VGCL, ACTU and APHEDA: Transforming Vietnam

Dec 19, 2016

Andrew Dettmer, the Australian Manufacturing Worker’s Union (AMWU) National President, recently led an ACTU delegation to Vietnam at the request of the Vietnamese trade union movement to assist its reform process. Read Andrews thoughts in this article. 

Vietnam is a country in transition. Since 1975, Vietnam has been seeking to build a better life for its people and to rebuild after the devastation of over 100 years of colonialism and war.

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was seen as an opportunity to accelerate changes in Vietnamese economy and society. One of those changes was strengthening union and workers’ rights by the ratification of ILO Conventions 87 and 98, on the right to organise and to freedom of association.

The TPP may be dead, but the desire for reform in Vietnam keeps moving ahead. As of March 2018, trade union rights will be strengthened. The Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) is making changes which will allow it to survive and thrive in the new environment.

The VGCL combines the position of a peak trade union council — like the ACTU — with the roles of individual unions. It operates across the economy, through local unions which operate at the enterprise and district levels.

Because of the transformation in labour rights, the VGCL is looking at the experience of other national union movements. Thanks to the long and respectful relationship between the ACTU and VGCL, a delegation of ACTU-affiliated unions was invited to Hanoi to discuss Australian trade union’s experience and any lessons which can be drawn from them.

Comprising AMWU National President (and APHEDA Board member) Andrew Dettmer, ANMF Secretary Lee Thomas, ACTU Director Trevor Clarke, and NSWNMA Lead Organiser Anna Claude, the delegation was facilitated by APHEDA Mekong Region Coordinator Sharan KC.

The main purpose was to provide a ‘warts and all’ description of the Australian industrial relations system. The delegation described the old Conciliation and Arbitration Act, which was based on encouraging collective industrial relations, through to the current Fair Work Act, which is about individual rights, giving the whip hand to employers, and tying up unions in as much legal restriction and process as possible.

The delegation also talked about bargaining, and the attempts to destroy industry-level bargaining (“pattern bargaining”) in Australia. In Vietnam multi-employer bargaining is relatively new, but the delegation encouraged the VGCL to pursue every step to ensure that industry-level bargaining be built in to any new system.

Likewise the issues around organising were discussed in depth. The AMWU is a “pepper and salt” union – in some places like the car industry, unionizing everybody; in others like maintenance, a craft union. This is completely different to the practices of the ANMF, which only covers nurses and midwives. This information will hopefully be of use.

VGCL comrades engaged vigorously with the ideas from the delegation. Senior Vice-president Tran Thanh Hai challenged the nearly 60 comrades present to deal with and understand the presentations of the Australian delegation, especially on the complexity of the laws. For some Vietnamese unions, cooperation and welfare of workers is often more important than obtaining a new bargain with employers.

Both the ACTU and VGCL were enriched by the experience. We will be writing a comprehensive report for their use in coming weeks.

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