Hanoi , November 2005
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HANOI
Throughout January tens of thousands of workers went on wildcat strikes in key
industrial areas, smashing machinery, paralyzing exports and production lines at foreign-owned
companies. Finally the government pacified their ire with a soothing forty per cent minimum wage
The generous wage solution didnâ€™t happen in one of our â€˜democraticâ€™
capitalist societies where strikes are still legitimate (and so are trade unions) but in communist
Vietnam where strikes are banned, dissent is harshly punished and independent trade unions are
very, very illegal.
Like their Chinese neighbors the party bosses in Hanoi are finding it more vexing by
the day to curb the growing aspirations and expectations of a work force that has been
demanding more personal benefits from the lucrative fallout of an economy considered one of the
fastest growing in the world today.
In fact the 40 per cent wage hike was not as munificent as it might appear since it only
took the basic wage to $45 a month in a country where the signs of an industrial boom are
Today gigantic billboards line expressways like beacons of a new materialistic
ideology. The signs bear the names and ads of major pan-nationals that have carved a track to
Vietnam opening factories, assembly lines and subsidiaries. The billboards are a â€˜Who is Whoâ
€™ of the industrial nomenclature in the developed world, all obviously anxious to tap into the
cheap labor market and walk the red carpet of government tax and land concessions.
Until a few years ago Hanoi, unlike its southern sister Saigon, was a drowsy
backwater of tricycles and bicycles, dour party officials and a regimented population. It was
trailing badly behind a promiscuous southern capital where communism never sank more then a
superficial root and commerce not credo remained the main motivator of citizen.
But today Vietnamâ€™s capital is an anthill of tooting motor scooters, the nationâ
€™s main mode of transport, of teenagers in mini skirts, tight jeans and punk hairdos. Entire
families, four or five strong, are perched on these Made in China scooters whose numbers are so
daunting at peak hours the scooter-cavalcade blocks major avenues. Without helmets and mostly
without licenses (licenses can be procured without a driving test) youngsters career up and down
avenues late at night, each scooter blasting its horns in a cacophony that comprises Hanoiâ€™s
main contribution to urban â€˜music.â€™ At every corner â€˜scooter taxisâ€™ wait to ferry the
brave (and their protruding kneecaps) at breakneck speed to destinations.
New houses, those three floor â€˜slim-lineâ€™ Vietnamese homes, mushroomed not only
in the cities but in rural areas where farmers have sold part of their land to affluent city folk. The
city slickers then built a holiday home. The farmers, with the money from the sale of their land,
build a mini-skyscraper for themselves. Around Hanoi and along the Red River the rural
construction boom has created an urban skyline, swelling villages into towns, deserted for most of
the week but bustling at the weekend.
In one of these new houses Mai, a farmerâ€™s wife in her late seventies with a row of
broken teeth in a mouth rouged by chewing beetle-nuts, tried to explain why all her furniture -
stove, double-bed (kang), TV and kitchen utensils - were crammed into the one room on the
ground floor of her new three-storey home.
Mai explained the family had always lived at ground level in the thatched mud-brick cottage
she had now sold to a city lady. â€œWe donâ€™t like it up there!â€� she added, pointing to the
two empty floors and rooftop terrace above.
So why build such a tall new house?
Mai looked surprised: â€œWe had to,â€� she said: â€œAll our neighbors built. We didnâ
€™t want to look poor, did we?â€�
Of course, the neighbors also continue to live on the ground floor. Some have now moved
their poultry upstairs.
Envy and keeping up with the Smiths next door is a national scourge in Vietnam, just as it is
in China. Successful entrepreneurs in Hanoi told me they continue to drive their scooters rather
then buy a car â€œso people wonâ€™t think Iâ€™m rich and become jealous.â€�
Cars, a growing number of them, are still the privilege of party officials and those tycoons
who can afford to pay an army of security guards.
The problem of how to keep the people as equal as possible without making it obvious
some are more equal then others has proven a head ache for the party bosses who tried to quash
labor unrest with the magnanimous forty per cent rise in minimum wages.
Of course there was a hook to their generosity: The rise applied only to workers in foreign-
owned companies, the locomotives of the economy, but not to Vietnamese enterprises. Needless
to say the one-sided ruling enraged those who do not work for a foreign company and therefore
are already penalized since foreign companies generally pay higher wages then national companies.
With New Year celebrations for the Year of the Dog now over the workers are mobilizing
again to ask for the minimum wage rise right across the board â€“ and not from April, if you
please, but right now from the first of February. Like it or not, workers in the last communist
bastions are less worried about the lack of democracy today as they are by the lack of a fairer
share of the profits.
The entire labor affair is not without political significance; exploding just two months before
the five yearly Party Congress decides who stays boss and who joins the sideline, whose policy
triumphs and whose is discarded.
The unrest has embarrassed most of all the provincial party cadres around Saigon where
the worst of the labor troubles took place. The Saigon cadres, their egos inflated by the economic
punch of their region, the most industrialized and affluent in the country, may have suffered a
serious setback to their ambitions for a bigger say in federal affairs. The party hardliners will argue
the Saigon cadres failed to prevent the workers from striking and therefore endangered the entire
economy and the flow of foreign investments which last year alone ran up $5.8 billion.
In fact investors will probably take another hard look at Vietnam. In a letter to Prime
Minister Phan Van Khai the European Unionâ€™s Chamber of Commerce made it quite clear its
investors had been assured Vietnam was a country without industrial action and the Chamber
took a dim view of the wildcat strikes. This is the same European Union which pays loud lip
service to workersâ€™ rights but whines like a spoiled child when these workersâ€™ rights cut
Union membersâ€™ profits.
There is another side to the baffling surrender by the party to workersâ€™ demands:
Like China Vietnam is beginning to feel it has now learned enough from its foreign investors and
joint ventures to go it alone, at least in industries without complicated know-how.
For many Vietnam watchers the wildcat strikes, which police ignored in a country that has
always bludgeoned into submission any protest, may have been a watershed for the economic
course of the country. (ends)