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Viet Nam: Serving markets and workers

Textiles are Viet Nam’s second largest export and provide about two million jobs for local workers. The sector has usually been associated with high productivity and competitiveness, but also with poor working conditions. Is it possible to reconcile the two?

Feature | 20 July 2012
HO CHI MINH CITY (ILO News) – At a factory on the northern outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City hundreds of workers are busy assembling the latest clothing order from an international buyer.

Above the din of the sewing machines, two of them – both women – stop to chat about their jobs with some visitors. “We’re all migrant workers here, so we treat each other like sisters,” says a smiling Dao Thi Sen. “I have many friends here.”

Originally from the bamboo-producing province of Thanh Hoa near the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, Sen made the 1,000 kilometre journey south to Ho Chi Minh City seven years ago.

Her salary from this garment factory, which participates in the ILO/IFC Better Work Viet Nam programme, helps support her family, including an 18-year old son she hopes will attend university.

“I was a freelance seamstress before,” says Sen. “But the work wasn’t very stable. This is better.” A colleague nods in agreement. “Factory work provides a stable job and the working environment is okay,” says Ms Le Thi Hanh, also a seven-year veteran of this factory.

The two women are among the 2,000 people working at this factory and produce designer apparel for well-known multinational brand names.

Each of them earns, on average, the equivalent of US$ 120 per month, plus fuel subsidies for their motorbikes and an attendance bonus. Healthcare is provided and the factory has an on-site doctor, nurse and pharmacist. Textiles are Vietnam’s second largest export, with revenues for 2011 estimated at US$ 13 billion.

Promoting decent work for 2 million Vietnamese  

While the United States and the European Union are the two largest markets, apparel from Viet Nam also makes its way to Australia and Canada. At home, the industry supports the livelihoods of two million Vietnamese.
Facts about "Better work" in Viet Nam
  • Over 165 factories are participating at present, covering approximately 20 per cent of exporting factories in the country. By 2014, participation is expected to grow to 375 factories.
  • Almost 250,000 workers are now covered by Better Work Vietnam, 80 per cent of whom are women.
  • In 2011, 117 factories were assessed and 123 received advisory services
  • 85 per cent of participating factories developed improvement plans
  • Over 45 international buyers and retailers are currently participating in Better Work Vietnam. They are sourcing apparel for some of the world’s best recognized brand names including Columbia, Gap, H&M, L.L. Bean, Nike, and Wal-Mart
  • Better Work Viet Nam is currently funded by the Australian Government – ILO Partnership Agreement (2010-2015) and the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, Switzerland. Additional support is provided by the US Department of Labor.

Concerns of unfair workplace practices in garment factories around the world, however, have led importers and their customers in destination countries to increasingly demand that apparel be produced in conditions free from worker exploitation or abuse. That’s resulted in most big brand names insisting on greater scrutiny along their supply chains. Nobland Viet Nam, Sen’s and Le’s factory, is among 165 currently participating in the Better Work Viet Nam programme, part of Better Work’s larger global partnership of the ILO and the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

Growing out of the ILO Better Factories Cambodia concept, Better Work Viet Nam was launched in 2009. It brings together policy makers, employers, workers and international buyers with a common goal of improving working conditions in Vietnamese factories while promoting their productivity and competitiveness.

In a meeting room high above the factory floor, Mr Jong Gon Lee, Nobland Viet Nam’s General Manager of Operations, explains his reasons for participating in Better Work Vietnam.

“We get orders from our international buyers who have their own global companies to supply. They are expected to ensure that the factories are meeting various requirements including labour standards,” says Mr Lee. “Either each buyer has to come and do an audit of conditions, or they can rely on Viet Nam’s Better Work programme to come in and do it for them. That means one audit instead of many. It saves us time.”

At the factory level, committees discuss and resolve issues that arise. It is through this process and continuous dialogue between workers and management that progress can be monitored and documented. In addition to assessments of factory conditions and improvements, and aggregate public reporting of participating enterprises, Better Work Viet Nam offers training to workers and managers on a variety of workplace issues, with a particular focus on those affecting the garment industry.

Article by Allan Dow, Official at the Unit for Partnerships in the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.