A few days before the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) took effect on August 1, 2020, leaders of the EU mentioned the issue of human rights and labor rights in Vietnam.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on July 29.
She wrote on Twitter: “There was a very good conversation with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Our trade deal will take effect from August 1. That’s great news for our economy – every opportunity needs to be restored to its power. This is also an opportunity for Vietnamese people to witness positive change and enjoy stronger human rights.”
In a press release issued by the EC on July 31, Ms. Leyen emphasized: “I strongly believe that this agreement will also become an opportunity for Vietnamese people to enjoy more prosperous economy and witness a more positive change and stronger human rights for workers and citizens in their countries.”
EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan stated that Vietnam is currently in a group of 77 countries having trade relations with the EU under bilateral preferential terms.
He commented that the EVFTA shows that trade policies also create a motivation for social development. “Vietnam has made great efforts to improve workers’ rights through trade negotiations, and I express my belief that Vietnam will continue the necessary reforms,” he said.
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Huong, a Vietnamese human rights activist in Denmark, told VOA that the requirement to monitor human rights violations is an important factor in the implementation of EVFTA.
“In the EVFTA, the EU emphasizes that Vietnam must respect human rights, sustainable development, and respect the rights of workers and the right to association.”
Nguyen Hoang Hai, a Vietnamese human rights activist in Brussels, Belgium, wrote on Twitter on August 3: “Sustainable development, freedom of expression, and rule of law. Without these, the EVFTA would only enrich multinational companies and their hypocritical cronyism groups in the European Trade Commission (EU Trade), European People’s Party (EPP), and the Coalition for Social-Democratic Progress.”
The court sentenced members of the Constitutional group to more than 40 years in prison
On July 31, the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh city sentenced eight members of the Constitutional group to a total of 40 years and six months in prison on charges of “disturbing security” under Article 118 of the Criminal Code.
Specifically, the sentence for each person is: Ms. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh – 8 years in prison and Hoang Thi Thu Vang – 7 years in prison.
Mr. Do The Hoa, Mr. Le Quy Loc and Mr. Ngo Van Dung were sentenced to 5 years in prison each.
Mr. Tran Thanh Phuong was sentenced to 5 years and 6 months, Ho Dinh Cuong 4 years and 6 months in prison, while Doan Thi Hong, even though having a child under 3 years old, is still sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison.
Each person will be put on probation for 2-3 years after completing the sentence.
The trial was declared public, but relatives of the activists were not allowed to attend.
The indictment of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Procuracy attributed this to a group of dissatisfied people with the government, often exposed to the above information with bad content on social networks.
These people are believed to have shared videos on Facebook personally to appeal, incite, and engage people in protests against the two bills on Special Economic Zones and Cyber Security in June 2018.
Regarding the sentencing of 8 people of the Constitution group, the Facebook page of the EU Delegation to Vietnam issued the following message:
“The sentencing of eight human rights activists by the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court on July 31 has increased the number of human rights defenders and bloggers who are convicted by Vietnamese courts in 2020. These individuals have fought for the promotion and protection of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution, as well as in the International Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The conviction of these individuals is clearly a violation of international commitments that Vietnam has signed and the EU expects a respect.
The freedom to express and express opinions online and in society is a cornerstone of democracy and makes an important contribution to ensuring transparency, social justice, sustainable and inclusive development as well as stability and prosperity.
The EU is strongly committed to protecting human rights activists worldwide. We continue to work with the authorities and stakeholders to improve the human rights situation in Vietnam.”
At the end of June 2020, a group of Vietnamese intellectuals formed the Vietnam Independence Union, with the motto of “fighting for the protection of workers’ legitimate rights and interests” before Vietnam’s opportunity to implement EVFTA.
Shortly thereafter, on July 10, the Capital Defense Newspaper stated that the establishment of the Vietnam Independence Union “is a violation of the law that must be handled.” The newspaper of the Party Committee – Hanoi Capital Command said: “It is an organization in opposition to the political system in our country. It is necessary to remove it from social life.”
Despite the immediate difficulties in the legal procedures and the legitimacy of an unrecognized union, the establishment of the Vietnam Independence Union marked a turning point for millions of Vietnamese workers amid international integration.
From Hanoi, Mr. Benn Dang, Secretary General of the Vietnam Independence Union (VIU), told VOA the meaning and purpose of the organization.
“We are a non-political, non-profit organization. We were founded on practical needs, want to pursue the mission of protecting the legitimate rights of Vietnamese workers in the context of international integration, especially when Vietnam has just joined the two agreements EVFTA and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).”
“This event marks an opening step, that is, Vietnamese society is becoming more and more open, gradually keeping up with the universal values of Western countries,” Mr. Benn Dang said.
In its announcement of the establishment of the Vietnam Independence Union, published on June 21, the organization wrote: “The reality shows that only unions are truly independent, do not depend on any party, do not suffer from a business. Those who dominate will dare to stand up and focus on the struggle to protect the legitimate rights and interests of workers.”
“Competition between labor representative organizations will help workers and businesses enjoy equal economic benefits,” the VIU statement said.
The statement added: “We hope to accompany the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) in its mission to protect the rights and legitimate interests of workers effectively and improve public life. In order to gain fair competition among businesses, it also helps Vietnamese workers enjoy the same benefits as other countries in CPTPP and EVFTA.”
Facing the demands of free trade agreements, Vietnam was forced to amend its Labor Law. Specifically, on November 20, 2019, Vietnam’s highest legislative body National Assembly passed a revised Labor Law, which allowed the establishment of independent unions, i.e., not belonging to the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) which is under supervision of the ruling communist party. The revised Labor Code will take effect from January 1, 2021.
Shortly thereafter, the US Embassy in Vietnam said that “The National Assembly of Vietnam has enacted a historic law, which allows the establishment of independent trade unions at the grassroots level. The US Government recognizes that allowing the establishment of independent unions is an important step towards bringing Vietnam’s legal framework closer to international labor standards.”
Although the Labor Law has allowed it, the Trade Union Law has not been revised, and so far, there has been no bylaws providing guidance on the establishment of an independent independent trade union. VIU expects to be soon registered and being recognized in Vietnam.