Geographical and Historical Background
In this text, we will deal only with the struggles which have unfolded since the first big strike wave in 2006. We don’t think it necessary to dwell on the very troubled historical past of this country, a past which goes back much farther than the recent colonial wars and French colonization itself, to the conflict-ridden domination by powerful neighbors (above all China), although this past has influenced and continues to influence recent social and political events.
On the other hand, we feel it essential to remind the reader of a few basic geographical, economic and social realities which still condition the political orientations, most often beyond whatever the current political system happens to be. The relatively recent political unity of Vietnam is a poor reflection of its political vicissitudes, shaped to a great extent by its varied terrains and the living conditions flowing from them. The 330,000 square kilometers (three-fifths the size of France) inhabited by 90 million people (one and a half times the French population with a density six times higher than the world average), unequally distributed between two poles (the Mekong Delta for Cochinchina and the Red River for Tonkin), separated by roughly 1,500 kilometers of a narrow coastal mountain range where a third pole, Annam, developed. Two-thirds of the territory, therefore, is formed by mountains and high plateaus. The whole history of Vietnam up to the present is bound up with these disparities, which led to integrations and disintegrations with neighboring countries.
The Meaning of the “Independence” Won Militarily in 1975: The Failure of State Capitalism as an Ideology in its Pure, Hard Form
The present economic development of Vietnam, once the reconstruction period at the end of the American occupation was over, can be seen in parallel to that of China, once things are kept in proportion. The occupation of Saigon by the Viet Cong in April 1975 put an end to a long period of warfare but left the country completely ruined and drained, to be rebuilt from an unprecedented level of destruction affecting material conditions, nature and people with short and long-term consequences. Nearly thirty years were necessary to overcome this economic handicap, one made even worse by the collapse of the Soviet system and by the autarchy of a strict state capitalism dominated by a very large, totalitarian, corrupt and often incompetent bureaucracy.
The problem posed in 1975, when the victorious Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army took over the whole country, was the survival of a state and political system of an essentially agrarian country (in 2003, in an industrial capitalist world, 68 percent of the Vietnamese population still lived off of agriculture) which for all its diverse natural wealth, cannot survive without interacting with the capitalist world, and without submitting to its laws.
To understand the terms of this necessary economic reorganization, we must emphasize that these peasants, who were the great majority and thus the social base of a political regime established by force of arms, had massively contributed to the successes of the wars against the French and later the Americans but who had, by the same token, borne the brunt of the war (from its military demands to the impact of defoliants). Their commitment and their sufferings were the counterpart of their hopes for a new world: for the peasants, this new world meant the recovery of the land and the chance to till it as they wished, in order to feed themselves and to perhaps, one day, to expand their activities.
The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) at this time mainly lacked any theoretical or precise vision of how to organization rural production while still winning the support of the peasants. The party’s vision was one of total planning of the economy, one whose bureaucratic dimension was supposed to give (or impose upon, if necessary) the peasants a “socialist or—if one prefers—communist” knowledge which they did not have from their earlier evolution in a “capitalist world.” This was a first phase, one necessary to win peasant support in the period when the expanding power of the nationalist struggle was based on the seizure and redistribution of land on an egalitarian basis (or one presumed to be such). But this was in fact only a political strategy, one rapidly replaced, in the framework of the planned economy, by a collectivization of agriculture (the land being in any case state property), a copy on a small scale of what had been done previously in the USSR and of what was then underway in China.
The goal of this collectivization was to have an agriculture providing not merely for the needs of the entire population, but also for it to be an important pawn in the necessary international exchanges. We won’t linger over the details of the collectivization, imposed in 1978, but its result was catastrophic in terms of agricultural production, to the point that Vietnam in 1980, two years later (given the importance of the peasantry), continued to be an importer of basic foodstuffs. This was due to the fact, as everywhere else where forced collectivizations took place, the peasants saw no reason to produce anything above and beyond their own consumption. Further, in the advisory and control structures, experienced local leaders had been replaced by incompetent (and often corrupt) bureaucrats who were being repaid for their loyalty to the party and for their military actions in the “liberation war.”
“Market Socialism” under the Dictatorship of the VCP: the Opening to World Capital and the Mutation of the Ruling Class
The VCP needed to find a solution that fit into the overall program of necessary economic development, which implied the social control of an excess peasant population. Beginning in 1981, and until 1988, the collectives were dismantled; land remained state property but its distribution, through local cooperatives, was finally given to the peasants with usage rights (which could be passed on to others) of 50 years. Similarly, in 1986, a more thoroughgoing measure authorized the creation of private enterprises, most importantly in agriculture.
