Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary government. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 National Assembly seats in the July 2018 national election, having banned the main opposition party in 2017. Prior to the victory, Prime Minister Hun Sen had already served in that position for 33 years. International observers, including foreign governments, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and domestic NGOs criticized the election as neither free nor fair and not representative of the will of the people.
The Cambodian National Police (CNP) maintains internal security. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) are responsible for external security and also have some domestic security responsibilities. The CNP reports to the Ministry of Interior, while the RCAF reports to the Ministry of National Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces, which have at times threatened force against those who opposed Prime Minister Hun Sen and were generally perceived as an armed wing of the ruling CPP.
Significant human rights issues included: torture by the government; arbitrary detention by the government; political prisoners; arbitrary interference in the private lives of citizens, including pervasive electronic media surveillance; the absence of judicial independence; censorship and selectively enforced criminal libel laws; interference with the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; pervasive corruption, including in the judiciary; trafficking in persons; and use of forced or compulsory child labor.
A pervasive culture of impunity continued. There were credible reports that government officials, including police, committed abuses with impunity, and in most cases the government took little or no action. Government officials and their family members were generally immune to prosecution.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. Since 2017, however, the government has carried out a sustained campaign to eliminate independent news media and dissenting voices in the country and enacted ever-greater restrictions on free expression; many individuals and institutions reported widespread self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution grants freedom of expression except where it adversely affects public security. The constitution also declares the king is “inviolable,” and a Ministry of Interior directive implementing the criminal defamation law reiterates these limits and prohibits publishers and editors from disseminating stories that insult or defame the king, government leaders, or public institutions.
Election laws require civil society organizations to remain “neutral” during political campaigns and prohibit them from “insulting” political parties in the media. Although campaign laws require news outlets to give equal coverage to each party participating in an election, there was no evidence of the law’s enforcement during the 2018 election; news outlets gave significantly greater coverage to the CPP than to other parties.
The government used the penal code to arrest and prosecute citizens on disinformation and incitement charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. Judges also can order fines, which may lead to jail time if not paid. Police and courts interpreted “incitement” broadly, leading to more than 40 arrests for statements posted to social media during the year.
In February 2018 the government adopted a new lese–majeste (royal insult) law that led to the arrest of at least three citizens. On January 9, Ieng Cholsa was sentenced to three years in prison for Facebook posts deemed insulting to the king. The government used criminal defamation laws to pursue perceived opponents. In September self-exiled former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy was charged with public defamation and incitement to commit felony when he accused Hun Sen of using the king as a hostage and a puppet.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government, military forces, and the ruling political party continued to own or otherwise influence newspapers and broadcast media; there were few significant independent sources for news. The three largest pro-CPP newspapers did not criticize the government for politically motivated acts or human rights issues. In 2017 the government shuttered 32 FM radio frequencies across 20 provinces, affecting stations relaying independent news–Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America, and the Voice of Democracy.
The May 2018 National Election Committee (NEC) code of conduct for the September 2018 election established a maximum fine of 30 million riel ($7,500) for reporters who interviewed any voter near a polling station or who published news that could affect political stability or cause the public to lose confidence in the election.
Violence and Harassment: Threats and violence against journalists and reporters remained common. On January 30, Sim Chhivchhean, a reporter for the Cambodia Media Association for Freedom, was beaten unconscious while reporting on illegal fishing in Siem Reap Province. On February 4, a group of about 20 men stoned and beat Sorn Sithy to death. The motive was unknown as of October, but Sithy had been working for a year for BTBP TV online, covering social issues.
