When Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte attended the Sustainable Fashion show, themed ‘Walk the Talk’ on 9 April 2019 in Hanoi, the thunderous applause that both of them received was a clear indication of Vietnam’s commitment towards sustainable fashion. And, one cannot overlook the significant role Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) had to play in making the event a success.
The show was organised by FWF and the Dutch Embassy in Vietnam in association with FWF’s partner in Vietnam, CNV Internationaal. The Amsterdam-based FWF is a non-profit organisation that closely works with apparel brands, factories, trade unions, NGOs and Governments to improve working conditions for garment workers in 11 production countries across Asia, Europe and Africa. While applauding the efforts of Vietnamese Premier and his Government to make the country’s apparel and textile sector sustainable, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, “We all need to ensure that women and men who make clothes for us not only must have safe workplace but also should get wages that can cover their actual cost of living.” His thoughts were fully endorsed by Alexander Kohnstamm, Director, FWF.
This is not the first time FWF has been initiating efforts to promote workers’ welfare in Vietnam. Late 2017 had seen FWF organising the Gender Forum in Ha Long Bay during which several business firms and Government officials along with NGOs and trade unions came together and shared solutions to help fight and end gender-based violence in Vietnamese garment factories. Despite the fact that Vietnam has skilled and educated workforce in garment sector, the truth of the matter has also been that millions of female garment workers are victims of harassment at work.
There were also reports of workers being abused verbally and physically, subjected to forced labour and were being assaulted in some cases. FWF has been ensuring that through such forums, some solutions are given to arrest such violence. In fact, the idea of the first Gender Forum to be initiated by the FWF was to prevent violence against men and women in the garment sector through the exchange of information and creation of networks.
FWF has been successfully organising such training and knowledge-sharing events in partnership with International Training Centre of the ILO (ITCILO) and Dutch unions Mondiaal FNV and CNV Internationaal, who have been long-time partners of FWF in Vietnam in the Strategic Partnership for Garment Supply Chain Transformation. With this regard, it is imperative to note that FWF has also been regularly working on anti-harassment committees in garment factories in Bangladesh and India.
Within the framework of the strategic partnership with CNV Internationaal and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, FWF has also been implementing several programmes to improve the lobbying and advocacy capacity of trade unions and labour-related NGOs by enhancing their understanding of international garment supply chains. This partnership aims at living wages and social dialogue along with gender-based violence in country’s apparel sector.
In 2018, FWF had 29 member companies that sourced from nearly 155 factories in Vietnam, with most of them located in and around Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. What has made FWF work so effectively in Vietnam has been its concise strategy and its equally adept execution. Besides having a local audit team in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi and a complaints handler in Hanoi, FWF has been consistently in contact with the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI), the Vietnam Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), the Vietnam trade union VGCL and a number of grassroots labour NGOs in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hai Phuong. It is these stakeholders who have, over the years, formed the basis of FWF’s working strategy in Vietnam. Notably, last year, FWF conducted 23 factory audits at members’ suppliers and handled 13 new complaints.
FWF has also been ensuring that the industry is completely aware of all the processes in the fashion and apparel supply chain right from the apparel factories in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to the stores in Amsterdam. Its activities in Vietnam have lately also focused on the implementation of the Workplace Education Programme, to raise awareness on labour rights and grievance mechanisms. It is noteworthy that in 2018, FWF organised 18 training sessions for both management and workers.
The FWF Code of Labour Practices is based on the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It ensures employment is freely chosen and there is no discrimination, there is no exploitation of child labour, freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, payment of a living wage, no excessive working hours, safe and healthy working conditions and legally binding employment relationship. More on the same, Sebastian Sasse, General Director, bei S4 Fashion Partner Vietnam Ltd., averred “FWF does check all factories according to the Code of Labour Practices and after audit it also gives an action plan to the factories to rework on the observations; however, I feel FWF also needs to strictly check on their part to ensure if there is any improvement. This is one area, FWF needs to work on.” FWF, indeed, has some challenges ahead to be overcome in Vietnam and the good part is that it is on the way to combat those challenges.
So what are the biggest challenges for FWF in Vietnam!
While US is today the biggest market for apparels from Vietnam, Japan and EU come second and third, respectively. The formalisation of free trade agreement (FTA) between Europe and Vietnam is expected to further enhance business opportunities in Vietnam. And this could also enable creating major revisions in labour laws, especially with regard to freedom of association. The Vietnam General Confederation of Labour, better known as VGCL, is today the only recognised union organisation and therefore freedom of association remains the most challenging area for FWF in Vietnam mainly in terms of labour rights.
Most of the textile and garment factory unions are reliant on management and therefore many times they fail in representing the workers especially in matters of negotiation with management. Similarly, though law encourages social dialogue at the workplace, union’s weakness does not allow the law to be effectively implemented. FWF feels it has a big role to play in the coming years to combat this challenge.
Early this year, the Government of Vietnam, through a tripartite National Wage Council, had increased the minimum wage between €110 and €160 depending on the zones. Though this tripartite structure is promising and has set a good example for many Asian manufacturing nations, the biggest challenge for FWF, however, is to include factory workers in collective bargaining and wage negotiations. Despite increase in wage structure, the workers are still struggling to meet their daily ends.
In one of its audits, FWF highlighted that excessive overtime is the major violation of workers’ rights in garment factories across Vietnam. Workers majorly depend on wages earned during overtime hours, and to not receive the same on time severely impacts their livelihood. Reducing excessive overtime in the Vietnamese garment industry remains another major challenge for brands and factories in Vietnam.
Some of the other challenges include incomplete labour contracts, resignation policies not correctly implemented and very little awareness among garment workers about their rights. The good thing, however, is that the garment industry in Vietnam, in general, has witnessed a significant improvement in health and safety standards and are continuously improving their internal compliance system and with the FWF committed to overcome the existing challenges, one could see the lives of garment workers on an upswing.
When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur.
John Wooden, American basketball legend