This turn did not, however, attenuate the control of the VCP over the use of land, or the impact on agricultural production of a melange of local privileges, corruption, subsidies and speculation. From 1990 to 1999, industrialized farming increased by 64 percent for annual rotations, and by 91 percent for non-annual rotations (including an increase in fruit production by 80 percent) whereas the sector producing locally consumed food increased only 30 percent, as did stock breeding. While there was an extension of plantations (coffee, tea, etc.), setting off conflicts involving speculative hoarding (supported by corruption) with the peasants, most notably in mountainous regions, on the other hand, in the areas close to cities, in 2002, the average size of agricultural plots was 0.7 hectares, and 0.3 hectares in the Red River delta in Tonkin, and 19 percent of the rural population was made up of “landless peasants.”
Even as it attempts to influence agricultural practices and to fit them into the industrial development plan, the VCP is attempting to tread carefully with the rural population, which makes basic land use problems very complex, caught as they are between regulations and local speculative or custom-driven realities. At the end of 2010, a study on “Land Reform in Vietnam” emphasized: “The situation of rural households is, on one hand, extremely unequal according to the region, and there are cases where the modalities of access to agricultural and forest lands are designed to effectively protect such households, especially the most fragile among them.” Recent events, and particularly the world food crisis, reminded Vietnam that the agrarian and peasant questions were not yet solved, and put the rural land question back at the top of the agenda. Responding to this crisis (and a considerable increase in the price of rice) the government decided to freeze the status of more than a million hectares of rice paddies and started a campaign (the “three nong”) whose objective was to rebalance the rural and urban worlds.
Despite these flip-flops, we might say that on the whole, the peasants did respond to reforms which gave them more control over the land and more power to decide what to do with it. In 2010, Vietnam was not only agriculturally self-sufficient but had become an exporter: it was the fifth largest producer and the second largest exporter of rice; it was the second largest exporter of coffee; the fifth largest exporter of tea; and it had achieved a respectable ranking in other products: cashew nuts, rubber, and in hydroponic production. But, even though it employed the majority of the population and remained an essential factor, the agricultural sector’s share of the total product declined relative to (most importantly) industrial development from 25 percent of GDP in 2000, it represented only 20 percent in 2010 whereas industry had grown from 36 percent to 40 percent; this is, moreover, quite relative, since GDP had tripled between 2002 and 2010.
With these overall figures, it is difficult to get a sense of the general living standards of the peasantry, which is still by far the majority of the population. The small plots under cultivation, as well as variations in climate, in the price of fertilizers and of marketable products all mean that many peasants, even those with land, often live in poverty. We can find some indications in the marginal elements clearly in poor and precarious situations. The roughly 19 percent of the population who are landless peasants (at least 10 million people) live for all intents and purposes in the same conditions as the European agricultural workers of a century ago. One illuminating detail: in April 2008, when the absorption of these poor peasants by industrial development was already well underway, the VCP was worried about the theft of rice in “wildcat” nighttime harvests. The party passed legislation stipulating severe punishment for this kind of theft and outlawing all nighttime use of any implement or vehicle used in the rice harvest. At the same time, peasants were required to post armed guards in their fields night and day.
This pressure on the poor peasants to merely survive is further increased by demographic pressure (an increase in the birth rate but also in life expectancy, now reaching the level of the industrialized countries). Something that might be seen as positive brings with it a risk of social destabilization; the VCP is sufficiently aware of this to adopt a policy of restricting births to two children per couple. Overall, we see a combination of factors which, from the necessity of economic development to the maintenance of social peace, by way of the level of poverty and self-sufficiency in food, both compels and allows the VCP to promote industrial development by the entry of foreign capitals, with its competitive advantage of cheap labor power.
The “Doi Moi” (Renewal) policy was developed in 1986. It can be briefly defined: enterprise reform aimed at integrating the country into the world economy, by introducing methods and capitalist relations into a modification of the political apparatus of the party-state. This results in a dynamic of political and economic polarization, pushing the sphere of state power to appropriate for itself the benefits of the economic opening by the creation of increasingly Mafia-like networks. Generalized corruption transforms the party from a structure of domination into an access route to resources and a locus for the concentration of goods. Ideology itself has evolved considerably: personal enrichment is hailed as a contribution to national development, young business men are decorated with the “red star,” and the new millionaires (in dongs) are edified as heroes of the “renewal.”
