Thousands of workers at a Ho Chi Minh City factory stayed on strike for a sixth day on Wednesday over a government pension change as officials moved to quell the nation’s worst labor unrest since May’s anti-China riots.
Several thousand workers converged outside the factory owned by Taiwanese footwear manufacturer Pou Chen, some blocking a highway that leads into the complex as police tried to break up protesters. As many as 90,000 of the workers went on strike last week, VnExpress reported.
It is unclear which shoemakers the facility supplies to. Workers said they made footwear for Nike and other companies, while Nike denied sourcing from the factory affected.
The new pension rules will stop many workers from being eligible for lump-sum social insurance payments when they leave a company, delaying payouts until they retire. Workers have said they are concerned the money may not be there in the future.
Vietnam’s Communist government restricts large, unsanctioned gatherings.
“None of us has a house,” striking worker Nguyen Van Thu, 28, said outside the gates of the shoe factory on Tuesday night. “When we can’t work, we want to get our social insurance all at once so we can build a house for the family.
We struggle to make a living. We have to pay for all kinds of insurance, and we’re afraid we’ll lose it under the new law.”
Thu was one of dozens of workers sitting outside the plant gate in a suburban district of Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, workers crowded the factory complex, chanting and unfurling banners as police with batons stood by. The company blared a recorded message beckoning workers to return to work.
At about noon, hundreds of workers blocked an eight-lane highway near the factory as police ordered them to disperse and redirected traffic away from the highway.
“The workers want to raise their voices and speak out on this government policy,” said Serena Liu, chairwoman of the Council of Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam. “They feel this is the only way they can do it. It’s not about working conditions.”
Pou Chen called on the Vietnamese government to provide assurances to workers on the social insurance issue, said company spokesman Amos Ho. The work stoppage, which began on March 26, may cause some production delays, Ho said.
Pou Chen manufactures shoes for Nike and Converse, according to its website. But Nike and Converse do not source from the “contract factories currently affected by the strike,” Nike said in a statement.
“There has been no impact to Nike or Converse production at contract factories in Vietnam,” according to the statement. “We are aware of the situation and will continue to monitor.”
The Vietnamese government pledged to prevent more labor unrest after workers damaged foreign factories following China’s placement of an oil rig in contested waters off Vietnam’s coast last year.
The labor ministry is in talks with the shoe factory workers and has ordered government agencies across the country to explain the purpose of the new policy, which goes into effect in 2016, to head off further protests.
The strike occurred after officials from Ho Chi Minh City’s social insurance office met with factory workers to inform them about the new pension law, Doan Mau Diep, the deputy labor minister, said on Wednesday.
The change in the law is designed to encourage workers to save more money for retirement by not allowing them to withdraw their pension contributions before they retire, he said. Under the current law, workers are permitted to withdraw money from their pensions with a penalty that reduces future government retirement payments, Diep said.
Because of the strike, the ministry is considering amending the law that goes into effect next year to give workers the option of receiving their pension as a lump sum when they leave a company or after they retire, he said.
“Given this incident, we will have to carefully look into ways to improve our communications to avoid something like this from happening again,” Diep said.
Most strikes in Vietnam are focused on the practices of a company rather than the government. More than 100 Vietnam Airlines pilots called in sick at the start of 2015 amid discontentment over salaries.
Last May, two people died during anti-Chinese protests at foreign factories. More than 1,000 workers at Levi Strauss’s factory in the northern province of Ninh Binh engaged in a three-day strike in November 2013 to demand better working conditions.
“This is a very complex issue involving the poor living and working conditions of the workers and the poor protections the government provides to them in terms of social security,” said Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
“There is a lack of trust. Institutionally, nobody represents the interests of the workers. There are labor unions in Vietnam, but they are part of the Communist Party system.”