Who will watch the watchers?
by Thu Phuong
There have been nu-merous reports in the media recently about plans by local and central authorities to step up company inspections.
Even as I write, it is brought to my attention that Ha Noi plans to inspect taxi firms in the capital. Tomorrow, food safety inspections are to be carried out, while the following day and the days to come, officials have pledged to crack down on traffic violations and ensure that university exam results are made public, as will the performance of State economic corporations and groups. It goes on and on.
These inspections will be carried out by central agencies and various sectors down to the grass-roots level and cover all walks of life, regardless of their social or economic impacts.
Superficially, one could conclude that these inspections demonstrate the Government's determination to ensure companies meet their social and legal obligations, to the benefit of all.
Cynics, however, might be forgiven for thinking that these additional inspections won't make an iota of difference to the problems faced by society, as has been the case in the past.
I, unfortunately, subscribe to the latter notion.
The authorities usually announce a crack down on poor food hygiene, corruption, drug abuse, what have you, following public and media outrage.
One example that comes to mind was public alarm over the numerous motorbikes and cars that had inexplicably burst into flames, sometimes with fatal consequences. The authorities belatedly took action after understandably worried motorists demanded a "proper explanation" of the likely cause.
It was a similar story when China announced that locally grown cabbages had been found to be contaminated with the cancer-causing chemical formaldehyde. Following China's move, Vietnamese inspectors decided to act, declaring that they too would launch an enquiry.
Following inspections in Viet Nam, officials typically give the all clear, but the public remains unreassured.
In the case of the mysterious vehicle fires, authorities announced after many months of inspections that they had no idea what the cause could be, as rumours circulated about petrol quality.
As for cabbages from China, and Viet Nam for that matter, they too were given the thumbs up. The public were assured that they had nothing to worry about, reminiscent of the "DON'T PANIC" (always uppercase) warning written on the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by British novelist Douglas Adams. And which of course has the opposite effect.
In some cases, as happened with a number of taxi firms in Ha Noi and HCM City that were found to be ripping off passengers, they were fined. Then everything is expected to be alright, which of course it never is.
A reporter once told me that when he visited a soft drinks factory, it was obvious to staff and himself that the hygiene standards were appalling. Yet, following inspections of the plant's facilities, everything was found to be in order.
It was a similar story, no pun intended, at a number of bookshops in Ha Noi that were caught on camera selling illegally copied books. Following an inspection by a team of officials from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the bookshops were found to have done nothing wrong. The announcement that all was in order was even made on national TV.
It should be borne in mind that these are not surprise inspections. Before the authorities "swoop" on firms thought to be falling foul of the law, a public announcement is usually made, sometimes weeks if not months ahead.
Viet Nam National Shipping Lines (Vinalines) is a good example of why the public remains cynical about central and local government inspections.
The Government Inspectorate started investigating the goings on at State-owned Vinalines in September 2011, at least four years after the shipping giant had first showed signs of economic losses worth thousands of million dong and questions had been raised about fraud.
Most notably, the corporation, once hailed as an economic driving force, was discovered to have purchased aged if not obsolete ships and other equipment, including a floating dock that was 43 years old – in effect 28 years past its sell-by date. The 83M dock, which initially had a price tag of US$9 million, ended up costing $26.3 million following two costly repairs. To add insult to injury, the dock has lain idle for years in Dong Nai Province.
And it doesn't end there. It later came to light that while the inspections were being carried out, Vinalines' chairman Duong Chi Dung – who is now on the run from police – was appointed to lead another State's agency, the Transport Ministry's Maritime Department.
If that isn't justice what is!
The appointment sparked outrage among both members of the public and law makers. One National Assembly deputy told the press that it was ridiculous to announce the results of the inspection after the appointment had been made.
Furthermore, there should have been greater transparency in the inspection process to allay public fears of a cover up; after all, fraud among those charged with uncovering fraud is not such a far-fetched idea.
In the meantime, the sceptical public will remain sceptical as long as they continue to see instances of food poisoning, traffic violations and fraud on a daily basis, despite official assurances to the contrary. — VNS