As of October, two former RFA journalists arrested in 2017 on charges of treason (charges which observers said were politically motivated), to which authorities later added charges of distribution of pornography, were awaiting the conclusion of their trial after several court hearings. On October 3, the court referred the case back to investigators for more evidence collection. NGOs and observers argued that the case against the two journalists was politically motivated and pointed to the prolonged trial and the confiscation of their passports as proof of government intimidation of the media.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits prepublication censorship, and no formal censorship system existed. The government, however, used other means to censor media, most notably through its control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets not controlled directly by the government or the CPP. Private media admitted to practicing some degree of self-censorship, in part from fear of government reprisal. Reporters claimed that newspaper editors told them not to write on topics that would offend the government and have also reported self-censoring due to the chilling effect of recent criminal cases against journalists.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used libel, slander, defamation, and denunciation laws to restrict public discussion on issues it deemed sensitive or against its interests. In December 2018 CNRP leader Sam Rainsy was convicted of libel and ordered to pay one million dollars in damages to Prime Minister Hun Sen after publicly accusing the prime minister of accepting bribes. Rainsy has been living in exile since 2014, when he fled the country to avoid previous libel charges filed against him.
National Security: The government continued to cite national security concerns to justify restricting citizens’ rights to criticize government policies and officials.
There were credible reports that government entities monitored online communications.
The telecommunications law was widely criticized by leading civil society and human rights activists, who stated it provides the government broad authority to monitor secretly online public discussion and communications using private telecommunication devices. The law gives the government legal authority to monitor every telephone conversation, text message, email, social media activity, and correspondence between individuals without their knowledge or consent. Any opinions expressed in these exchanges that the government deemed to violate its definition of national security could result in a maximum 15 years’ imprisonment.
The government has the authority to shut down any social media page or website that publishes information leading to “turmoil in the society that undermine[d] national defense, national security, national relations with other countries, the economy, social order, discrimination, or national culture or tradition.” For example, three days before the 2018 national election the government ordered local telecommunication companies to block several independent news websites, including Voice of America in Khmer, RFA Khmer, and Voice of Democracy.
A “cyber war team” in the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit was responsible for monitoring and countering “incorrect” information from news outlets and social media. The prime minister has threatened that within four minutes his cyber experts could identify, to within five feet, the telephone of anyone who posted a defamatory Facebook post.
There were no formal or overt government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although scholars tended to exercise caution when teaching political subjects due to fear of offending politicians. Many individuals in academia resorted to self-censorship or expressed their opinions anonymously.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not always respect this right.
As of October more than 150 CNRP members had been detained or summoned to court for questioning related to their participation in mostly informal gatherings over meals. NGOs reported that during questioning the government accused the opposition officials of violating the 2017 Supreme Court decision to dissolve and ban the CNRP.
The law requires all nongovernmental groups to register and requires advance notification for protests, marches, or demonstrations, although authorities inconsistently enforced this requirement. One provision requires five days’ notice for most peaceful demonstrations, while another requires 12 hours’ notice for impromptu gatherings on private property or protests at designated venues and limits such gatherings to 200 persons. By law provincial or municipal governments may issue demonstration permits at their discretion. Lower-level government officials, particularly in Phnom Penh, generally denied requests unless the national government specifically authorized the gatherings. All levels of government routinely denied permits to groups critical of the ruling party.
There were credible reports the government prevented associations and NGOs from organizing human rights-related events and meetings, because those NGOs failed to receive permission from local authorities; however, the law does not require preapproval of such events. Authorities cited the need for stability and public security–terms left undefined in the law and therefore subject to wide interpretation–as reasons for denying permits. Government authorities occasionally cited the law to break up meetings and training programs deemed hostile to the government. Some NGOs and unions complained that police were carefully monitoring their activities and intimidating participants by sending uniformed police to stand outside their offices during meetings.
Despite these restrictions, the press reported a number of unauthorized public protests, most related to land or labor disputes. In at least one case, it was reported that local authorities forcibly dispersed protesters, leading to one protester being critically injured after police opened fire. In other cases, police arrested and charged some demonstrators for trespassing on private property and protesting without a valid permit.
According to a local NGO, as of June there had been 71 cases of violations of freedom of assembly. Another human rights NGO recorded 99 cases of government abuse on the freedom of assembly in the period from April 2018 to March 2019.
