, an English language newspaper published by the official state news agency, reflects this change of direction, bringing news every week of factory openings and soaring profits in the private sector.

In a sign of the times, the Vietnamese government pledged rent waivers, tax relief and compensation packages for several foreign companies affected by anti-China riots in May. Most of the factories in southern industrial parks hit by disturbances have since resumed production.

The general feeling among companies we spoke to is that they are here for the long run. When asked why they chose Vietnam, and why they will remain here, they all point to the same advantage: cheap labour. Vietnam is a country in transition and, for cost-conscious corporations, its advantages seem to outweigh recent troubles.


Second in a three-part series.


Journalists and bloggers in Vietnam continue to fight for freedom of expression

This article was supported with a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund Student Scheme