It’s rare and refreshing to see something so honest in print. It’s a sensitive issue but also an important one. When talking about foreign direct investment (FDI) in Viet Nam or wherever, the human element, which should always be of paramount importance in the spirit of people over profits, is too often neglected or overlooked. (I’ve been guilty of this myself on occasion in touting Viet Nam’s economic success story with too much emphasis on the macro to the detriment of the micro.)
Here’s an excerpt that I hope will whet your appetite for more.
I used to work in a Chinese company’s toy factory located in an industrial park. My job was to clean the toys by using a small piece of alcohol-soaked cloth to wipe away spilt paint. Having to sit all day in the factory in intense summer heat, the loud noises of engines, the shouts of team managers and the smell of paint and plastic was a tiring experience – physically and mentally exhausting.
There were so many times I wanted to quit. But I would reason with myself: “Hasn’t mother been working here for years? I am a worker, so who am I to demand anything? I can only accept this.” Each time I thought I would take advantage of the toilet break to get some rest, I would turn back from the lavatory doors without entering because the stench was terrible.
For lunch, everyone was given coupons to exchange for food at the cafeteria, but most people brought lunch with them from home. The food prepared by the company for workers was difficult to swallow. The rice was dry and hard, the fish looked like fish but didn’t taste like fish, and the broth was just salty water with a few stalks of vegetables.
Every once in a while, I was also assigned to clean out the trash. The work was tough, but I endured it for the monthly wage of VND3.5 million ($150.95), which was a rather large sum for me then.
The substandard working conditions, a common problem, can be regulated by the government. Companies that are not caring and responsible should be forced to be. Ditto for the salary. People have the right to safe working conditions, a living wage, and good benefits. They should be appreciated for their work not exploited in the relentless pursuit of profit.
This of course is the Achilles heel of capitalism. Most people are obliged to sell their labor and are at the mercy of the entity with which they enter into that agreement. Some are more progressive than others. For others, human beings, with their own needs, hopes, and dreams, are simply cogs in a machine, a means to an end: production. It is not only about the “eagles” at the top of the economic food chain. The less regulated a capitalist system is, the more opportunity for exploitation and other abuses, including environmental pollution, and the potential for an oligarchy to evolve.
Viet Nam, which boasts a self-proclaimed “socialist-oriented market economy,” must ensure that the relationship between worker and employer is both fair and equitable. Just look at the various types of capitalism that exist around the world, e.g., the USA contrasted with many European countries. The role of government is key in ending the kind of exploitation Ms. Ly describes in her article. So is worker consciousness, which differs from country to country.
Investment is good but at what human cost? The author concludes with an obvious rhetorical question: As long as such factories like the one that my mother works for exist, can we still be proud of our labor market, or as some call it, Vietnam’s ‘national competitive advantage?‘
Shalom (שלום), MAA