More than a year ago, nearly a thousand workers from a South Korean-owned company in Vietnam walked out in protest against the company’s “irrational regulation” that bans them going to the toilet.
The employees at the handbag manufacturing company lamented that the company gave them a warning and slashed their wages when they went to the toilet “too often.” They were only allowed to use the restrooms from 9:30-10:30 a.m. and from 2-3 p.m., with only three keys to the toilet available per production line. Each line has about 100 workers.
It is only one of the human rights abuse cases that have been raised in Korean-owned companies across Vietnam, a recent report by Korean Trans National Corporation Watch, a network of human rights advocacy groups, revealed.
According to the 64-page report based on interviews with laborers, companies and civic organizations, local workers have suffered from unreasonably low pay, long working hours and constant insults from employers.
Last year, Korean companies paid Vietnamese workers $90 to $135 a month, but the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor views this as being far lower than the basic cost of living, considering the soaring inflation in the country.
Kim Jong-chul, a lawyer for Advocate for Public Interest Law, told the Korea Herald that the Vietnamese government shared responsibility for the situation, as it is accused of keeping the country’s minimum wage low to attract more foreign direct investment.
In 2011, some 2,000 Vietnamese workers for a Hanoi-based Korean company went on a strike, demanding bonus payments and pay raise for overtime. Consumer prices in the first half of the year increased by 13.29 percent, but wages at the company did not rise in line with this, standing at $75 a month.
The report also shed light on verbal and physical abuse in workplaces, noting that Vietnamese workers could not make a complaint about unfair treatment in fear of dismissal.
An unidentified Korean-run company in Vietnam, where the majority of workers were women aged 18 to 25, were accused of forcing female workers to sign contracts that banned them from getting pregnant at least for three years after they were hired. They also had to consult with the company about their pregnancy plans.
According to VGCL, 4 in 10 strikes that occurred in Vietnam between 2009 and 2014 were staged by workers at Korean-owned companies.
About 3,000 Korean companies, of which 66 percent are manufacturers, have entered the Vietnamese market since the early 1990s, investing more than $29 billion there. South Korea is the third-biggest investor in Vietnam, after Japan and Singapore.
“Most of the strikes in Vietnam took place as Korean companies did not abide by labor laws,” said the Kim, who went on a 10-day field trip in Vietnam to look into human rights situation there.
Although many of workers in Southeastern Asian countries have waged strikes, calling for a change in their working environments, the Korean companies have ignored their demands in order to keep production costs down, he said.
Kim, thus, underscored the importance of the role of the Korean Embassy in Vietnam in tackling the human rights violations there.
“The Korean Embassy in Vietnam is currently playing a role only in promoting Korean business in Vietnam, but it should expand its role to monitoring Korean companies and preventing them from violating local workers’ human rights,” Kim concluded.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)