On July 10, the authorities detained seven persons for paying tribute to the government critic Kem Ley on the third anniversary of his death. The authorities did not allow NGOs to assemble outside or lay floral wreaths at the Caltex Bokor petrol station where Kem Ley was shot dead.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not always respect this right, particularly with regard to workers’ rights (see section 7.a.). The law requires all associations and NGOs to be politically neutral, which not only restricts the right to association but also restricts those organizations’ rights to free expression.
Vaguely worded provisions in several laws prohibit any activity that may “jeopardize peace, stability, and public order” or harm “national security, national unity, traditions, and the culture of Cambodian society.” Civil society organizations expressed concern these provisions created a substantial risk of arbitrary restriction of the right of association. According to critics, the laws on associations and trade unions establish heavily bureaucratic, multistep registration processes that lack both transparency and administrative safeguards, rendering registration processes vulnerable to politicization. These laws also impose burdensome reporting obligations on activities and finances, including the disclosure of all successful funding proposals, financial or grant agreements, and bank accounts.
The local NGO consortium Cooperation Committee for Cambodia reported in 2018 that NGOs generally lacked guidance from the government on how to comply with the requirements.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
Exile: Some government critics and opposition politicians have gone into self-imposed foreign exile. In some cases the government subsequently took steps to block exiles’ return.
f. Protection of Refugees
Refoulement: In June the government deported four Montagnards to Vietnam, after one requested to return to Vietnam and the other three were declared ineligible for asylum status.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The system, however, is not equally accessible to all refugees and asylum seekers and is not transparent. Asylum seekers who enter the country without documentation or overstay their visas are vulnerable to deportation.
Freedom of Movement: The freedom of movement of persons admitted to the country as refugees is often restricted because they lack documents needed for travel (see below).
Employment: The law allows refugees to work and operate a business. Refugees, however, are generally not provided with residence cards, making it difficult to exercise these rights.
Access to Basic Services: Persons granted refugee status require residence cards. In practice, however, refugees are instead provided with refugee cards, which are not recognized, greatly limiting refugees’ access to basic services.
The country had habitual residents who were de facto stateless. There were no recent, reliable data on the number or demography of stateless persons; however, UNHCR reported they were primarily ethnic Vietnamese. The government did not effectively implement laws or policies to provide such persons the opportunity to gain nationality (see section 6, Children). The most common reason for statelessness was lack of proper documents from the country of origin. On August 21, local media reported the government had rejected a request from Vietnam to provide Cambodian citizenship to these persons.
According to an NGO, individuals without proof of nationality often did not have access to formal employment, education, marriage registration, the courts, or the right to own land.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. By law, however, the government has the ability to dissolve parties and ban individuals from party leadership positions and political life more broadly. The law also bars parties from using any audio, visual, or written material from a convicted criminal.
As of October only nine of 118 CNRP officials barred from political activity from 2017-22 had applied for and been granted a restoration of their political rights. Local experts and opposition party members complained the “rehabilitation” process is arbitrary, creates a false appearance of wrongdoing on the part of the banned politicians, and puts the prime minister in the position of being able to choose his own political opponents. The original ban on political activity followed the Supreme Court’s 2017 dissolution of the CNRP, a decision a number of observers decried as driven by political bias, noting that the decision to ban the CNRP was based on the accusation that its leader had committed “treason” before its leader was convicted on any charges. Along with the dissolution of the CNRP, 5,007 elected officials from the party were removed from their positions and replaced with ruling party CPP officials. As a result, the CPP now dominates all levels of government from districts and provincial councils to the national assembly.
Recent Elections: The most recent national election occurred in July 2018 and included participation by 20 political parties; however, the election excluded the country’s main opposition party, the CNRP. The 19 opposition parties that competed in the election had limited support, and many were newly established.
Given the decline in independent media outlets, government-controlled news outlets provided the majority of content and coverage prior to the election. This was particularly the case in rural areas, where voters had less access to independent media.