Formation and Development of a Proletariat: The Sale of the National Work Force on the International Market Underwritten by the Dictatorship of the VCP
Nearly 20 years, however, were necessary before this reform allowed the VCP, in 2007, to request membership in the WTO, i.e., before it was able to open up, without too many risks, to a competitive penetration of the national economy by international trade. Only in 1991 was the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) authorized, allowing foreign capital to benefit not merely from facilities in place and financial and fiscal advantages, but also from conditions for the exploitation of the work force that were particularly enticing for the capital invested. These SEZs are unevenly distributed and will be concentrated in the most populated regions of Tonkin in the north and Cochinchina in the south. At first, these investments were not particularly important; as one official put it “One sewing machine, one brush to spread glue on a shoe sole, and we have created a job.” At the beginning of the 2000s, the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce advertised its work force on the international market in these terms: “One of our advantages over Indonesia is that the Vietnamese work force is not inclined to involve itself in struggles.” This was confirmed by another official who in 2003 clarified that “if the country is to remain attractive for FDI it must furnish a cheap and docile work force.” It is true that, on paper, the dictatorship of the VCP could guarantee rigorous working conditions, an official trade union present in only 10 percent of companies, and a new proletariat which could offer every guarantee of stability; but the bureaucrats, however sure of themselves, could hardly fail to know that a proletariat rapidly becomes conscious of the conditions of its exploitation and starts to struggle.
These changes deeply changed the attitude of the population toward the regime. The worker, peasant and minority revolts against the local party organs and company managements (who were flaunting their ill-gotten gain with insulting ostentation), are clear proof of the way that people kept involuntarily in poverty experience these situations as unbearable.
Workers certainly struck as foreign capital moved in and as people migrated to the centers where the work force was being exploited, and did so all the more when it was seen that the investors barely paid attention to existing labor legislation and that the state authorities not only closed their eyes but violently repressed people who merely asked that the laws be applied. Foreign investors had a weighty argument for getting their special conditions of exploitation: the threat of going elsewhere. According to a study by the official Institute of Workers and Trade Unions, only 60 percent of foreign direct investments offer working conditions compatible with Vietnamese labor legislation. One might think that the media coverage of these struggles in 2005 was not due merely to their dimensions in major workplaces and their geographic extension. One might think, then, that the young generation born after 1986, those whose exploitation began as soon as they finished school, no longer had the same reasons to “respect” the VCP, with its struggle for national liberation, and for the privations accepted by their parents in the patriotic reconstruction of a country ravaged by war. But one factor remained central in the escalation of struggles, a factor which led to the opposition to the totality of extremely harsh working conditions, and that was the inflation which made it impossible to live with very low wages.
This table shows precisely how inflation was progressing after 2002 and how it then surged in 2004 and in the following years.
In January 2012, inflation reached a level of 18.6 percent.
The financial crisis and the major devaluation of Asian currencies in 1997 (between 40 and 50 percent relative to the US dollar) rendered more vulnerable the outsourced sector of key industries (textiles, clothing, shows, electronics, etc…) employing many workers. Textile industries alone, for example, employ 500,000 workers. As they became less and less competitive, these industries were forced to constantly lower the outsourced price on many items. The cost of producing one jacket, for example, fell from $4 in 1993 to $3 today. In spite of that, outsourcing contracts brought in less and less money, as did the price for the raw materials (gas, natural rubber, coal, etc…) Vietnam exported. This was an increasingly difficult situation for those who had migrated from agriculture to the factories, out of necessity but also with hopes for a better future.
Who then were these new proletarians who would be revolting? As in other Asian countries, including China, they were and are the migrant workers, often those coming from the north to the south of the country. Four and a half million migrated between 1994 and 1999; 6.7 million more between 2004 and 2009; women make up about half of them, but they are much more numerous in the temporary migrations. Starting in 2000, the importance and the character of these migrations can be seen in the 43 percent turnover rate which the bosses complain about, and notably in the fact that after the Tet festival only two-thirds of these migrants return to their jobs in the same factory.
