Responsible Supply Chains in Asia

How advocacy is moving the needle on labour standards in Vietnamese fisheries and aquaculture

A joint ILO/EU/OECD programme is seeing the fruits of its outreach activities in a crucial Vietnamese industry

Article | 19 November 2020
Nha Trang City (ILO News) - Fishing has long been an essential primary industry in Vietnam. With its 3000 kilometres of coastline abundant in sea life and the enormous Mekong River delta, Vietnam has a rich history in wild-catch fisheries and, more recently, aquaculture. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, it is the world’s third-largest fish and fish products exporter.

The fisheries and aquaculture sector is characterised by small and medium-sized enterprises, with individual boat owners and smallholder farms dominating production. Estimates vary, but it’s likely more than 4 million people work in the industry 1, most of them informally employed. Against this backdrop, the risk for unsafe working environments and poor working conditions is relatively high, and compliance with Vietnam’s (recently updated) labour laws is challenging to monitor.

Nguyen Hung Cuong of OXFAM is a member of the Corporate Social Responsibility Think Tank working to close the gap between working conditions in the seafood sector and national and international labour and environmental standards.
He’s confident the group is making a mark. “(It) has become a very direct bridge between the policymakers and other actors in the seafood industry, thanks to its very concrete content and topics of discussion,” says Cuong.

Cuong is one of 14 experts in the group representing stakeholders in the Vietnamese seafood sector, including government ministries, business associations, workers organisations, enterprises, and other United Nations organisations and academic institutions. His reflections came during the third meeting of the think tank since its creation in February 2020.

The beginnings of the policy advisory body stem from the Responsible Supply Chains in Asia programme, a joint ILO, EU and OECD initiative to promote responsible business conduct in Asian supply chains. The programme has engaged in a long-term project to support government and other stakeholders’ efforts to increase awareness of and implementation of Corporate Social Responsibility in fishing and aquaculture operations.
Work began in December 2018 with research commissioned by the program into CSR deficits in the industry. This research was examined and validated in July 2019, identifying and documenting CSR issues.

Tran Minh Tri is the Responsible Supply Chains focal point in Vietnam. He explains what happened next. “We took these research findings to the Responsible Business Forum, Vietnam held in November 2019. CSR in seafood supply chains emerged as a top issue with key government bodies, including the Directorate of Fisheries (D-FISH) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD).”

As a result of that event, the CSR Think Tank was established to advise D-FISH on promoting responsible business conduct in the Seafood industry.

More in-depth research followed, this time broadening the brief to consider whole of supply chain issues. This research informed the second round of dialogue on policy with the government taking a close look at gaps between labour practices in the sector and the recently revised labour code.

In the meantime, the programme worked on other aspects of its brief, including delivering training on CSR, International Labour Standards and Decent Work with seafood processing companies. These interventions in the Mekong Delta, the food bowl of Vietnam, represent the ILO’s broadest and deepest attempt to influence working conditions in this critical part of the Vietnamese economy.

It also managed to have a CSR syllabus embedded in training curricula for undergraduate students of the Nha Trang University and its affiliates – the Faculty of Food Technology and the Institute for Marine Sciences and Fishing Technology in the Central Coastal province of Khanh Hoa. By reaching future leaders, the programme ensures the long-term sustainability of CSR practices.

Building capacity with students and their lecturers is a significant part of the programme’s work with training visits to 17 universities and institutes in the Mekong delta region – the largest hub for agriculture and seafood products in Vietnam. Training of Trainers with the Vietnam Cooperatives Alliance (VCA) also saw the word on the value of CSR to businesses spread. Cooperatives are a significant player in the Vietnamese industry. Working through the VCA improves the outlook for embedding long-lasting and self-perpetuating responsible business conduct into the sector.

The advisory think tank work continued, and meetings have become a regular feature of the government’s agencies calendar (MARD, MOLISA). Stemming from its work have been several initiatives to close the gaps between industry practice and the standards outlined in the revised Labour code of 2019. This includes training for promoting International Labour Standards in shrimp aquaculture and tuna fisheries; development of verified shrimp sourcing areas based on the ILS application; and a handbook for Guidance on Implementation of the Labour Code 2019 for the seafood sector. The guide marked a unique collaboration between MOLISA and MARD, their first technical collaboration on implementing the Labour Code.

Le Thanh Luu, Director of the International Collaborating Centre for Aquaculture and Fishery Sustainability (ICAFIS), is also adamant the think tank positively impacts the take-up of CSR. “This topic is introduced and promoted only within the last two years. The CSR Think Tank, together with ILO and OXFAM, has actively contributed to CSR promotion into the primary seafood production… the Directorate of Fisheries (D-FISH) is very interested in this topic. It actively supports and coordinates activities such as regular policy dialogue and CSR promotion and encourages CSR implementation in aquaculture and fisheries”.

Luu is concerned about maintaining momentum but believes the handbook is a big step forward like others in the group. “This is a handy tool with very practical content,” he says. He has hopes that the booklet will be used by businesses, cooperatives, and farm owners “in their daily activities”.

Nguyen Hung Cuong, of OXFAM. He points out that the guidebook is the first of its kind for the seafood industry. “The content includes very carefully selected issues, directly concerned with the business, boat owners and labour. We hope the CSR Think Tank will consider how to convert it into a digital version and integrate it in an App, suitable to be accessed by smartphone.”

OXFAM is showing a solid commitment to maintaining the regular policy dialogue and CSR Think Tanks, taking over from the RSCA Programme as its activities in the region come to an end.