Approximately 600,000 of the ballots cast were invalid, compared with an estimated 100,000 in the previous election. Observers argued this was a sign of protest; given the pressure to vote and the absence of the CNRP from the ballot, many voters chose to intentionally invalidate their ballots rather than vote for any party. According to government figures, nearly seven million citizens, representing 83 percent of eligible voters, went to the polls. The ruling CPP received 4.8 million votes, winning all 125 seats in the National Assembly. Government statistics could not be verified due to a lack of independent observers.
Most independent analysts considered the entire election process seriously flawed. Most diplomatic missions to the country declined to serve as official observers in the election. Major nonstate election observation bodies, including the Carter Center and Asian Network for Free Elections, also decided against monitoring the election after determining the election lacked basic credibility. The NEC accused the international community of bias, arguing the international community supported the NEC only when the CNRP was on the ballot. Although nominally independent, the government installed closed-circuit television cameras in the NEC, enabling it to observe the committee’s proceedings. With no credible, independent observers present, election results could not be independently verified.
Political Parties and Political Participation: As of July the government confirmed 44 political parties were registered with the Ministry of Interior. Excepting the CPP, political parties suffered from a wide range of legalized discrimination, selective enforcement of the law, intimidation, and biased media coverage. These factors contributed significantly to the CPP’s effective monopolization of political power. Membership in the CPP was a prerequisite for many government positions. After the dissolution of the CNRP, the government continued suppressing dissenting voices. As of June according to a local NGO, there had been 29 incidences of threats to political activists.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of ethnic minorities in the political process, but cultural traditions limited women’s role in politics and government. Despite repeated vows by the CPP to increase female representation, the number of female candidates elected in the July 2018 national election declined from 20 percent in 2013 to 15 percent. The 2017 local elections saw participation for the first time of the Cambodia Indigenous People’s Democracy Party.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: The penal code defines various corrupt acts and specifies penalties for them. The anticorruption law establishes the National Council against Corruption and the Anticorruption Unit (ACU) to receive and investigate corruption complaints. The ACU did not collaborate frequently with civil society and was considered ineffective in combating official corruption. Instead, the ACU focused on investigations of opposition figures, leading to a widespread perception the unit served the interests of the ruling CPP. The ACU has never investigated a high-level member of the ruling party, despite widespread allegations of corruption at senior levels of the party and government. For example, according to a July 2018 al-Jazeera investigative report, the director general of the country’s taxation department violated the Australian Corporations Act and evaded Australian tax, but Cambodian authorities neither investigated nor prosecuted him. Civil servants must seek clearance and permission from supervisors before responding to legislative inquiries about corruption allegations.
Corruption was endemic throughout society and government. There were reports police, prosecutors, investigating judges, and presiding judges took bribes from owners of both legal and illegal businesses. Citizens frequently and publicly complained about corruption. Meager salaries contributed to “survival corruption” among low-level public servants, while a culture of impunity enabled corruption to flourish among senior officials.
Transparency International’s 2017 Global Corruption Barometer report noted the judiciary remained the most corrupt sector of government for the fourth year in a row, followed by law enforcement.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires public servants, including elected and appointed officials, to disclose their financial and other assets. The ACU is responsible for receiving the disclosures, with penalties for noncompliance ranging from one month to one year in prison. Senior officials’ financial disclosure statements were not publicly available and remained sealed unless allegations of corruption were filed. Only one financial disclosure statement has ever been unsealed, that of the then National Assembly vice president Kem Sokha.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
There were multiple reports of a lack of official cooperation with human rights investigations and in some cases, intimidation of investigators by government officials. The government threatened legal action against two NGOs over the publication of a report on the negative effects of microlending on loan recipients.
Domestic and international human rights organizations reported intensifying harassment, surveillance, threats, and intimidation from local officials and persons with ties to the government. Several civil society and labor organizations reported that police raided their offices.
