Various areas – from physical conditions such as lighting and ventilation systems to benefits for workers including social insurance and travel allowances – have shown improvements in only a short period of time with the help of labour inspectors.
“Things are better now and we employees feel happier when at work,” says Lam who admits that even before, the management already paid fair attention to working conditions.
The company’s director Nguyen Van Pham couldn’t agree more.
Until the first half of 2015, eight years after the company was established, he was still struggling on how to comply with all the labour related requirements for workplaces. When the inspectors visited the factory last July, his 175 employees were working with no ventilation system and blocked emergency exits. The company did not have a proper collective agreement in place nor pay enough social insurance for its employees. At least thirteen non-compliance issues were identified by labour inspectors.
But more than Pham could expect, his company was given advice and recommendations rather than sanctions from the inspectors.
The management and worker representatives of Tan Ha, together with other garment enterprises in the neighbourhood, were invited to a workshop which guided them how to solve their non-compliance issues in the workplace. The activity was part of the 2015 Labour Inspection Campaign, an initiative of the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs supported by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The campaign offered businesses opportunities to be guided and advised by labour inspectors on compliance areas which enterprises often have difficulties before official inspection visits.
“The inspectors’ recommendations helped us improve our development strategy. Following them cost almost nothing but benefited us more,” said Pham.
During the first-of-its-kind inspection campaign, more than 300 garment enterprises, mostly small and medium ones, in 12 provinces across Viet Nam directly benefited from similar advisory services.
Using tools developed by the ILO, the campaign helped both management boards and workers understand the benefits of compliance and showed them how best to resolve common challenges and align workplace practices with the law.
A hotline was also established to answer questions and concerns on labour issues from enterprises.
Through the campaign, the labour inspectors applied a new approach which emphasizes their two important roles – providing information for the public and advisory services for enterprises – and short checklists were used to shorten on-site checking time.
“People often see labour inspectors only as law enforcers who apply sanctions against violations in the workplace but the modern approach of labour inspection highlights their advisory roles and supports to enterprises in developing a self-compliance system based on information and instructions provided by inspectors,” says ILO Viet Nam Director Chang-Hee Lee.
In reality, this approach has been successfully used by one ILO flagship programme in the garment and footwear sector – Better Work – which works with various Vietnamese partners, including labour inspectors, to improve law compliance in nearly 400 factories with almost half a million workers.
“We encourage and enable a voluntary change from enterprises,” Chief Labour Inspector Nguyen Tien Tung says. “This approach ensures the sustainable impact of inspection’s interventions.”
According to Dr Lee, the issue of compliance in garment factories will become ever significant as the apparel industry is forecast to be a main beneficiary of Viet Nam’s deeper global integration through various free trade agreements, particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“Workers should be entitled to basic rights at work, including minimum wages, working hours and occupational safety and health,” he says. “And consumers in the developed countries will make sure that the clothes they wear were made by those who enjoy dignity and decent conditions in the workplace.”
With the lessons learnt from the labour inspectors and other nearby garment enterprises, Tan Ha improved significantly when the inspectors paid a random second visit in October 2015.
While his employee Lam enjoys the better working environment, Pham is now proud to speak out of his company's success story.
And the labour inspectors are busy planning for similar campaigns in other industries to ensure workplace compliance and create better overall industrial relations in Viet Nam with the close involvement of workers and employers.