by Thu Huong Le
For Vietnamese, the annual Tet bonus is becoming a sensitive issue around this time of year. A week before the nation's biggest holiday arrives, streets are filled with people rushing to stockpile goodies for the biggest festival.
Those who expect the most from Tet bonuses are mostly factory workers and office workers at the low-end of the pay scale. For some people, the bonus is their last hope of ending the year on a high note. But for many, that last hope has once again been dashed this year.
According to newspaper reports, some companies in HCM City have fallen to a new low. Their workers received bottles of chili sauce, summer shorts and even cement bricks - anything the companies could not sell during the year.
At the same time, the highest level of Tet bonuses in HCM City has reached VND710 million (US$33,370). On the other hand, on Tuesday, 300 fishery workers in Mekong Delta-based Can Tho City went on strike because their company refused to pay any bonus or seniority allowance.
Each year, the gap widens. And the stories about the weird, goods-based Tet bonuses continue to make headlines for their sad humour. A year's hard-work surely deserves more than a dozen or so bottles of chili sauce and a few hundred dong. As for the cement bricks - a few thousand might be OK if you were building your own house.
Grantedly 2013 was not a brilliant year for business. The General Statistics Office reports that the total number of businesses that closed or suspended operations hit more than 60,700, a rise of nearly 12 per cent year-on-year.
According to the HaNoi Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, company reports filed with the department show the damage is widespread in HaNoi. Many companies are cutting Tet bonuses, even if only by a few per cent. However, foreign companies operating out of Viet Nam are expected to be able to maintain the level of bonuses this year.
Earlier this month, officials from the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs heard that some local companies were intending to avoid paying bonuses even though they have already reported financial growth. Tet bonuses are a traditional way of rewarding those who work hard and effectively throughout the year and motivate others to work harder.
Tet bonuses and charity are an integral part of the Vietnamese cultural system. For a successful company to deliberately avoid its obligations is considered a low act.
Money is "tight", as they say at present. There is not a huge amount swirling around. This is reflected in the charity offered to the poor, the disadvantaged and others forced onto welfare. These people rely on the authorities and social organisations for Tet gifts to get them through.
For the first time, Phu Yen and Kon Tum provinces have declared they are too broke to be able to provide any Tet money for the poor. Reports state that 20 provinces have mobilised about VND500 billion (US$23.7 million) to support the poor and the disadvantaged for Tet. While this is VND200 billion lower than in 2013, there are still a few days to go.
At the same time, 15 provinces have asked the Government for rice to provide locals with food for the lean harvest period which coincides with the holiday, including well-off provinces such as central Khanh Hoa, home to the resort city of Nha Trang which posted an economic growth of 8.3 per cent in 2013, and Ha Nam, Phu Yen, dubbed "the central region's granary". When it comes to providing a better Tet for the poor, we wonder where all the success has gone?
The difference in bonuses can be explained by the market-oriented economy, which leads to different levels of success in sectors and provinces. But when the gap is so high, it leaves a large part of the labour force estranged. This is a threat to the social stability around which the Vietnamese nation is based.
The sustainable growth our leaders talk about must enable people to study, work and be properly rewarded for their input. If many have to miss out while others profit, it can be said that growth is not without a heavy price.
Farmers leave the land and migrate to cities seeking employment. They hope to send their children to universities so that they will enjoy a better future. But many of them end up having to accept token bonuses. How sad. It seems like they will never break out of the cycle of poverty.
In his message for the New Year, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung acknowledged that the momentum created by previous reforms were no longer strong enough to foster development.
"It is time for a driving force to regain rapid growth and sustainable development. That momentum must come from institutional reform and the promotion of the people's right to be masters of their own destiny," he suggested.
However, this can only be achieved if all people are treated fairly by the system. The Tet bonus is just one aspect of this fundamental right that seems to be disappearing. — VNS