HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — In July 2013, Truong Tan Sang, then president of Vietnam, came to Washington for a White House meeting with President Barack Obama. “This represents the steady progression and strengthening of the relationship between our two countries,” Obama said, to nudge along the commercial courtship of two former war enemies. That’s going to be good, he said, “for the opportunities and prosperity of the people of Vietnam.”
“It is time now to form a comprehensive partnership in order to further strengthen our relations in various areas,” Sang replied. He ran through the main terrain of his talks with Obama, including regional defense, the legacy of the ruinous American conflict with his country, and human rights. The Vietnamese leader spoke hopefully that continued cooperation would be mutually beneficial.
Obama managed to set off sparks in the right-wing outrage machine by noting that “we discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson.” Sang sat nearby, smiling and nodding. In back of all this cheerful diplomatic patter, though, was an underlying regime of harsh market discipline that both Sang and Obama were counting on to secure their new alliance: the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, a labor-soaking boondoggle for global corporations operating in Southeast Asia.
In 2017, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP, which was set to become the world’s largest free trade deal, covering 40 percent of the global economy. The TPP was the centerpiece of efforts by Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to expand investment “while also advancing U.S. strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region,” as a report by the Council on Foreign Relations put it—before noting ruefully that the accord’s “detractors, including Trump, saw the deal as likely to accelerate U.S. decline in manufacturing, lower wages, and increase inequality.”
To get a direct sense of how Vietnam’s new economic order fits into the rapidly globalizing regime of regional trade alliances and government-brokered manufacturing subsidies, I traveled there last December. I wanted to be prepared to like what I saw. I’ve always been soft on Vietnam because I admire the country’s heroic resistance—led by Ho Chi Minh—to French and U.S. imperialism.
But the country I arrived in was something close to a corporate garrison state. The nation’s current government is indisputably a corrupt, repressive dictatorship. It still calls itself Communist even though it abandoned any conceit of meaningful workers control long ago, in favor of lucrative alliances with global manufacturing brands.
In its eagerness to promote any and all varieties of international investment, the U.S. government pretends—generally without any media skepticism and sometimes with its ignorant support—that Vietnam is undergoing a political opening along with the economic one.
That’s entirely false. It’s a one-party state where freedom of expression and association and an independent media don’t exist. Dissidents who speak out forcefully can, and almost inevitably will, be imprisoned. All labor unions are controlled by the Communist Party; they exclusively serve the interests of government apparatchiks and their business allies. Workers are largely locked out of this sweetheart deal, struggling to scrape by on subsistence wages with no means of getting their grievances aired and addressed.
As a result, today’s heroes of Vietnamese liberation are arrayed against the depredations of the country’s party bureaucrats: ordinary people fighting the government for more democracy. Chief among them are the workers who organize independent unions—even though doing so is illegal—and who sometimes, against all odds, succeed.
Because workers are so angry about the terrible wages they receive—especially garment workers producing goods for factories that sell primarily to U.S. and other global brands, and electronics workers producing goods for export—the government is sometimes forced to tolerate worker organizing at the factory level. But it draws the line at allowing independent unions; anyone fighting for that will be punished or imprisoned as an example to others. One funny and effective tactic employed by workers fighting their bosses is to throw an incredibly smelly shrimp paste at factory managers.
Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government has developed an internal security service that resembles the infamous Stasi secret police of the former East Germany. As one Western activist who lives in Southeast Asia, explained, Vietnam’s regime is the most repressive in the region. “I’ve been told their Stasi employs five million people,” said this person—who for obvious reasons had to speak anonymously. He wasn’t certain the number was accurate, “but that must be close,” he explained, citing the testimony of a European embassy worker who’s studied the reach of Vietnam’s anti-labor police state. He added:
You see guys sitting around drinking beer or tea and they are sitting around all day. How do they afford it and what are they really doing? I’ve been there but they are not so worried about us; they are more worried about local people talking about democratization. It took us eight years to get traction there because the repression is strong, and we were worried because people kept telling us we had to be careful. We had to meet people six or seven times before they opened up. I’m sure I have a file with the secret police. I hope it’s marked “Mostly Harmless.” They know when we’re there.
Because of its nominally Communist identity, Vietnam has fairly robust laws to protect workers’ rights. The problem is that it never enforces them. For example, the country has some of the best laws on workers’ severance in Southeast Asia but at the Korean-owned KL Texwell Vina factory — which produced for major American apparel firms like Target, Forever 21, Oshkosh, Aeropostale, Hanes, Kohl’s and Ralph Lauren, according to U.S. Customs documents, the companies’ internal reports, or factory employee testimony — workers lost vast sums in severance that they were legally owed when the plant closed down.
A Vietnamese labor activist, who also asked to speak on background, showed me around apparel factories in an industrial area two hours by car from Ho Chi Minh City. Once we arrived, we met with workers—including a number of pregnant women—who were cheated out of severance and other pay by Texwell.