Approximately 25 human rights NGOs operated in the country, and a further 100 NGOs focused on other areas included some human rights matters in their work, but only a few actively organized training programs or investigated abuses.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government generally permitted visits by UN representatives. The government, however, often turned down high-level meetings with UN representatives and denied them access to opposition officials, including Kem Sokha. In May Rhona Smith, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, conducted a 10-day mission to the country. In her meetings with the ACU, National Assembly, the NEC, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), and NGOs, she raised serious concerns about corruption, restrictions on media, political participation, freedom of expression, the lengthy detention of Kem Sokha, and laws on political parties. Government spokespersons regularly chastised UN representatives publicly for their remarks on a variety of human rights problems.
Government Human Rights Bodies: There were three government human rights bodies: Separate committees for the Protection of Human Rights and Reception of Complaints in the Senate and National Assembly and the CHRC, which reported to the prime minister’s cabinet. The CHRC submitted government reports for participation in international human rights review processes, such as the Universal Periodic Review, and issued responses to reports by international organizations and government bodies, but it did not conduct independent human rights investigations. Credible human rights NGOs considered the government committees of limited efficacy and criticized their role in vocally justifying the government crackdown on civil society and the opposition.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) continued to investigate and prosecute leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime who were most responsible for the atrocities committed between 1975 and 1979. The ECCC is a hybrid tribunal, with both domestic and international jurists and staff; it is governed by both domestic law and an agreement between the government and the United Nations. On June 28, the international and Cambodian coinvestigating judges each filed separate and conflicting recommendations on whether to move forward with the case against Yim Tith. As in the cases against Meas Muth and Ao An in 2018, the international coinvestigating judge recommended indictment, while the Cambodian coinvestigating judge argued the court lacked the jurisdiction to indict. As of October the ECCC had not announced if it would proceed with any of the final three cases. On August 4, Nuon Chea died at the age of 93 while the court considered the appeal of his November 2018 conviction for genocide, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape and domestic violence were significant problems. The law criminalizes rape and assault. Rape is punishable by five to 30 years’ imprisonment. Spousal rape is not specifically mentioned in the penal code, but the underlying conduct can be prosecuted as “rape,” “causing injury,” or “indecent assault.” Charges for spousal rape under the penal code or domestic violence law were rare. The law criminalizes domestic violence but does not set out specific penalties. The penal code assigns penalties for domestic violence ranging from one to 15 years’ imprisonment.
Rape and domestic violence were likely underreported due to fear of reprisal, social discrimination, and the distrust of the judiciary. Women comprised a very small proportion of judicial officials: 14 percent of judges, 12 percent of prosecutors, and 20 percent of lawyers, which likely contributed to underreporting of rape and domestic abuse. NGOs reported authorities inadequately enforced domestic violence laws and avoided involvement in domestic disputes.
Some rape and domestic violence ended in death: A local NGO reported 10 killings in a January-June 2018 investigation of 39 cases of domestic violence and 18 of rape. In these 57 cases, authorities arrested only 23 perpetrators. According to a 2017 report by a human rights NGO, neither the authorities nor the public generally regarded domestic violence as a criminal offense.
The Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs implemented a code of conduct for media reporting on violence against women, which bans publication of a survivor’s personal identifiable information, photographs of victims, depictions of a woman’s death or injury, depictions of nudity, and the use of certain offensive or disparaging words against women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs also operated a reporting system within the government to increase accountability and transparency in the government’s response to violence against women.
Sexual Harassment: The penal code criminalizes sexual harassment, imposing penalties of six days’ to three months’ imprisonment and fines of 100,000 to 500,000 riels ($24 to $122). A 2017 study by CARE International found that nearly one-third of female garment workers experienced sexual harassment at their workplace during the previous 12 months.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: The constitution provides for equal rights for women, equal pay for equal work, and equal status in marriage. The government did not effectively enforce the law. For the most part, women had equal property rights, the same legal status to initiate divorce proceedings, and equal access to education; however, cultural traditions and child-rearing responsibilities limited the ability of women to reach senior positions in business and government or even participate in the workforce (see section 7.d.).
