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Vietnam arrests official linked to trade union reform

Nguyen Van Binh had been among those working to ratify the ILO convention on freedom of association and right to organize
Nguyen Van Binh (center), politburo member and head of the Economic Department of Vietnam Communist Party chats with delegates before the opening of the second annual session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on Oct. 23, 2017.

Nguyen Van Binh (center), politburo member and head of the Economic Department of Vietnam Communist Party chats with delegates before the opening of the second annual session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on Oct. 23, 2017. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 10, 2024 04:34 AM GMT
Updated: May 10, 2024 04:40 AM GMT

An official at Vietnam's ministry of labor has been arrested, state media said May 9, as a rights group reported he was leading efforts to ratify a UN convention on trade unions.

Nguyen Van Binh, head of the legal affairs department at the ministry was accused of "deliberately revealing state secrets," state media said, adding that police had given no other details on the case.

According to Vietnam-focused human rights organization The 88 Project, Binh had been among those working to ratify the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) convention on the freedom of association and right to organize.

If passed, it would guarantee workers the right to form independent trade unions without prior authorisation in communist, one-party Vietnam.

The Hanoi branch of the ILO did not immediately respond to a request for comment from AFP.

A spokesperson for the foreign ministry said that state media had "fully informed" the public on the matter, without giving any further information.

The arrest comes months after Vietnam's leaders issued a secret directive, according to The 88 Project, that frames independent labor unions -- as well as almost all international commerce and cooperation -- as a national security threat.

Directive 24, as it is called, was issued in July 2023.

The communist government tolerates no opposition to one-party rule, with critics facing intimidation, harassment, and restricted movement, and it has shown little appetite for dissenting voices.

The 88 Project said Binh, 51, is a trade unionist who has agitated within the government to expand protections for workers.

Under Vietnam's criminal code, anyone found guilty of the "deliberate disclosure of classified information" or the "appropriation, trading, destruction of classified documents" faces seven years in jail.

Last year, Ngo Thi To Nhien, the director of an independent energy policy think tank, the Hanoi-based Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition (Viet) was arrested on the same charge.

Nhien worked with several international organizations including the World Bank, the European Union, the United Nations, and the Asian Development Bank on energy policy.

It is not clear when Nhien will be brought to trial.

She is among at least six independent environmental activists arrested or sentenced in Vietnam over the past two years.

Under the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement, Vietnam agreed to ratify the convention in 2023, although the government has delayed the process.

Vietnam is currently asking for reclassification under US law as a "market economy," which would provide major economic benefits.

It argues its labor law standards are in line with those internationally.

On May 8, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it was "patently false to claim that Vietnamese workers can organize unions".

"Not a single independent union exists in Vietnam and no working legal frameworks exist for unions to be created or for workers to enforce labor rights," John Sifton, HRW's Asia advocacy director, said in a statement.

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