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Communist Vietnam Fights for a 40-Hour Work Week

Blue collar workers like construction workers tend to work six days a week in Vietnam. (VOA/Ha Nguyen)
Blue collar workers like construction workers tend to work six days a week in Vietnam. (VOA/Ha Nguyen)

Happy families are all the same, according to Tolstoy. Unhappy families, though, have too many members who are overworked, according to Nguyen Thien Nhan, one of the officials at the forefront of Vietnam’s fight to decrease the work week down to 40 hours.

As one of the few communist nations still left on the globe, Vietnam has a legal work week of 48 hours, six days a week -- even while other nations are now questioning if it is realistic to expect employees to be productive for even eight hours a day, 40 hours a week. Nations from Chile to Australia have trended down to 35 hours.

Vietnam is now pushing companies toward the 40-hour mark, with considerations for an official law in the future.

Advocates such as Nhan argue that making people work for longer hours does not increase their productivity. He also referred to the stress on families, urging people to imagine how their own households would be strained if someone were out to work for as much as half of the day.

“Do we want our husbands or wives, our children or siblings to work nine to 10 hours a day all year round, or 10 to 12 hours a day for six months?” Nhan, who is secretary of the Vietnam Communist Party Ho Chi Minh City central committee, said.

“We need to answer this question ourselves, before we even discuss overtime.”

He and his colleagues noted that the eight hour work day has its roots among socialists, who pushed for this labor right at the Second International's famous Paris meeting in 1889. He said however that this is also a right that is recognized among capitalist nations, referring to the 1886 labor protests in Chicago for eight hour days, and auto titan Henry Ford’s business decision to adopt this schedule.

As hard as it was to secure this right, some around the world now question if it is enough. Microsoft Japan is testing out a four day work week. Rheingans, a tech company in Germany, has a strict five hour work day. France has banned work emails outside of work hours for some employees.

The idea is that true productivity only happens for part of the work day, which is as much as a typical human can physically bear.

“It’s all but impossible to actually work for eight hours a day,” freelancer Lizzie Wade wrote in an opinion article after tracking her productivity with software.

Nguyen Thi Xuan, a member of the Vietnamese parliament, expressed worries that some companies may already be overworking employees, even with the 48 hours allowed in the work week.

She said Vietnamese have longer working hours than their counterparts in other nations. Xuan, who represents Dak Lak, a farming town in the Central Highlands, said authorities need to protect the health and living standards of workers.

The 48 hour week is more common among Vietnam’s blue collar workers, and 40 hours among its government and white collar workers.

While Nhan and others push for a 40 hour work week, they have a long time horizon in mind, gradually reaching it in about a decade. They point out that the Vietnam Communist Party was founded in 1930.

By the time it turns 100, they hope to have a good birthday gift for the workforce; if not quite a workers’ paradise, at least a fair work week.