Birth Registration: By law children born to one or two ethnic Khmer parents are citizens. A child derives citizenship by birth to a mother and father who are not ethnic Khmer if both parents were born and living legally in the country or if either parent acquired citizenship through other legal means. Ethnic minorities are considered citizens. The Ministry of Interior administered the birth registration system, but not all births were registered immediately, primarily due to lack of public awareness of the importance of registering births and corruption in local government.
Failure to register births resulted in discrimination, including the denial of public services. Children of ethnic minorities and stateless persons were disproportionately unlikely to be registered. NGOs that service disenfranchised communities reported authorities often denied books and access to education and health care for children without birth registration. NGOs stated such persons, when adults, were often unable to gain employment, own property, vote, or access the legal system.
Education: Education was free, but not compulsory, through grade nine. Many children left school to help their families in subsistence agriculture or work in other activities. Others began school at a late age or did not attend school at all. The government did not deny girls equal access to education, but families with limited resources often gave priority to boys, especially in rural areas. According to international organization reports, enrollment dropped significantly for girls after primary school in urban areas, while secondary school enrollment for boys dropped significantly in rural areas.
Child Abuse: Child abuse was common, and legal action against perpetrators was rare, according to observers. According to UNICEF’s Violence Against Children Report, approximately one in two Cambodian children had experienced extreme violence. Child rape continued to be a serious problem, and reporting of the crime rose in the past several years.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both men and women is 18; however, children as young as 16 may legally marry with parental permission.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual intercourse with a person younger than age 15 is illegal. The government continued to raid brothels to identify and remove child sex-trafficking victims, although the majority of child sex trafficking was clandestine, occurring in beer gardens, massage parlors, beauty salons, karaoke bars, retail spaces, and noncommercial sites. Police continued to investigate cases of child sex trafficking occurring in brothels or cases where victims filed complaints directly, but police did not typically pursue more complicated cases, for example, those involving online sexual exploitation. Undercover investigation techniques were not allowed in trafficking investigations, which impeded officials’ ability to hold child sex traffickers accountable.
The country remained a destination for child sex tourism. The government used the law to prosecute both sex tourists and citizens for the sexual exploitation of children. The law provides penalties ranging from two to 20 years in prison for commercial sexual exploitation of children. The law also prohibits the production and possession of child pornography.
Local human rights organizations and local experts reported concern regarding the government’s failure to impose appropriate punishments on foreign residents and tourists who purchase or engage in sex with children. Endemic corruption at all levels of the government severely limited the ability of officials to hold child sex traffickers accountable, and the government took no action to investigate or prosecute complicit officials.
Displaced Children: Displaced children represented a serious and growing problem–particularly because outward migration of workers continued, and greater numbers of children were left behind. The government offered limited, inadequate services to street children at a single rehabilitation center in Phnom Penh. A local NGO estimated there were 1,200 to 1,500 displaced street children in Phnom Penh with no relationship to their families and 15,000 to 20,000 children who worked on the streets but returned to families in the evenings.
Institutionalized Children: NGOs and other observers alleged many private orphanages were mismanaged and populated by sham orphans to lure donations from foreigners. From 36,000 to 49,000 children lived in residential care institutions or orphanages, according to UNICEF and research conducted by Columbia University. Approximately 80 percent of these children had at least one living parent. The study also found that residential care resulted in lower developmental and health outcomes for children and put them at higher risk for future exploitation. There were no state-supported or -implemented orphanages or other child protection programs that provided safe alternatives for children.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
A small Jewish foreign resident community lived in Phnom Penh. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination, neglect, exploitation, or abandonment of persons with physical or intellectual disabilities; the law was not effectively enforced. The law does not address access to transport. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth has overall responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, although the law assigns specific tasks to other ministries, including the Ministries of Health, Education, Public Works and Transport, and National Defense.
Persons with disabilities faced significant societal discrimination, especially in obtaining skilled employment.