Development and Fluctuations in the Class Struggle: Organization and Repression
Before the major strike wave of 2005–06, a few warning signs had revealed and spread through the media some idea about the conditions of exploitation of the Vietnamese workers. In June 2005, 10,000 workers of a factory in Da Nang (a joint venture with a Hong Kong firm) staged a wildcat strike against a whole situation which is too poorly rendered as “working conditions,” a situation found just about everywhere, with a few variations:
- no contract,
- a minimum 12-hour day but often expanded by unpaid overtime,
- two bathroom visits per working day, under surveillance,
- one cup of water during the entire work day,
- no social benefits, no days off for illness or for death of a relative,
- “we are treated like animals,” according to one woman, i.e., not merely insulted, and humiliated, but sometimes hit,
- firings for the first infraction.
The first strike wave took place between December 28, 2005, and January 8, 2006, on the Binh Duong SEZ (Cochinchina). Sixty thousand workers in 50 factories took part, three-fourths of them women between the ages of 18 and 25. The first factory to walk out was a Taiwanese plant with the lowest wages and the worst conditions. This factory employs 1,000 workers, who demanded an increase in the basic monthly salary of €32; they resumed work with a 10 percent pay increase but, to make up for it, management increased the pace of work: 1,200 pieces had to be submitted by 6 pm, as opposed to 8–8:30 pm before the strike. After this first wildcat, the movement spread to other factories in the zone throughout 2006 over salaries and other demands about working conditions. The impact of the strikes was such that the CPV raised the minimum wage by 40 percent in February 2006, but in a differential way: €44 a month in the two biggest cities, Hanoi and in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon); €40 in medium-sized cities and €36 in the rest of the country.
These strikes (which were always wildcats) marked the beginning of a sort of race between inflation and wage increases, in struggles which have continued up to the present at an uneven rhythm. One can surmise that, after having made these concessions (as in the above examples) management tried to recover their control by other means, most notably in labor time or in speedup, which resulted, given the constant increases in inflation, in a new strike wave. In Hanoi alone, in June 2006, every week saw between 400 and 2,000 workers in wildcat strikes. The official figures at least give some sense of this:
- 2006: 330 strikes in 6 months;
- 2007: 700 strikes for the year;
- 2008: 762;
- 2009: 218;
- 2010: 424;
- 2011: 857 over an 11 month period.
Seventy-five percent of these strikes took place in foreign companies. The falloff in 2009 can be explained by the impact of the crisis in 2008 which reduced the activities of the exporting companies, resulting in the layoff of migrant workers.
One of the first questions we might ask, in guessing the reasons that sparked these struggles, given (stated bluntly) the totality of the conditions of exploitation, is how they broke out and how they spread. On these points, we have little information, beyond official statements and/or on-the-spot accounts of the strikes.
First of all, there is no doubt that these were wildcat, i.e., illegal, strikes; it is difficult to say if low-level organizers of the official trade union were able to participate in sparking the wildcats and/or if they were able to play a role as mediators with management (in 2008, while wildcats strikes were underway in different sectors, one official noted that the wildcats “are becoming more and more common and that is due to the fact that the union cannot play its role as mediator”; the official union was represented in only 10 percent of the foreign export firms and even there was not recognized by the workers as their representatives). In May 2009, during a strike of 500 workers in a textile factory in the south, an official admitted that “the strike was launched independently by an informal group of workers.”
A manager of one of these companies summarized as follows the way in which these strikes unfolded: “The workers remained in the factory in an organized way and designated a representative to talk with management. Some of these workers were aggressive. They fought with the guards and with the police, threw projectiles and destroyed property.” This would not be confirmed by another official during a strike of 800 workers in a Japanese electronics factory: “They didn’t destroy anything. They merely gathered at the factory entrance to protest peacefully.” What is certain is that we can find all possible variants from peaceful occupations to violent confrontations. Some recent examples: on October 19, 2011, in Binh Duong province (south of Ho Chi Minh City), 6,000 workers in a Taiwanese shoe plant occupied the factory, fought with the security guards, blocked the adjacent streets and destroyed equipment. In January 2012, a minister confessed that strikes “imply confrontations, destruction and deaths.” This was undoubtedly an allusion to what happened in June 2011 during a strike in a motorcycle parts plant where a security agent rammed a picket line in a car, killing one woman and injuring six others. It seems that, here or there, strike or struggle committees were formed, and it is quite obvious that the VCP is trying at any cost to prevent these formations from becoming permanent and, even worse for these managers, from coordinating on a regional or national level through political or other channels of opposition. There have been, on one hand, direct forms of police or administrative repression during localized conflicts. From June 24 to 29, the 93,000 workers in the Pou yen Vietnam Co., a shoe factory in Ho Chi Minh City (producing mainly for Adidas), struck for a wage increase and for the payment of a bonus; the strike extended to neighboring factories. A thuggish intervention put an end to the strike, with the arrest of 29 workers and the condemnation of three of them—the so-called leaders—to prison terms of 7–9 years. There were on the other hand concessions attempting, more or less at the same time, to cool off pressure from the base (one reportage indicated that “every day in this country, there is a strike”); the government raised the minimum wage by 12 percent; another increase followed on October 1.
