DISCOVER: Vietnam Plans Union Reform to Avert Trade Woes, Raising Foreign Firms’ Concerns


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In recent years, Vietnam has emerged as one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies, attracting foreign investment and expanding its global trading network. However, the country is currently facing a critical challenge that may have an impact on its trade relations with foreign firms. To address this issue, Vietnam is considering significant labor union reform, a move that may cause concern among foreign companies operating within its borders. Trade is critical to Vietnam’s economic growth, with exports accounting for a significant portion of its GDP. The country has successfully established itself as a manufacturing hub, attracting multinational corporations looking to capitalize on its low labor costs and strategic location. Concerns have been raised about the Communist Party’s control over Vietnam’s labor unions.

Communist-ruled Vietnam is expected to ratify the UN Convention on the free establishment of trade unions this year, according to UN officials and diplomats, in a move that will reduce the risk of trade disputes but may unnerve some foreign companies. The long-delayed measure would be a significant formal step in the tightly controlled one-party nation, where the only existing national trade union is part of the Communist Party structure, though it is unclear how and when the convention, once ratified, would be implemented.

The Southeast Asian manufacturing hub, which houses factories for international companies such as Samsung Electronics, Intel, Foxconn, and Canon, is heavily reliant on commerce, which accounted for 160% of the $415 billion domestic economy last year. Under its multibillion-dollar trade agreements with the European Union and Pacific partners, it is required to apply UN standards on workers’ rights to avoid disputes over social dumping, which refers to countries competing unfairly with others over labor costs. 

Convention 87 on “freedom of association and protection of the right to organize” was adopted in 1948 and is one of the most important texts protecting labor rights worldwide. According to a Hanoi-based diplomat, during a December meeting with foreign experts, Vietnam’s labour ministry officials stated that the convention would be ratified in October 2024. Other diplomats confirmed their intention to ratify this year. The Vietnamese Prime Minister’s Office, the Labour Ministry, and the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour, the country’s sole national union, did not respond to requests for comment.

After a decade of talks, parliament was expected to ratify the convention last year, just before the January deadline agreed upon with Canada. With the deadline missed, Ottawa has an additional reason to seek sanctions under the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Canada, which has over $10 billion in trade with Vietnam, is reviewing a complaint about whether Vietnamese labor laws comply with the CPTPP’s obligations on workers’ rights, according to a Canadian government spokesperson. The EU, which had nearly $65 billion in bilateral trade with Hanoi in 2022, considers the ratification of Convention 87 and amendments to relevant laws to be “critical” for compliance with existing agreements, according to EU Ambassador to Vietnam Julien Guerrier. 

The Vietnamese government understands the delicate balance between addressing the concerns of foreign firms and ensuring the well-being of its workers. The proposed reforms seek to strike a balance between promoting a fair and transparent labor environment and maintaining the country’s appeal to foreign investors. Foreign firms operating in Vietnam should view the proposed reforms as an opportunity for positive change rather than a source of concern. A more independent and transparent labor union system can help employers and employees develop better working relationships, resulting in increased productivity and long-term stability.

Foreign companies must engage in constructive dialogue with the Vietnamese government and labor unions to ensure their concerns are heard and addressed. Foreign firms can help Vietnam’s business environment become more robust and sustainable by actively participating in the reform process. As Vietnam positions itself as a major player in global trade, it must address foreign firms’ concerns about its labor union system. By implementing meaningful reforms, Vietnam can demonstrate its commitment to creating a fair and transparent business environment that benefits both workers and employers while also maintaining its status as an appealing destination for foreign investment and trade.


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