We met the workers at a small coffee shop, Coffee May, because meeting them at their homes would have been dangerous for me—Western visitors stick out in this isolated industrial area like a sore thumb and I was told we would be tailed within fifteen minutes of our arrival there—and even more dangerous for the workers.
After all, the Vietnamese government is unlikely to jail a Western reporter but wouldn’t hesitate to lock up local workers and activists who dared to speak to one. Even meeting at the coffee shop posed a risk to workers; only two of them would talk to me on the record. The coffee shop had an outdoor area that was humble but quite charming. A few green-and-yellow bamboo bridges crossed over little streams with fish. A group of four workers, all born in a village twenty kilometers away from the Texwell factory that employed them, sat in a corner with me and the Vietnamese activist who had offered to show me around that day.
The stories they told were in line with the generally terrible treatment of workers in the globalized sweatshop administered mostly by Western manufacturing interests, but the degree of abuse they relayed was truly appalling. They explained that the factory where they had worked had closed without notice in late February of 2018 and fired some two thousand workers, most of them women and about 120 whom were pregnant.
Workers didn’t get paid their final wages, the pregnant workers were cheated out of maternity pay, and all two thousand were cheated out of their wages, and part of their severance with the connivance of the Vietnamese government and Texwell, and without a peep of protest or support of the workers from the American firms that bought apparel from the plant.
One woman, the best paid among the workers I spoke with—she asked not to be identified but I’ll call her Nguyen—had been making the equivalent of about $350 a month. That’s less than the living wage in Vietnam of about $400 a month — as calculated by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which provides the most reliable estimate — but as she went on to explain, even the $350 figure is not representative of her earning history.
Nguyen had started out ten years ago at a salary of about $45 a month and her base pay when fired was roughly $260. The extra $90 came from thirty-three hours of overtime during the final month she was paid for and bonuses for good performance and attendance. She was expecting a baby in a few months and couldn’t work and her husband made little money working for a foreign company that produced wood products for export.
The factory didn’t have air conditioning, though it did have a water-based cooling system that provided some relief. But the factory often wouldn’t even turn on the cooling system because the moisture could leave a kind of mold on apparel. In other words: factory owners preferred to make the workers suffer rather than damage their products and risk losing customers.
Another worker I talked to, twenty-four-year-old Le Thi Anh Nguyet, was wearing a red jacket and stylishly torn jeans. She began working at Texwell when she was fifteen—a year before the legal age according to Vietnamese labor law but she used a fake ID to get hired, a common tactic, because she was desperate for work—and was employed for almost nine years.
When she was summarily fired when the factory closed she was making the equivalent of about $325 per month, of which about twenty percent came from bonuses for good attendance and special skills, specifically her ability to use six types of sewing machines. “I’ve been unemployed since,” she said. “I have a two-and-a-half year old child and prefer to stay home. My husband is a handyman and a farmer. He does daily work at a banana plantation.”
A third worker, Le Thi Ngoc Hang, was smartly dressed in a yellow jacket and blue jeans. She’d worked, while pregnant, up until the day the factory closed without notice. At the time she was being paid about $250 a month, of which about ten percent came from a bonus for good attendance. “I’m angry at the company, especially the owner,” she said. “I’m also angry at the government, especially the Social Security Department, because it let the company get away with cheating us.”
Vietnam’s assault on labor has drawn little sustained criticism from the American foreign policy establishment—indeed, quite the contrary; most elite policy outlets are on the record supporting the country’s political and economic status quo. A wide array of American lobbyists, consultants, policy wonks, and think tanks are promoting “engagement”—better described as “appeasement”—with the Vietnamese Stasi regime. Consider, for example, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where Ernest Bower is a senior adviser to the Southeast Asia Studies (SEA) program.
Bower and CSIS ardently promote closer ties between Washington and at least nineteen Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam. Bower also runs BowerGroupAsia, which helps corporations and hedge funds “to implement strategies, expand business, resolve problems and do great things in Asia,” according to its website.
Bower’s company bio says he “publishes regular commentaries and offers guidance on policy in Washington and around Asia, including providing congressional testimony and media interviews”—though when he’s quoted in the press he is almost always cited as “a Southeast Asia specialist” at CSIS, with no mention of his consulting business.
You’d expect a consulting firm for international corporations to be relentlessly pro-business and not to dwell much on issues like human rights. However, a think tank that markets itself as an independent policy voice might well seek to adopt at least a rhetorically critical posture toward the sort of worker abuse that profits the Vietnamese regime and its Western backers. Yet both Bower and CSIS are flagrant apologists for this state of affairs.
And they don’t really bother to conceal their agenda. During Truong Tan Sang’s 2013 visit to Washington, CSIS hosted him for a major policy speech and panel discussion, moderated by Bower. Sang’s visit came not long after his government’s secret police just been detaining bloggers and political activists, and was stepping up its intimidation of journalists, academics, and NGOs. As a result, human rights groups, unions, and Representative George Miller, the California, had called on Obama to press Sang on his government’s anti-democratic actions and to slow talks on increasing trade.
