Discussion Paper 24: Wildcat strikes and Better Work bipartite committees in Vietnam

31 May 2017

Vietnam’s apparel export sector has been facing a sustained and substantial wildcat strike wave for much of the past decade. Approximately 20 per cent of firms experienced at least one strike in the past three years, which makes the strike rate in the sector one of the highest in the world.

This report by Mark Anner, Associate Professor of Labor and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University, explores the causes and outcomes of this industrial unrest, and examines the impact of worker-management participation committees on reducing strike action.

Better Work began establishing such committees, known as Performance Improvement Consultative Committees (PICCs), in 2009. The principal goals of PICCs are to establish factory-level social dialogue through Better Work mandated worker-management committees and to address non- compliance issues detected in Better Work factory assessments. The question this report seeks to explore is whether PICCs, by establishing this particular form of social dialogue, contribute to a reduction in strike likelihood in Vietnam.

This paper finds is that factories with well-functioning worker-management committees may contribute to lower strike rates when combined with other well-functioning employment relations institutions. This report puts forward four criteria for well-functioning PICCs:

1. Worker members are elected through a participatory and secret ballot election process without management presence.

2. Members fully represent workers, which includes consulting with workers before PICC meetings and reporting back to them after PICC meetings.

3. Members are carefully protected from potential management retaliation.

4. Members are empowered to adequately address serious non-compliance issues.

These four factors – elect, represent, protect, and empower – are inter-related and fundamental to any system of employee participation. At the time of writing, most PICCs do not meet these criteria and this report suggests steps to develop better functioning PICCs. However, even well functioning PICCS are not enough to adequately address worker grievances in a way that significantly reduces strike rates. Addressing strikes requires the development of democratic and autonomous unions and collective bargaining mechanisms. Thus, developing better functioning PICCs is only one step in addressing the causes of wildcat strikes–strikes without prior union approval–in Vietnam.

This report is based on a review of relevant literature, an extensive examination of Better Work’s assessment report data during two months of desk research in Geneva, analysis of factory progress reports, the author’s original survey of Better Work Vietnam Enterprise Advisors and two months of field research conducted in Vietnam in March and April 2014.

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