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On the eve of the 10th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Buddhist leader Thich Quang Do Calls for the Creation of a Free Trade Union to Protect Worker Rights in Vietnam

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PARIS, 30th March 2006 (IBIB) – The International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) received today an “Open Letter” from Venerable Thich Quang Do, prominent dissident and Head of the Executive Institute (Vien Hoa Dao) of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), calling on international labour movements, donor agencies and governments, as well as the Communist Party of Vietnam and the government to take swift action to alleviate the poverty of Vietnamese workers and improve their working conditions. In the letter, dated 27th March 2006, and entitled “We must save Vietnamese workers and employees”, expressed the UBCV’s solidarity with the concerns expressed by hundreds of thousand workers in the widespread read strikes that have broken out since December last year in factories and industrial parks in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and southern Vietnam and are now spreading in the Central and Northern provinces. In the textile industry alone, over 140,000 workers participated in 150 strikes in the first two months of 2006 alone, twice more than the total number of strikes in the whole year of 2005.

In his letter, Thich Quang Do also called on the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to place worker rights high on the agenda of the upcoming 10th National Party Congress (April 18-25 2006), and guarantee workers the right to establish a “Free Trade Union of Vietnam”, independent from the current State-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labour.

Deploring Vietnam’s poor economic performance compared to its regional neighbours, Venerable Thich Quang Do observed that “in 1950, the average per capita revenue in Vietnam was 80.5% that of Thailand – by 1999 it was only 20% ; 85% that of South Korea, just 12% in 1999”. “Vietnam remains one of the poorest nations in ASEAN, standing only above Laos, Cambodia and Burma”. Since “the minimum basic wage in State-owned enterprises is a mere 0.733 US cents per day”, workers could barely survive, let alone feed their families. “Workers are paid starvation wages in Vietnam”, said Thich Quang Do.

He also condemned the government for tolerating the “sweat-shop” working conditions prevalent in many foreign-invested enterprises and factories (FIEs). “In order to attract foreign investment, the Party and government are sacrificing worker rights, and turning the Vietnamese workers into slaves of multinational capitalist conglomerates”.

At the same time, in stark contrast with the “poverty endured by 80% of the population, especially in the remote rural areas and the highlands”, many officials and Party cadres are living in high luxury as a result of the rampant corruption that permeates all levels of the CPV : “Not just high-ranking Party cadres, but those at company-director level travel to Singapore for medical treatment and go on gambling sprees in Macao”. He cited the case of Bui Tien Dung, head of “PMU 18” who spent millions of US dollars on gambling, betting US$ 2.4 million in football games in just two months at the beginning of the year.

During the recent mass strikes, workers had expressed their grievances to the government to no avail, said Thich Quang Do. He cited an 8-point demand addressed to CPV Secretary-general Nong Duc Manh by 5 representatives of striking workers in Southern and Central Vietnam (18.2.2006) : “We are alive, but our lives have been stolen. Our fathers’ lives were stolen, our own lives have now been stolen too… In Vietnam we have a saying : criminals rob at night, corrupt officials rob in broad daylight”… [Because of] the Party’s infernal calculations, the Vietnamese people have not enough to live, and not even enough to die !”.

The widespread worker protests had prompted President Tran Duc Luong to publicly apologise to executives of the Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean FIEs. “But the CPV and the government have not uttered a word of apology to the exploited Vietnamese workers, nor made the slightest promise to raise their living standards, improve their working conditions, provide social services and health care, or allow them to defend their rights by setting up free trade unions”.

On behalf of the UBCV, in his Open Letter, Thich Quang Do called upon :

“1) The Vietnamese Communist Party to urgently raise the fundamental “life and death” question of Vietnamese workers at the upcoming 10th National Congress and realize three essential points : 1. bring the workers’ standard of living into line with international standards ; 2. guarantee the welfare of Vietnamese workers by providing adequate social security protection and access to medical care, including compensation for accidents in the work-place and retirement pensions ; 3. of paramount importance – guarantee workers the right to establish a Free Trade Union of Vietnam, independent from the State-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labour. This independent trade union should have full rights to engage in collective bargaining, defend worker rights, and establish proactive links with international institutions such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (Brussels) etc… The CPV and State should recognize its workers as the driving force of a dynamic national economy, not as a mere commodity. This goes for workers both inside Vietnam and those “exported” overseas ;

“2) International labour movements and trade unions in South-east Asia, Japan, Europe, the USA, Australia and all over the world to examine the drastic situation of Vietnamese workers, employees and manual labourers, and actively support them by raising their concerns at the highest international level and pressing Vietnam to urgently improve the living standards and working conditions of 80% of the Vietnamese working population ;

“3. the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, all donor agencies, governments, Members of Congress and Parliaments in Europe, Asia and the United States that currently provide development aid to Vietnam to take steps to ensure that workers rights are respected in all internationally-funded projects”.

Venerable Thich Quang Do concluded by calling on all Buddhists abroad to support the struggle of Vietnamese workers by informing their local authorities, governments, Members of Congress or Parliament, international human rights organisations and labour movements on violations of worker rights in Vietnam, and urging them to take urgent action to redress these grave abuses.

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