Supporting Worker Participation in Factories in Vietnam
Some of us (and this definitely includes me) have sweated bitter hours over flat-pack furniture. However, it’s fair to say that fitting together even the most fiendish collection of wood pieces into a double bed is child’s play compared to actually working in the factories that produced it.
Chances are your next piece of flat-pack furniture will have been produced in a South East Asian factory like the ones I was visiting last week in South Vietnam with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) – of which the TUC is a member, along with NGOs and businesses. We saw workers toiling away in poor light and sweltering temperatures for long hours. Speaking to workers in one factory revealed they earned on average 3 million Dong per month (£93) which is above the minimum wage but significantly below what Asian Floor Wage estimate as the living wage for the area.
Unfortunately, such conditions are common. A number of British companies have expressed positive commitments towards improving workers’ rights in the factories they source from by signing up to the ETI Base Code of nine core labour rights. These include freedom of association, a living wage and safe working conditions.
It can be difficult for companies to establish whether labour rights are being respected, however, as they tend to rely on audits which rarely reveal the true condition for workers. Importantly they rarely capture industrial relations in a factory. Worker participation is crucial for improving pay and conditions, as a recent Oxfam report notes.
The purpose of the ETI trip was to explore how to connect sourcing companies in the UK with factories in Vietnam to develop such areas as worker participation and improve conditions. During the trip we heard more on the work the International Labour Organisation is doing in the sector in the form of its Sustaining Competitive and Responsible Enterprises (SCORE) programme. This shows the positive impact that information on worker cooperation can have on factories. The programme provides training on, among other issues, workplace cooperation and health and safety standards for furniture SMEs in Vietnam. It recently reported that participating factories have improved health and safety conditions in the factory as a result of the training.
As part of ETI’s core supply chain programme work, it will be running a project in Vietnam supported by TUC Aid, to encourage cooperation at different levels of the supply chain and between workers and management within factories. We hope this will develop a culture where the Base Code is promoted as a matter of course rather than ‘policed’ through audits. As SCORE shows, better industrial relations can also have a positive impact on productivity and sustainability of the business. Furthermore, if factories are recognised by buyers as good employers it may also strengthen their motivation to collaborate in the promotion of good practice.
So before you buy your next piece of flat-pack furniture to while away the hours, encourage the retailer to sign up to ETI and support workers in the factories they source from to give workers more say over their pay and conditions.