Activism, APHEDA

Global solidarity: APHEDA's work in the Mekong Region

Peter Stokes has been engaged in the trade union movement in Western Australia since the 1980s. He has a long and proud history caring for workers in this country, and now his work with APHEDA sees him protecting workers' rights in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. 

Starting as an Adult Trainer with the first WA Trades & Labour Council (Unions WA) OSH Health and Safety Unit in 1989 training OSH Reps, Peter continued his work in the movement as the Education Officer with the CFMEU following that for 2 years. In the 1990s and early 2000s he worked as an Industrial Officer, Organiser and Union Educator with the CPSU/CSA and SSTUWA. During the 1990s Peter was involved in the Solidarity Park and MUA campaigns in WA, bringing members together from across the State. From 2005 Peter was an Industrial Officer for 6 years with the NTEU working at Curtin University and UWA. Now, he shares the story of his newest passion - global solidarity - and the amazing work of union aid organisation APHEDA.

  • Asbestos
    Asbestos sheets litter the neighbourhood in Ky Son
  • Community meeting
    Members hold meetings with members of the community
  • Education session
    Education session in Hai Phong
  • Union rally
    Members rally in Bac Kan against domestic violence
  • VGCL
    The Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) is making changes which will allow it to survive and thrive in the new environment.
  • Supporting Women's Independence
    APHEDA has been working with the Women’s Union in Bac Kan Province, Vietnam, on reducing the incidence of domestic violence.
  • teng rany
    Sister Teng Rany, Project Officer with Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA Cambodia

Over the last three years I was a volunteer based in Hanoi and was working as the Mekong Regional Advisor on Workers’ Education for Union Aid Abroad – Australian People for Health Education and Development Abroad (APHEDA) in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

APHEDA was established, at the instigation of an Australian nurse named Helen McCue, in 1984 as the international solidarity, aid and development agency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). APHEDA is non-profit, secular and progressive; supporting partnerships for socio-economic development, trade union and labour-based programs in developing countries around the world. APHEDA is committed to justice and solidarity and to self-reliance, not charity. APHEDA’s main objective is to work for global social change for justice, human rights and decent work through broad ranging aid programs that work in solidarity with workers, marginalized people and communities.

The Australian trade union movement has had a long relationship with Vietnam trade unions as a consequence of its opposition to the Vietnam War and Vietnamese unionists often make reference to the positive role Australian unions played during that time. The legacy of this relationship, and the respect it engenders, cannot be underestimated when considering the work of APHEDA in the region, as relationship and partnership are critical for successful project outcomes.

There are two main branches to the international work of APHEDA and can be broadly categorized into “decent work”  (trade union capacity building, wages, working conditions, job security) and “decent life” (food water, shelter, education, health). My role was focused on trade union capacity building in the three countries in the Mekong region. The focus was, and is, on grassroots trade union capacity building in workplaces with grassroots trade union leaders and union group leaders (union representatives)

So, in 2014, with a background of working in Western Australian blue and white trade unions, I started working as a volunteer with APHEDA. My background was industrial unionism with a strong emphasis on democratic unionism and a vigorous approach to representing white and blue-collar workers. Also, my background as a union educator was based in the western tradition of participatory education where critical thinking and questioning are essential. I was soon to discover that there are many cultural differences and operational styles that went far beyond simply food, music and lifestyles.

The Australian industrial relations system is over a 100 years old and has developed a complex and comprehensive system of operation in an advanced industrial economic setting, including: conciliation and arbitration, centralized wage fixing, enterprise bargaining, industry unionism, and, democratic unionism.  Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have had a different economic, social and political history; and trade unionism in the region reflects these differences.

Vietnam has experienced many years of war and chaos and only recently has it experienced peace. Since the 1970s the one party state focused on state owned enterprises and therefore there was a close relationship between government and trade unions. The understanding was that the interests were identical and both were working in the best interests of the country and workers. One important point to be made is that the close relationship between the state and trade unions has allowed for progressive labour laws and a respect for, and recognition of, trade unions in both Vietnam and Laos. In the interests of economic development the focus of the trade unions in representing workers was maintaining ‘harmony’ in the workplace to ensure economic growth. What evolved was what I would call a ‘social welfare’ form of unionism where the major work of unions was to maintain workplace ‘harmony’, encouraging workers to be ‘good’ workers, and, to engage in welfare issues such as looking after sick and poor workers, and, facilitating games and cultural activities for workers in workplaces. What we understand as the traditional industrial activities of unions is not the traditional experience of Vietnamese, or Laos, trade unions.

The economic setting in Vietnam changed in 1986 where “Doi Moi” (renovation or economic reforms) was introduced by the government in endeavors to free up the economy by allowing national and international private enterprises to operate in the country, with the aim of assisting economic development. These economic changes had a marked impact and Vietnam continues to economically develop at a rapid rate. However, trade unions experiences and operations were centered in the previous operations of a state run economy where wages and working conditions were mutually agreed to. The new world of private enterprise and profits required a new set of skills and understandings if trade unions were to effectively represent the interests of its members in the growing world of private enterprise.

