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Worker Identities and the Origins of Capital in Vietnam


Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Distinguished Fellow on Southeast Asia
Shorenstein APARC
Senior Fellow, Emeritus

The Vietnamese government legalized strikes in 1995. Since then Vietnamese workers have gone on strike more than 1,500 times. Most of these actions have erupted in factories established by capital investments from South Korea and Taiwan. Far fewer have been reported in factories relying on private investments from other countries or in publicly funded and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). When labor protests do occur in SOEs, they tend to be less confrontational, involving petitions and letters of complaint sent to local labor newspapers and relevant officials. Explaining these differences is a major purpose of Prof. Tran's research.

Professor Tran does not take class consciousness for granted. Her focus is on what she calls the "nexus of identity" of workers, including where they come from in Vietnam, their gender, and the networks of relations that these attributes imply. To what extent, and how, does that nexus influence their sense of belonging to a working class and their willingness to engage in collective action, including strikes?

Intriguing in this context is how, at critical moments, many older workers, who grew up exposed to socialist ideology, have managed to turn organizational extensions of the state, including labor unions and labor newspapers, into instruments of protest. Ironically, in this respect, Vietnamese workers appear to have not less but more options for influence than workers in some other Southeast Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. An illustration is the way Vietnamese workers proactively use the labor press as locales for championing their rights and, in effect, negotiating such rights with the state and the official labor unions.

Professor Tran was a Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Distinguished Fellow on Southeast Asia in 2008.