Speech by Dan Cunniah,Director of ACTRAV at the opening of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour

ILO-ACTRAV Conference on Strengthening Union Representation and Collective Bargaining (Hanoi Vietnam 17-18 May 2011)

Statement | Hanoi | 18 May 2011

- Mr Mai Duc Chinh, Vice President Vietnam General Confederation of Labour,

- Mr Pham Minh Huan, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs,

- Ms Sachiko Yamamoto, Director, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific,

- Ms Rie Vejs-Kjeldgaard, ILO Country Office in Vietnam,

- Mr Hoang Van Dung, Vice President, Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry,

- ILO Colleagues,

- Brothers and Sisters from the VGCL,

- Invited Guests,

On behalf of Mr. Juan Somavia, Director General of the ILO, I convey to you warm greetings from the International Labour Office.

Let me wish all of you good luck, happiness and prosperity.

I would like to thank the VGCL for organising jointly with the ILO, this very timely conference.

I say it is timely because Vietnam is at a crossroads in its endeavor to balance economic growth with social progress. It has become one of the good economic performers in the region and in the ASEAN community. It is integrated well into the international community.

In 1986 with the adoption of your policy of Doi Moi you began your economic reform and opened up your shores for foreign investments. This was aimed towards creating a “socialist oriented market economy”. These efforts had also resulted in Vietnam joining the World Trade Organisation in 2006.

You are a global player now and it is time for the labour relations culture in your country to take that next leap forward in order to keep up with the pace of economic development.

There are also a number of other related developments which point towards the need for the development of industrial relations in Vietnam on a platform of fairness, equality and the respect for worker rights.

You are currently reviewing your labour laws. I recall Brother Mai Duc representing the VGCL speaking at the International Labour Conference in June last year where he announced that and I quote, “The VGCL is now working on the draft revised Trade Union Act that will be submitted to the National Assembly of Viet Nam for approval in 2011, and (we) are working with other constituents to prepare a draft revised Labour Code aimed at upholding the rights of workers and trade unions in the context of a transitional economy and international economic integration.”

In my view the conference is also timely because the VGCL is in the process of strengthening its structure at national, provincial and workplace levels. It is also reviewing its activities in order to better protect the rights and interests of Vietnamese workers and their families. Again, let me quote Brother Duc in this regard who said that VGCL’s top priority was organizing and membership development especially in the non -state sector with a view to recruiting 1.5 million new members and conducting collective bargaining in at least 70% (percent) of unionized enterprises by 2013. This was also echoed by His Excellency the Vice Minister Mr. Pham Minh at the same International Labour Conference last year. He said that, “The challenge before us now is to sustain an employment-oriented recovery and firmly uphold fundamental workers rights.”

We believe that the respect for worker’s rights, freedom to bargain collectively and the right to organise unions should go hand in hand with economic growth. These are to be based on international norms including the ILO conventions and recommendations.

Recently, the Asia and the Pacific region have seen much progress made in terms of economic growth. Two of the biggest emerging economies of China and India are from this region. Countries from this region are part of the G20. They are players at international level which influence and guide international policies on economic development, social development and environmental protection issues amongst other matters.

One of the first and significant world discussions on balancing economic growth and social development was the 1995 World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen. The outcome of the summit, the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development clearly reinforced the linkage between international labour standards and social and economic development. The countries attending the summit adopted a Declaration with a number of specific commitments.

The Declaration on Commitment three said, “We commit ourselves to promoting the goal of full employment as a basic priority of our economic and social policies, and to enabling all men and women to attain secure and sustainable livelihoods through freely chosen productive employment and work. To this end the countries attending the conference agreed to, “Pursue the goal of ensuring quality jobs, and safeguard the basic rights and interests of workers and to this end, freely promote respect for relevant International Labour Organisation conventions, including those on the prohibition of forced labour and child labour, the freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the principle of non-discrimination.”

However currently for us a big source of concern is that major economically important and highly populated member States such as Canada, Korea, the United States, India, Vietnam, China and others have still not ratified the core conventions of the ILO on freedom of association and collective bargaining and on the elimination of child labour.

Almost 61 years ago, workers and their trade unions throughout the world were at the center of attention. For the first time, in the ILO, the fundamental right to organize and bargain collectively was made universal through the adoption of Convention 98. Convention 98, together with Convention 87, which was adopted a year before, guaranteed workers and their trade union organizations the possibility of associating freely and taking collective action to defend economic and social interests but also the fundamental freedom to exercise trade union rights. As we all know now, together with trade union action, the implementation of international labour conventions has paved the way for the exercise of rights to bring about better working conditions in line with human dignity and security.

But even 61 years after the two Conventions were adopted, difficulties and challenges remain. Of all the fundamental conventions, they are the ones that have been the least ratified. Moreover the Asia and the Pacific region has the lowest rate of the ratification of Convention numbers 87 and 98.

Apart from the slow ratification, the actual implementation of these two (2) core conventions is far from being satisfactory. For instance, of the 160 countries that have ratified Convention 98, the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations have made observations to at least 104 or nearly two thirds of the ILO Member States. But of course, there are factors that explain these difficulties which also include the profound transformation of the world of work that we have been witnessing for the past 20 years.

We see that some countries with highly-coordinated collective bargaining tend to be associated with lower and less persistent unemployment, lower earnings inequality, and fewer and shorter strikes than uncoordinated ones.

At the same time, there has been evidence based on numerous researches, the most prominent of which was done by the World Bank in 2004 which confirms that there is yet no systematic evidence that respect of rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining harm economic growth and performance. In fact, at micro level it can even direct the unions' efforts to the ultimate lasting source of their members’ welfare: the firm they work for, ultimately, improving workers' standard of living required growth in productivity. Unions can help raise productivity in the workplace by participating with management in the search for better ways of organizing production.

With the rapid globalization process that have caused and engendered fiercer economic and commercial competition, along with the drive to reduce the role of the State and make way for the deregulation of the labour market and restructuring of the public sector, doubts were raised on the value and usefulness of labour standards but have seen that countries that have high collective bargaining coverage, despite episodes of decline, are those which have been resilient or have been least affected by the crisis.

This is why I believe that there are good reasons for ratification of the core Conventions. Vietnam has ratified five of the eight core conventions of the ILO. It makes economic sense to develop your labour laws and practices in line with international standards. I hope that through the call of VGCL the government will consider the ratification of the remaining ILO core labour conventions and that its laws and practices will be based on these international norms.

For one, the ratification of the ILO Core Conventions will give the Vietnamese government an opportunity to stand tall in the eyes of the world. It is a member of the WTO, it plays a pivotal role within the ASEAN community and it is a global player. It could lead the way to a rights based approach to economic development in the region.

Collective bargaining will assist economic growth and sustainable employment creation.

I expect this Conference to debate some of these issues, look for answers and show a way forward for the VGCL on those areas.

Moreover I hope the conference looks at ways and means of integrating these into VGCL campaigns and action. ACTRAV will be ready to hear and consider the proposals which will come out from this conference.

I wish to thank the ILO Office in Vietnam and the Decent Work Team in Bangkok for assisting the VGCL to put together this conference.

I wish you fruitful deliberations and a successful conference.