WRC Briefing Paper on Labor Rights in Vietnam

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova and Ben Hensler
Date:May 31, 2013
Re:WRC Briefing Paper on Labor Rights in Vietnam

As you many of you are already aware, over the past several years the country of Vietnam has become an increasingly important location for the manufacturing of collegiate licensed apparel. In March 2013 Vietnam was second only to China in the number of factories (185) that have been disclosed to the WRC by licensees as suppliers of collegiate products. As a result, the labor rights environment in Vietnam’s export manufacturing sector is of significant interest to the WRC and to universities and colleges concerned about the working conditions under which their licensed apparel is produced.   

The labor rights situation in the country dictates this as well: in 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor added garments from Vietnam to its official list of products made with forced and child labor, making Vietnam one of only seven countries in the world whose apparel receives this designation. Unfortunately, Vietnamese government policies restricting the establishment of independent nongovernmental organizations, including those that could monitor factory conditions and assist workers, and preventing the establishment of independent trade unions, severely hamper independent monitoring of labor conditions in Vietnam’s export garment factories.   

For this reason, despite considerable effort, the WRC has found it difficult to identify the type of independent local civil society organizations whose grassroots outreach to garment workers is a key element of our investigative methodology, thus hindering our work in the country. However, given the difficult labor rights environment in Vietnam and the country’s increasing importance as a manufacturing location for collegiate apparel, we believe it is essential for universities and colleges to have a clear picture of the key labor issues in Vietnam’s export garment, in order to inform their engagement with licensees sourcing apparel from the country. 

The WRC has therefore prepared a briefing paper, linked here, on the labor rights environment in Vietnam, and, in particular, its export manufacturing sector, which includes the production of collegiate licensed apparel. This document discusses several issues of particular concern with respect to labor rights in Vietnam’s garment sector: 

  • Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining – This basic right is not respected under Vietnamese law. Workers who have attempted to form labor organizations outside of the official union structure dominated by the Communist Party have been prosecuted and jailed on criminal charges in retaliation for their efforts. At the factory level, the official union structure is dominated by factory managers who typically serve as the officers of plant-level unions, a fundamental conflict of interest. “Wildcat strikes” – job actions organized outside union structures – occur often, many times in protest of abusive treatment or other labor law violations by factory managers. Workers who lead such strikes can suffer blacklisting, physical violence and imprisonment as a result of employer and state retaliation.  
  • Forced Labor – As noted, the U.S. Department of Labor has added garments from Vietnam to its annual listing of products made with forced labor. Leading international human rights authorities have reported on Vietnam’s practice of detaining illegal drug users in state-run “rehabilitation’ centers that function as suppliers of forced labor to various industries – including garment subcontracting. International apparel brands previously have been linked to garments produced in these centers through suppliers with whom they subsequently severed business relations. These centers continue to engage in forced labor activities, however, including garment work. 
  • Child Labor – The U.S. Labor Department has included garments from Vietnam on its global list of products made with child labor. In addition to the occasional employment of under-age workers in large garment factories outside of legal restrictions, child labor, including the trafficking of children from rural communities to forced labor situations in urban areas, remains a significant problem in smaller workshops which sometimes act as subcontractors to larger garment factories.  
  • Gender Discrimination – Women workers in Vietnam face pervasive pregnancy-based discrimination ranging from termination of employment to denial of statutory maternity benefits. 
  • Health and Safety Hazards – Factory workers are often at risk of harm from hazards such as locked fire exits and failure to provide protective equipment. In the last two years there have been fatal factory fires in both export apparel and consumer electronics factories. 
  • Excessive Working Hours – Garment factory employees report being required to work far in excess of legal limits on working hours, at times without a single weekly rest day. Factories often attempt to conceal such practices by maintaining false records. 
  • Inadequate Wages – Despite significant recent increases in the minimum wage, manufacturing workers continue to receive wages that provide only a fraction of the cost of a minimally adequate standard of living. 
  • Precarious Work – Employment of workers via short-term contracts or third-party labor contractors, a practice that renders workers vulnerable to exploitive conditions and retaliation for raising grievances, is increasingly common in the export sector. In light of these practices, conditions in Vietnam’s export garment factories remain generally noncompliant with international labor standards and university codes of conduct. This report, however, is not intended to state conclusive findings about conditions at any specific factory making university products, but to provide universities and colleges with information concerning labor rights violations in Vietnam’s garment sector, and to encourage licensees to be proactive in taking appropriate measures to enforce code standards in the relevant areas. Please feel free to contact us with any questions regarding this subject and the findings of this report.