Welcome aboard new head of ILO Viet Nam!

New ILO Viet Nam Country Director, Chang-Hee Lee, shares some thoughts and visions upon taking office on 15 September 2015.

Feature | 24 September 2015

As a long-time friend of Viet Nam, how do you feel upon returning to the country in a new position?

I feel as if I am returning to my hometown where I grew up. It was in Viet Nam where I gained my first-hand experience with the real challenges of economic and social development, by working with Vietnamese colleagues in the Government, trade unions and business community from the year 2000.

Now I am returning to Hanoi as the new Director of ILO Office for Viet Nam. I hope that our relations based on mutual respect and trust would allow us to find the Vietnamese way of inclusive development for decent work for all women and men.

You have been part of the comprehensive reform of Viet Nam’s labour laws and industrial relations system. What do you think about the changes the reform has brought about?

Since early 2000s, Viet Nam has gone through three rounds of labour law reforms (in 2002, 2006 and 2012). I had the privilege of participating in all those important processes. The reforms resulted in the improvement of the country’s legal framework and also the creation of new institutions, such as the National Wage Council.

However, there remain challenges. In spite of the labour law reforms, all strikes, without a single exception, have been wildcat ones for the last 20 years. This is a clear sign of not only legal, but also institutional and organizational weaknesses. The country should be able to change the situation. The ILO will continue to support its tripartite partners – the Government, employers and workers’ organizations – in their journey towards building sound industrial relations, guided by ILO Convention 98 (Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining) and 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize).

In your opinion, what are the key challenges for Viet Nam in the area of labour and employment in the years to come?

Viet Nam has made impressive achievements in economic growth and poverty reduction since the Doi Moi (Renewal) in 1986. The nation has achieved most of the Millennium Development Goals and acquired the lower middle income country status. It is remarkable!

However, there are still concerns about the quality and sustainability of the current model of economic growth, which relies heavily on natural resource-based commodities, low value-added manufacturing, and competitiveness based mainly on cheap and unskilled labour. Therefore, sustaining growth through enhancing the quality of human resources, decent jobs and sustainable enterprise development is a critical challenge, if Viet Nam is to build a competitive industrialized economy.

Despite progress in the fight against poverty, the pace of poverty reduction has slowed down, while income inequalities have been growing. And poverty is closely linked to vulnerable employment. How to ensure equitable and inclusive growth through social protection, including social insurance, and to address decent work needs of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups is another key issue. Making decent work for all women and men a reality is the challenge, as clearly expressed in the Decent Work Country Programme (2012-2016).

What will be your top priorities of the ILO in Viet Nam?

The year 2015 marks a milestone for Viet Nam’s deeper integration into global economy, with the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community, the conclusion of EU-Viet Nam Free Trade Agreement and ongoing negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Next year will be the first year to implement the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the global community where the ILO’s decent work agenda takes a central stage. And, it will be also the 30th anniversary of the Doi Moi in Viet Nam, which gives the country a historic opportunity to lay the foundation for sustainable development through the next phase of Doi Moi – the ‘institutional’ innovation of its social and labour market policy foundation.
The ILO should play active roles through effective participation in One UN initiatives, engagement with the international financial institutions, and working with the Government and social partners to help Viet Nam achieve the 2030 SDGs objectives.

In addition, we have been successful in supporting the country to strengthen national laws and policies since the establishment of our office in 2002. It is time to translate the regulatory and policy achievements into real improvement for the lives of workers and their families and for the business community.

To do so, the “institutional” and “organizational” capacity of actors at decentralized levels should be improved. Viet Nam can improve labour laws, but they can only become meaningful when labour inspection services effectively guide employers and workers to full compliance. The country can improve trade union law, but it will only become meaningful when trade unions can organize and represent workers in a bottom-up manner for negotiation with employers.

The ILO should form a strategic partnership with tripartite partners at decentralized levels in an integrated manner to make such systematic and sustainable improvements, based on full support from and joint commitments of tripartite partners at the national level.

Finally, the ILO will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2019, marking a century of commitment to social justice in the world of work. I find many common ideals and principles between the Preamble of the ILO founding Constitution and President Ho Chi Minh’s letter in 1919 to the delegations of the Paris Peace Conference. In his letter, he expressed his hope about the prospect of an era of rights and justice, with his demand for the respect of the freedom of association. Building labour market institutions and practices in full respect of universal principles espoused by President Ho and embodied in the international labour standards, particularly Convention 98 and 87, is the priority of fundamental importance for Viet Nam and the global community.