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  Happy Meals, Unhappy Workers
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Last EditedRP  Mar 21, 2006 01:48pm
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News DateTuesday, March 21, 2006 07:45:00 PM UTC0:0
DescriptionIt’s nearly five p.m. and factory workers at one of Vietnam’s largest industrial parks flood into the streets of Ho Chi Minh City’s sprawling outskirts. Some of the workers are clocking out, others signing in. Those who are done for the day cross the busy highway to buy groceries from vendors camped along the dusty street. Among them are employees of Danu Vina Corporation, who earn less than $2 for a hard day making stuffed animals that will be sold in the U.S. by Hallmark, Disney, and Starbucks.

A few weeks ago, many of them had joined with ten of thousands of workers to form a massive wave of wildcat strikes protesting low pay and poor working conditions at southern Vietnam’s growing export processing zones and industrial parks.

These foreign owned factories have helped boost the country’s economy. But at the same time, the cost of living has risen, as have the expectations of workers who want to share in the boom.

"The government was caught by surprise at how angry the employees were over their low wages," says Thuyen Nguyen, who directs Vietnam Labor Watch, a San Francisco-based activist group. "But these are people who will not stand for exploitation."

After the strikes, the government increased the minimum wage in foreign invested factories by nearly 40 percent. Monthly earnings went from less than $40 a month to a minimum of $55 in Vietnam’s two biggest cities in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, to $50 in mid-sized cities, and $45 dollars in the rest of the country. The increase will become effective on April 1.

Nguyen says the government’s balancing act is becoming less and less successful as workers get more and more angry. Six months before the eruption of mass strikes in Ho Chi Minh City, for example, 10,000 workers staged an illegal strike at Hong Kong-owned KeyHinge toys in the Central Vietnamese city, Danang. The workers, who manufactured plastic toys given away in McDonalds Happy Meals, told Lao Dong newspaper that unless they worked 12 hours a day without overtime they would be fired.

All involved know that if the needs of foreign companies for the cheap labor and low production costs are not met, they will leave Vietnam. And indeed some factories impacted by the unrest and higher pay have already made that threat.
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