Ho Chi Minh, labour rights and ILO

By ILO Viet Nam Director Chang-Hee Lee

Comment | 23 May 2018
When I see grab drivers on busy streets, I often ask myself ”Is he an employee? Is he self-employed? Is he a worker? What laws protect his rights? Does labour law provide any protection for grab drivers? What about workers in many other different forms of employment?”

And I often wonder what Ho Chi Minh would say to the grab drivers, any workers at garment factories or hotels, if he were here in today’s Viet Nam, as he would have said to rickshaw drivers in 1940s’ Hanoi.

“No worry the state will protect you?” Perhaps not. He would have certainly said “The State will do its best to provide you with basic protection. But it is you who have to protect your rights and advance your interest by organizing workers, and bargaining with businesses. You should become the master of your own destiny.” ‘”Union rights is not union’s rights, but your rights.”

Do you think he really would say so? I certainly think so, because his speeches, writings and laws he prepared in late 1940s clearly show it.

The labour ordinance 29 dated 12 March 1947 is the very first modern labour law of independent Viet Nam, which was promulgated by then President Ho Chi Minh. It clearly defines a set of basic legal minimum conditions in simple, easy-to-understand and clear manner, while creating enabling legal framework, again in simple and clear language, for workers to organize themselves and bargain with employers. In the 1940s, I am reasonably sure that the labour ordinance 29 was one of the most progressive and advanced, yet simple and clear, labour laws in the world.

Today Viet Nam is undergoing profound changes, with accelerated economic growth. Viet Nam’s economy is integrated into global economy through webs of new generation of free trade deals, such as CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) and EU-Viet Nam free trade agreement, and global supply chains. New forms of employment such as grab drivers emerge, some old jobs disappear as a result of technological innovation, symbolized by the Industrial Revolution 4.0, while majority of workers and their families are still in rural areas and in informal economy. Now Viet Nam is preparing to revise the 2012 Labour Code to respond to the complex challenges of the global integration and technological transformation.

Modern labour laws provide basic minimum standards, including mandatory minimum wages, limit to working hours and other minimum conditions which all workers should enjoy. At the same time, modern labour laws in market economies acknowledge that there are limits to laws or regulations in determining actual wages and working conditions, unlike in planned economies.

Actual wages and working conditions, beyond legal minimums, are determined by mutual agreements, negotiated between workers and employers, whether individually or collectively.

Instead of prescribing actual wages and working conditions, modern labour or industrial relations laws create enabling environments for workers and employers to form organizations of their own choosing so that they can negotiate wages and working conditions, and also manage their relations themselves. ILO’s core convention No 87 on Freedom of Association and the Protection of Right to Organize, and No 98 on Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining provide a key set of universal principles enabling workers and employers to decide their relations and working conditions through voluntary negotiation in market economies. The good news is that Viet Nam is preparing for the ratification of these two conventions in the coming years, while ensuring the revised Labour Code is built on their principles.

I often dream of a day in 2019 when the revised Labour Code will be adopted fully in line with ILO Convention 98 and 87. And I am certain that Ho Chi Minh would be very happy about it. Why? It is because Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter to the delegation to the Paris Conference in 1919 demanding freedom of association for Vietnamese people. And it was the same Paris Peace Conference which created the ILO to promote social peace and justice, through recognition of freedom of association for workers and employers and through social dialogue for decent work for all. I dream of 100 years anniversary of the ILO where we can celebrate the realization of Ho Chi Minh’s vision in modern Viet Nam.

As he would have talked to most underprivileged workers of his time, rickshaw drivers in the streets of Hanoi, after the adoption of the labour ordinance 29 in 1947, he may say to grab drivers or garment workers ”Now we have a law for you. But you should understand the law, you should protect your rights and advance your interests, by organizing unions and by bargaining collectively with employers or businesses. That is what union is for”. Do you think he would say so? I think so.

The OpEd was published on Vnexpress on 19 May 2018.

* Funding for the New Industrial Relations Framework project is provided by the United States Department of Labor under cooperative agreement number IL- 29690-16-75-K-11. This material does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the United States Department of Labor, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the United States Government. One hundred percentage of the total costs of the project or program is financed with Federal funds, for a total of 3 million dollars.

* This story is a product of the European Union-funded project on Promoting ILO fundamental conventions towards ratification of Conventions 87, 98, 105, and actions to eliminate discrimination and forced labour in Viet Nam. Its contents do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.