Such an alternation of repression and concessions is only one aspect of which is only one element among many of the whole apparatus of control and domination by the CPV. But in the last analysis, it is repression which wins out, ranging from direct military and police force to administrative detention, from constant surveillance of the conversations and writings of the population to an ever stricter control of the use of such modern means as cell phones and the Internet. This makes attempts to support struggles from the outside particularly haphazard, as has been the case of the Committee for the Protection of Vietnamese Workers (CPVW) which has been trying to be active in Vietnam itself (with leaflets, support and advice to strike “leaders”) but also with Vietnamese émigrés around the world, for the establishment of independent unions (we might suspect somewhat that, as in other totalitarian countries, such as e.g., China, they are instruments for American penetration, piggy-backing on struggles).
Current Economic Changes Resulting from the World Crisis and Their Impact on Struggles
If, in 2011, the number of strikes had been the highest in years (16 strikes per week) this situation seems to have changed in 2012. This surge of strikes in 2011 and in earlier years is usually explained by the surge of economic activity, which meant that strikers had no fear of being fired, being sure that they could find a new job. It does seem to be the case that the fall off of social conflicts in 2009 corresponded to the impact of the world crisis of 2008. This situation may well recur today. GDP grew at only 4 percent in the first quarter of 2012 and no major conflict cracked the media barrier. Nevertheless, inflation is still high, rising to 16 percent, and poverty levels are also high; roughly 30 percent of the active population is either unemployed or precarious. The average salary for unskilled workers is €100 a month; if it is difficult to estimate what that represents in terms of living standards, the announcement that one-third of all children under five is suffering from malnutrition gives a certain picture. In the same way, a lack of manpower in certain SEZs might indicate that low wages and harsh conditions are no longer attractive for migrants from the country.
The whole economic system is evolving, with the recent emergence of new sectors such as oil exploration and export, or the increasing use of new information technologies. To maintain its social dominance, the VCP nonetheless has to take account of this, given that three-fourths of its economy is based on the activity of the SEZs and new investments in FDI. The international crisis is harshly affecting all countries which live essentially off this activity, closely tied to that of importing countries, i.e., the industrialized countries, which are themselves in crisis.
The poverty wages paid to Vietnamese workers undoubtedly remain 30 percent lower than the wages of their Indian or Chinese counterparts, but other elements play a role in investors’ choices in this cutthroat competition over costs of production, namely the global conditions of exploitation.
One of the first elements is the system’s resistance to workers’ demands both in terms of costs and of social peace; put another way, structural reforms of internal factors of the economy on one hand, and the strengthening of repression on the other. That assumes that the VCP can finance the necessary infrastructure, particularly for energy output and, once again, for guaranteeing social peace.
The older proletariat, which will not have given up its habits of struggle, will be joined by this new, better educated proletariat, which will demand wages and working conditions different from what has been the practice in the past. Last February, interviews at the highest level, and most notably with the head of the official trade union (VLC), were seeking ways to “reduce the number of strikes to attempt to reassure and calm investors.” But the main unknown, when we consider these domestic problems of Vietnam and class resistance, remains the world evolution of the economic crisis. Any forecast would be risky: in all circumstances, the VCP will seek to maintain its power by every means at its disposal. This future depends as much on the ability of world capitalism to overcome the resistance of the proletariat, and in this sense the working-class struggles in Vietnam, even in the absence of direct ties, are connected to the struggle of proletarians everywhere. These struggles are in fact unified because they are a response to a common exploitation and a common intensification of the conditions of exploitation and, while apparently separated by borders and by very different situations, they modify in their way the problematic of survival for a capitalism in crisis.