There have been a number of APHEDA volunteers working with Vietnam trade unions in endeavors to develop trade union capacity to deal with the new economic environment and the subsequent changes in industrial relations to best represent the interests of a growing workforce. For instance, in Vietnam there are currently approx. 9 million union members and the membership is increasing and the Vietnamese trade union movement is well aware the changing economic and industrial environment will require a new approach. My work as a volunteer was to provide advice and support with trade union capacity building, but with an understanding that I came from a vastly different culture and trade union tradition. Vietnam trade unions are currently working closely with a range of union organizations and international non-government organizations with the purpose of increasing the skills and knowledge of fellow trade unionist in Vietnam and the region.

APHEDA’s work in building trade union capacity in Vietnam was, in collaboration with its partner the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (the equivalent of the ACTU in Vietnam), primarily centered on: training-of-trainers for trade union officials, and, developing the skills and knowledge to collectively bargain (enterprise bargaining), a relatively new industrial phenomenon in Vietnam and the region. The training methodology used was participatory and ‘active’ in the context of a range of instructional skills and strategies. This was not the experience of trade unionists in the region who are used to fundamentally a ‘Confucian’ system of education where the educator is the fount of all knowledge and learners passively listen, record and regurgitate. My work as a trade union trainer was to develop trainers with the skills and knowledge to engage grassroots trade unionists in critical analysis, questioning skills and a range of ‘active’ learning activities. This was a real challenge for the Vietnamese trade union trainers who were used to the traditional approach of education where long lectures and talks are the norm. It was fascinating to see Vietnamese trade unionists embrace some of these new trade union education instructional skills and strategies and adapting these to a Vietnamese union setting. This has also been the case in Laos where a similar political system exists and there is a close relationship with its Vietnam neighbor.

Although there is now a national wage fixing system in Vietnam there is a growing need to develop the skills and knowledge to effectively negotiate collective bargaining agreements, particularly in the private sector. The growing private garment and electronic sector, dominated by overseas ownership and investment, requires trade union officials and grass root trade union leaders to engage in the new areas of collective bargaining campaigning and negotiation to continue to argue for improvements in the real wages and working conditions of workers in Vietnam and Laos. APHEDA and others are actively engaged in assisting trade unions in developing the skills and capacity to effectively do this.

Cambodia has a more volatile political setting where unions are daily dealing with a non-sympathetic government. I worked with the union representing entertainment workers and the construction union to assist with building trade union capacity in organizing entertainment workers and informing construction workers of the dangers of asbestos. Recently APHEDA worked with other organizations to ensure new laws were passed to recognize that entertainment workers had rights as workers in law, something that previously hadn’t existed. Independent unionists in Cambodia are young, courageous and gutsy and deserve the support and solidarity of international unions and organizations.

Unions in the Mekong region greatly appreciate the support and solidarity from APHEDA and Australian trade unions. APHEDA operates in an environment of partnership, mutual respect and solidarity with its partners and aims to not engage in ‘telling’ partners what to do or what they need. Vietnamese, Laos and Cambodian unions recognize the long history of APHEDA’s engagement in the region and through such a long relationship there has developed a strong sense of mutual trust and respect. While unions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos look to Australia for support it must also be recognized that how unions in the region operate can also assist Australian unions in our thinking, strategies and approach. The ‘social welfare’ style of unionism has a real sense of engagement and empathy with workers that goes well beyond their workplaces and into the community. Trade union officials are often engaged in visiting sick and poor workers in their homes and communities. Such trade union work is time consuming and takes up many hours but is considered an essential element of the work of unions and trade union officials. Trade unionists in the region are great listeners and are far from defeatist in their outlook and we in Australian trade unions can not only share our skills and expertise but also learn much from our brother and sister unionists in the region. APHEDA’s work in the region provides a wonderful gateway to maintaining opportunities for an honest and respectful relationship between trade union movements in the region.

Please consider becoming a member of Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA and become a part of the global solidarity movement. One of the current important campaigns APHEDA is engaged in is the campaign to ban the use of asbestos in the Mekong region, SE Asia and globally. We in Australia have banned the use of asbestos but it is still been used in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. APHEDA is at the forefront on the campaign to ban the use of asbestos in the region and needs your support and assistance. For more information on projects and membership please see APHHEDA’s website  

In conclusion I will leave you with the following comment from Sharan Burrows, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC):

“The story of Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA is the story of workers and people struggling against poverty and injustice across the globe. The work of APHEDA, can inspire new generations of activists, unionists and campaigners for global justice, in Australia and overseas.”

In unity and solidarity,

Peter Stokes