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Five things … about life in Vietnam

This month, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA Mekong Regional Manager, Sharan KC, shares five facts about Vietnam and the developments in the trade union movement there. From the changing nature of street food to signs of impressive economic development, Vietnam is rapidly changing.

Five things about life in Vietnam

1. Life has become comfortable for more people in Vietnam but inequalities remain. I am based in Hanoi. I first lived in Vietnam between 2006-08. Then I left the country for six years and have since returned. In that period, things have changed a great deal. Vietnam has become a lot more prosperous and it has happened very rapidly. There are more amenities in the cities, and when you go shopping you can find just about anything now in terms of domestic and imported items. There is clear evidence of economic development and infrastructure development in the country. However, there are also signs of growing inequalities between rural and urban, and rich and poor.

2. The cost of living is still relatively inexpensive but rising. Domestic goods and food in particular can be purchased at competitive prices. Street food in Vietnam is very popular. You can get a healthy meal of rice, vegetables and a protein for under 30,000vnd (AU$1.70). I see that street food is also convenient for labourers who work on construction sites.

I know from my Vietnamese friends that the cost of living is going up, sometimes faster than they like. Those with children are finding it challenging to juggle their budgets, their daily routine of dropping children off to school and trying to manage with all the expenses associated with having a family.

3. There is tremendous natural beauty in Vietnam. If you like water, you will not be disappointed as there is over 3,000 kilometres of coast line. If you like the hills, you are never too far from stunning national parks. Historically, Vietnam has fought many big wars and has won many, but the people here are not arrogant about this! I find that generally the people are very humble and tend to say things like “We [Vietnamese] don’t know much – we need to learn more”.

It’s a very interesting thing about this country – everybody seems to want to learn more and something new. People tend to be very welcoming and want to know what knowledge you can share. Perhaps there is a sort national desire for continual education – and one thing for sure, parents are very concerned about the education of their children and worry a lot about the same things that parents everywhere do – whether their children can get into a good school, and whether they can get a good job!

4. Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA has been working in Vietnam since 1985 on various projects, ranging from trade union capacity building to income generation for poor rural women. APHEDA has been supporting disability programs in Vietnam since 2012. In that time our local partner organisations have trained 400 men and women with disability. Following the training, 80 percent of them have found jobs or are self employed. They are trained in skills such as making temple papers, brooms and raincoats. The temple papers are used frequently in Vietnam to worship ancestors, or for important life events like moving house. The graduates earn between AU$75 to AU$350 per month. Although this sounds very little in the Australian context, here in Vietnam, people with disability are often viewed as burdens to their families. Therefore, being able to earn an income like this means a lot to them and their families. I have met three married couples who first met during the training supported by APHEDA who told me that they “now have a life.”

But more than this, we have been helping build the new emerging rights movement for people with disabilities. In recent years, a new national organisation, the Vietnam Federation of Disability, was established. We have been working in four provinces to build strong local structures for people with disabilities to get active locally and through to the national body.

5. The trade union situation in Vietnam is in a transitional stage. As a part of Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations, the Vietnamese government has signed an agreement with the USA to reform the labour law allowing new ‘workers organisations’ to be registered. In other words, when the law is expected to be reformed in early 2018, workers will be able to form and register new unions separate from the Vietnam General Confederation Labour (VGCL).

This is all very new and it will make a lot of difference to the way the trade unions and workers rights will be developed in Vietnam. Up until now, Vietnam has had only one union – the VGCL, a union of 9 million members – but under the new labour law, Vietnam will allow workers’ organisations to be registered with the Ministry of Labour. The workers will have the freedom to say ‘the existing union does not represent our needs so we will have a new organisation to represent us’. This means that the VGCL has to reform to better represent workers’ interests. There is a lot of opportunity for new ways of working in Vietnam.

The VGCL has asked the Australian union movement to advise in this reform process – from law reform, to organiser training and union governance issues.

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