Vietnamese workers confined to factories to make mobile phones for Christmas
The worst of the pandemic in Vietnam seems to be over, but during the summer workers at electronics plants were forced to eat, sleep and work on site to contain the virus. Some were accommodated in hotels, others in tents. The experience has been alienating and analysts wonder to what extent it can be considered forced labour.
Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Tech giants like Samsung and Apple with large production bases in Vietnam have done everything to keep their factories open during the pandemic:
Workers have been held and subjected to strict anti-COVID-19 checks. Those who gave up going home and stayed at plants saw their wages rise or got early vaccination.
All this was done to ensure that mobile phones and tablets would arrive on the shelves of the rest of the world for Christmas.
Until May of this year, the pandemic seemed to have spared Vietnam. But then the virus began to spread among workers in the northern provinces of Bắc Giang and Bắc Ninh, where Samsung and Apple factories are located.
At that point, workers were given an ultimatum: either sleep in the plant and keep their job or go home without a job during a global pandemic.
Many chose the first option, which is how the "three-on-site" strategy was born (work, eat and sleep in the same place), a practice supported by the Vietnamese government, which had to somehow keep the virus under control while reassuring foreign investors that the supply chain of tech products would not be interrupted.
In 2020 Vietnam ranked eleventh as electronics exporter in the world, up 35 places compared to two decades ago.
Some Samsung workers told the Rest of World that during the summer they slept in the factory warehouse on mattresses without air conditioning with at least a hundred crammed into the same room.
For Nam, 23, “In there, the phone was my only friend,” the only chance to stay connected with friends and family.
Most workers described the experience as alienating, never-ending days, little sleep, and almost no privacy.
Viet – whose work at Intel was considered crucial and difficult to replace (for confidentiality reasons he did not say what kind of job he did) – was taken from his home in Ho Chi Minh City when the city was declared a "red zone" and put up in a five-star hotel.
"I feel so lucky," Viet said. "If I had stayed at home, I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t have been infected by now.”
Intel said it spent around US$ 6 million over a month to ensure the presence of workers in its factory.
Workers at Foxconn, an Apple supplier, had their wages increased instead.
Dat, 25, makes cables for iPhone chargers. His salary reached between 13 and 14 million dong (about US$ 575) and in mid-June he was part of the 2 per cent of the population to get the first dose of vaccine.
In return, during the summer his movements were tracked using a QR code, which he had to scan on the shuttle bus that took him to work in the morning and then again before going to lunch in the canteen, where a sign read: "Once you finish eating, get moving immediately. No talking.”
When COVID-19 outbreaks were also reported in factories, some were forced to close by local authorities.
Overall, “It’s the famous ones that tend to avoid any risk of a bad image,” said Julien Brun, managing partner at CEL, a supply chain consultancy based in Hanoi. “If it’s just a subcontractor that nobody knows, then I’ve seen abuse of power.”
In August, a subsidiary of Nidec, a Japanese company that makes machinery parts, was shut down after an outbreak among its workers, who had been housed in tents on a three-story parking lot.
As months went by, companies adapted. Samsung installed showers and beds for female staff as well, workers were tested more frequently, and employment contracts become more flexible for vaccinated workers.
Some analysts note that manufacturing in Vietnam has recovered (although it has not yet reached last year's levels) thanks to the ability of workers to adapt to new and tougher working conditions.
“This wasn’t ‘forced labour’ in the sense of workers being physically bundled into tents, or finding themselves in debt bondage and therefore coerced into the situation,” said Joe Buckley, an expert on Vietnamese labour issues.
“But on another level, all labour is forced labour, as workers need to sell their labour power in order to get money to survive. This is what we saw in Vietnam — the coercion was economic and structural, leaving many workers with little choice.”