Trade union

Fair competition can protect workers in globalized world

Director of ILO’s Bureau for Workers’ Activities, Maria Helena André, shares insights about her first visit to Viet Nam in March 2017. During her working trip, she had the opportunity to meet leaders of the Viet Nam General Confederation of Labour as well as the Commission of External Affairs and Commission of People’s Mobilization of the Party Central Committee.

News | 29 March 2017

Why did you choose Viet Nam to visit at this particular moment?

The world’s geo-political situation has changed a lot with so much uncertainty that I felt the importance to witness the situation of Viet Nam today.

Obviously the country was ready to make moves in terms of the international labour standards, including freedom of association and collective bargaining, which is important to further promote social justice in Viet Nam. But how will those moves continue in the new political situation, particularly after the US with its new administration has decided to no longer stand behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?

To me this visit was very interesting as it helped me understand that the political willingness of the trade union in Viet Nam is still there to move towards an alignment with the international labour standards. I appreciate that.

What was your biggest impression after meeting various stakeholders in workers’ activities?

My biggest impression was that Viet Nam is at a crossroads.

It was quite clear that Viet Nam aspires to be part of the international community and understands the obligations attached to it.

Externally, there remains the pressure of the free trade agreement (FTA) between the EU and Viet Nam. The social aspect of the “Trade and Sustainable Development” chapter of the FTA is important. It promotes workers’ rights and conditions in the framework of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, including freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and the elimination of forced labour, child labour and discrimination.

But more importantly, it is also the time for Viet Nam’s internal dynamism to kick-start and drive the change.

So I am curious to see what will be the follow up and how Viet Nam is going to handle this in terms of priority, timing and political consensus which is necessary in this society to move forward on such an important direction.

You just mentioned the fact that Viet Nam is now deepening it economic integration through various free trade deals which often include labour provisions. How could Vietnamese workers benefit from this?

It is very important that Vietnamese workers are entitled to the same rights in terms of equality of treatment, freedom of association and bargaining collectively in a free manner like workers in the majority of other countries in the world. It is not only the right but also the protection they have.

But more significantly, that shows we are working on the basis of fair competition, which holds high importance when a country wants to promote its trade agenda.

Fair competition means the rights of workers could not be sold at a cheap price. In my view, this is probably the core of the discussion at this stage. And this is what workers would have to win to be better protected, especially in a globalized world where we all know the fundamental principles and rights of workers are not always respected at the forefront of economic interests.

As you said, the Viet Nam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) is planning to carry out a comprehensive internal reform. What do you think are the breakthrough elements in their blueprint? And what might be the weaknesses which may have to be further improved?

The existence of the reform plan itself is a very positive aspect.

Trade union organizations do not always realize the need to reform and the need to change their policies and practices both at national and international levels. Trade unions are usually much more vocal and better in addressing their demands to others than in analysing how they can better serve their members.

So VCGL has understood that in a globalized world and an open market economy, trade is at the core of economic development. If they also want to promote social development on an equal footing with economic development, they will need to be operational, efficient, and effective. They will need to put worker's interests and rights at the forefront of their policies and find the best way to do that because the promotion of worker's protection is fundamental in a well-functioning market economy.

This can be achieved by negotiating the terms and conditions for workers to be able to operate in good working conditions, with good wages, occupational safety and health protection, work-life balance and so on through collective bargaining.

I think VGCL has clearly got this. However it is not easy to put such a big plan at the forefront because it touches upon all the layers of the trade union representation and organizations in this country. And in my experience, I know it is not easy for unions to change.

The capacity of VGCL to promote this reform with a genuine involvement of workers and unions at different levels is the only key for success.

I believe the various measures of union renovation will be implemented in a fair manner. But there will have to be the transition from the current to the new model of the mandate. It is very important to do this with the trade union representatives, leaders but also with the workers themselves.

It is a big challenge for VGCL but I am positive that they are well aware of this.

Do you have any relevant international lessons of union reforms you want to share with Vietnamese trade unionists?

Unions understanding that they need to reform is already a first important step in the right direction.

If you look at the way the labour market is operating today compared to a decade ago, you can see the huge difference. If you look at the aspiration of workers today, their capacity to use information and communication technologies and social networks, it is completely different from what happened 10 years ago.

So unions in today’s world will need to be able to understand all of that and know how best they can communicate and get the messages across their members and target new members.

I think that the reform processes we have seen, for instance in the Scandinavian countries, have been very interesting: They have not only maintained their level of union membership but also been able to expand them. It is because they have understood that traditional sectors where it was easy to organize workers are losing weight and power in the economy, and therefore have targeted the new emerging sectors.

As Viet Nam is moving from an agriculture-based to an industrial-based economy – the industrial base of the information and communication technologies, of robotization, of bringing new technologies into the labour market, the leap has to be much bigger and much faster than it was before. The unions will have to grasp that in a very clear manner. And as I said, the Scandinavian unions in Europe are probably the best in this area. They make a good lesson for Viet Nam.