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Shorter working week on way

Released at: 08:24, 09/12/2019

Shorter working week on way

Photos: Viet Tuan

Opinions are unsurprisingly mixed about proposed amendments to the Labor Law that would see the average working week cut by a few hours.

by Le Diem

A recent proposal from the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) on reducing employees’ working hours has, needless to say, attracted a lot of attention from both workers and businesses. Though opposing views have been expressed, the proposal is still regarded as the position of the majority of workers, especially manual workers in the manufacturing and service sectors.

Industrious nation

According to the proposal for the draft of the amended Labor Law 2019, VGCL seeks to reduce working hours for manual workers from 48 to 44 hours a week and to 40 hours by 2030. The move would bring equality between manual workers and others who have worked 40 hours a week since 1999. 

Vietnam has among the highest average weekly working hours in the world, at 48 hours, according to VGCL. It remains, however, among those with the lowest GDP per capita. Employees in developed countries in Asia such as Singapore, China, and Japan work from 40 to 44 hours a week while those in Europe work even less, especially countries with high GDP per capita such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, and others, where it ranges from 33 to 36 hours a week. 

Vietnam also has the fewest public holidays in the region, with just ten, compared to 13 in Malaysia, 16 in Indonesia, Thailand, and Japan, 19 in the Philippines, 21 in China, and 28 in Cambodia. VGCL therefore also proposed the addition of three more public holidays to the calendar. 

Overall the moves aim to give workers more time to rest and ease the burden they carry in regard to workplace productivity and economic growth, according to Mr. Le Dinh Quang, Deputy Head of VGCL’s Labor Affairs Division. It also follows the International Labor Organization’s Convention 47 on a 40-hour week for workers. 

Worn-out workers

The proposal was welcomed by most workers. In a survey conducted by VGCL on more than 2,500 employees, 82 per cent agreed with a reduction in working hours to 44 hours a week. 

One respondent, Ms. Nguyen Minh Hang, a 22-year-old worker at a tile manufacturer in Ha Long city, works six days a week from morning to evening. Though she is young and single, she doesn’t go out too often to meet friends. “When I get home from work it’s usually late and I’m exhausted,” she said. “After dinner, I just want to sleep. My day off is the best time of the week for me as I can sleep all day.” 

Married workers, meanwhile, are busy when they get home as they must take care of their kids and do the housework. Many struggle and decide to send their kids to live with their parents and visit them whenever they can. Along with working 48 hours a week, many also put in extra hours, either at the direction of the company or by their own choice. “We don’t want to work so much,” said Ms. Le Thi Ngoc, who works at a textile company in Hai Duong province, near Hanoi. “Everyone wants to work less and rest more. But we work long hours so we have enough money for ourselves and our children.”

Many respondents preferred to continue working the same hours, as they are paid by the hour or by products produced, so would lose part of their weekly income. All agreed with the proposal if they were to be paid the same amount. 

Their bosses, though, think differently. Most are concerned that a reduction in working hours would eat into productivity and Vietnam’s economic competitiveness and increase pressure on local enterprises. 

Vietnam attracts a lot of foreign investment because of its low labor costs, Ms. Dao Thu Huyen from the Japan Business Association in Vietnam told VET. If working hours were to be reduced, enterprises would find it difficult to complete orders on time and may lose their reputation, while some manufacturers may move to a more competitive country. She added that other countries in Southeast Asia have a 48-hour working week, such as Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, and Cambodia.

Agreeing, Mr. Nguyen Hai Thanh, Head of the Recruitment Department at the Bibo Mart JSC, said reductions in working hours should differ in different industries, like manufacturing, services, and trade. Manufacturing requires a maximum working time to fulfil orders on time and guarantee quality, given that workplace productivity in Vietnam is still low. He acknowledged, however, that productivity not only comes from the workforce but also other factors such as technological renovation. 

Less is better

Some companies have already introduced working weeks of 44-46 hours. At the Hai Phong Economic Zone Authority in northern Hai Phong city, 153 out of its 186 enterprises allow workers, who total nearly 100,000, to have one or two Saturdays off every month, together with every Sunday, according to a VGCL study. It hasn’t changed productivity, as these companies have increased their manufacturing technology investment, according to Mr. Quang. Moreover, it actually helps reduce worker turnover, which is good news for enterprises as finding manual workers can be quite difficult in Hai Phong. 

A reduced working week proved successful in Japan, long-known for having the longest working hours in the world, with nearly a quarter of Japanese enterprises requiring employees work more than 80 hours of overtime each month. But Japan remains one of the most overworked and least-productive countries in the G7, according to a CNBC report that used data from the OECD Compendium of Productivity Indicators. Microsoft Japan recently broke that trend, with a bold new strategy to improve the work-life balance of its workers by introducing a three-day weekend. Productivity increased 39.9 per cent.

Overall workplace productivity in Vietnam is low, in large part because of the agriculture sector. If manufacturing is counted separately, workplace productivity is not low at all, Mr. Quang added. He also believes that cheap labor costs should not be considered a competitive advantage and that people should work less, as workplace productivity does not depend on working hours but on machinery, technology, and effective business management. Working less is better for the health of employees and allows them to care for their family. 

Long working hours do indeed have a negative effect on the physical and mental health of workers, according to Associate Professor Nguyen Bach Ngoc from Thang Long University, who has conducted research and prepared reports on Vietnam’s workforce. Figures from the Ministry of Health in 2017 showed that about 15 per cent of Vietnamese, or some 14.3 million people, have mental disorders from stress, in which the major cause is long working hours. The rate of workplace accidents is also higher at the end of a working day and during overtime, according to the latest report from the Department of Work Safety at the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs. 

Moreover, excessive working hours allows little opportunity for workers to upgrade their skills, have leisure time, or care their family, which could have an impact on society, Associate Professor Ngoc believes. “In this era of Industry 4.0, machinery and technology can do more work, and the health of workers should be paramount,” he said.

Few manual workers can toil for 48 hours a week for extended periods. In another survey released in October by VGCL in cooperation with the Vietnam Women’s Union, 50.7 per cent of the more than 1 million respondents disagreed with a proposal from the confederation to raise the retirement age from 55 to 60 for women and from 60 to 62 for men. Most even plan to retire earlier, as they already feel worn-out and unable to work full-time after turning 50. Many workers therefore look forward to the proposal of less working hours being approved so they can strike a better work / life balance while still contributing to society. 

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