But Bower and his think tank seemed unconcerned by all this and pushed for rapid restoration of close ties between the two countries. Around the time of the event, CSIS released a report citing Jonathan London of City University of Hong Kong, who said “a much more vibrant and open political debate” had emerged in the country. Bower made similar statements to the press. In a Financial Times story—which identified him only as “senior adviser for Southeast Asia” at CSIS—he claimed, without any reference to concrete evidence, that Sang’s visit would embolden “reformers” in Vietnam.
These same sort of intellectual acrobatics are still taking place when it comes to Vietnam, which spends plenty of money in Washington to influence public and political opinion. So do companies active in Vietnam, who are desperately seeking to suck up to the regime so they can expand their operation there and make more money from exploited local workers.
Take Ted Osius, the former ambassador to Vietnam under Obama and a man who played a key role in brokering the Washington-Hanoi thaw. I didn’t contact him in Vietnam, where Osius lives, because I feared he would report my communication to the government. But after I returned to D.C. I sent him an email asking for an interview about whether the opening had helped Vietnamese workers or improved the prospects for democratic reform in Vietnam.
He initially said he would be happy to but kept putting me off. Finally he emailed in January to say he’d taken a job in Google’s Asia-Pacific government relations office. He asked that I funnel questions through Google’s press office. When I told him a few weeks later I had received no reply from the press office he wrote, “I sense the Google press office is not enthusiastic about this. I’m sorry; when I was a free agent, this was an easy call. I’m not a free agent any more.” Incidentally, news reports from that time said that Google was “studying steps toward opening a representative office in Vietnam.”
I also sent a series of queries about how democratic reforms might gain a serious foothold in Vietnam to a U.S. labor organization, whose name I can’t reveal because the source emailed replies to my questions but not for attribution. She wrote:
The expectation is that the [new] labor code and other reforms will translate into concrete benefits and gradual expansion of workplace democracy for workers. Sexual harassment at the workplace, pervasive in many sectors such as garment, is also likely to be defined in the law revision along with mechanisms to address it in the workplace. There is a pressing need for reforms that expand the ability of workers to form unions that can collectively represent their interests.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, was the only critic of Vietnam I could find who spoke openly. “Vietnam’s industrial workers are incredibly gutsy, organizing impressive wild-cat strikes to demand mostly foreign employers at least comply with the country’s weak labor law and pay the required minimum wage and overtime pay,” he wrote by email. “They have managed this over the obstinance of the government controlled VGCL, a party front masquerading as a national labor union congress which cares more about its authority than workers’ rights, and the government’s security agents who retaliate against anyone they believe is a true grassroots labor organizer.”
I would dispute Robertson on one key claim: he said that the final TPP was flawed but might ultimately give tangible benefits to Vietnamese workers “through union organizing and empowerment.” But, he added, “when Trump came to power and threw the TPP out the window in one of his first acts, Hanoi’s commitment to labor rights reforms went with it.”
At this late stage of globalized manufacturing, there’s precious little evidence to support such sunny views of regional trade accords as platforms for democratic social improvement. TPP, like NAFTA and a host of other earlier free trade agreements, was chiefly designed to expand business power and profits; their largely pro forma concessions thrown in to provisionally appease labor groups are little more than window dressing that permits Democrats to pretend to care about labor but vote for whatever business groups want, just like Republicans.
I admire Robertson but in my view his remarks are too soft on Obama and only hard enough on Trump. About the latter, he wrote:
Whatever opening Obama achieved on human rights and democracy in Vietnam slammed shut as soon as Trump invited Vietnam’s PM to the White House in 2017 and announced new trade deals. He totally failed to raise a single human rights issue with [Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc]. Vietnam’s diplomats are quite astute but it would have been impossible to miss the signal that the new US administration doesn’t give a damn about human rights in Vietnam. As soon as the PM got back to Hanoi from that trip, we saw a real hardening of attitudes towards activists and dissidents and the rapid expansion of a human rights crackdown that continued until today.
Later in 2017, the American president visited Vietnam during a spin through Asia. “Vietnam Is The Biggest Winner On Donald Trump’s Tour Of Asia,” said a headline in Forbes.
That could hardly bode well for democratic activists on the ground, and the factory floors, in Vietnam. In mid-March, the Vietnamese government assured the workers I’d spoken with that it was in the process of selling all the assets of the factory where they once worked. Soon enough, they were told, they would get a cut of the proceeds to at least in part make good on the wages and severance they were cheated out of.
However, talks between the Vietnamese government and the former factory owner are being conducted in secret. Some of the workers I’d interviewed in Vietnam told me that they believed corrupt government officials were cutting a covert deal with the factory owner and that in the end they would get screwed. In other words: all window dressing aside, the center will indeed hold. Soon enough, a more graciously globalizing America president will stage another pleasingly bland photo-op with the agents of worker repression in the owners’ republic of Vietnam.