Children with limited physical disabilities attended regular schools. According to a Ministry of Education report, approximately 19,000 children with disabilities attended primary schools in the academic year 2015-16. The ministry worked on training teachers how to integrate students with disabilities into the class with nondisabled students. Children with more significant disabilities attended separate schools sponsored by NGOs in Phnom Penh; education for students with more significant disabilities was not available outside of Phnom Penh.
Although there are no legal limits on the rights of persons with disabilities to vote or participate in civic affairs, the government did not make any concerted effort to assist their civic engagement.
Experts acknowledged an increase in negative attitudes towards the rising number of Chinese nationals in the country, in part due to a perceived link between Chinese and criminal activity, particularly in Sihanoukville. Khmer-language newspapers were filled with stories of crimes committed by Chinese residents and business owners, including gang violence, counterfeiting, pornography, drunk driving, and drug possession. During the year the government signed several law-enforcement cooperation memoranda of understanding with China to combat crime committed by Chinese citizens in the country.
No law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, nor was there official discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; however, societal discrimination persisted, particularly in rural areas.
In general, LGBTI persons had limited job opportunities due to discrimination and exclusion. LGBTI persons were occasionally harassed or bullied for their work in the entertainment and commercial sex sectors.
A local LGBTI rights organization reported incidents of violence or abuse against LGBTI persons, including domestic violence by family members. Stigma or intimidation may have inhibited further reporting of incidents.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law broadly provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their own choice, the right to bargain collectively, and the right to strike. Nevertheless, the law puts significant restrictions on the right to organize, limits the right to strike, curbs the right to assemble, facilitates government intervention in internal union affairs, excludes certain categories of workers from joining unions, permits third parties to seek the dissolution of trade unions, and imposes minor penalties on employers for unfair labor practices.
Onerous registration requirements amount to a requirement for prior authorization for union formation. Union registration requirements include filing charters, listing officials and their immediate families, and providing banking details to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. The law forbids unregistered unions from operating. Civil servants, teachers, workers employed by state-owned enterprises, and workers in the banking, health care, and informal sectors may form only “associations,” not trade unions, affording them fewer worker protections than unionized trades. The law also prohibits workers who have been convicted of a crime from union leadership, management, or administration, and restricts illiterate workers and those younger than age 18 from holding union leadership.
Some employers reportedly refused to sign notification letters to recognize unions officially or to renew short-term contract employees who had joined unions. (Approximately 80 percent of workers in the formal manufacturing sector were on short-term contracts.) Employers and local government officials often refused to provide necessary paperwork for unions to register. Labor activists reported many banks refused to open accounts for unregistered unions, although unions are unable by law to register until they provide banking details. Provincial-level labor authorities reportedly indefinitely stalled registration applications by requesting more materials or resubmissions due to minor errors late in the 30-day application cycle, although anecdotal evidence suggested this practice has decreased, particularly for garment- and footwear-sector unions.
Workers reported various obstacles while trying to exercise their right to freedom of association. There were reports of government harassment targeting independent labor leaders, including the use of spurious legal charges. Several prominent labor leaders associated with the opposition or independent unions had charges pending against them or were under court supervision. On May 28, the Appeals Court acquitted six prominent union leaders who had been criminally charged for their alleged involvement in a violent wage protest in 2014. In July, however, the court convicted a newly elected president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union of violence related to protests in 2016.
Reports continued of other forms of harassment. For the first half of the year, some NGOs and unions complained that police were monitoring their activities and intimidating participants by sending uniformed police to stand outside their offices during meetings (see section 2.b.).
The International Labor Organization (ILO) noted reports of antiunion discrimination by employers through interference with and dismissal of members of independent unions, as well as through the creation of employer-backed unions. Although the law affords protection to union leaders, many factories successfully terminated elected union officials prior to the unions’ attainment of formal registration.
The law stipulates that workers can strike only after meeting several requirements, including the successful registration of a union; the failure of other methods of dispute resolution (such as conciliation, mediation, and arbitration); completion of a 60-day waiting period following the emergence of the dispute; a secret-ballot vote of the absolute majority of union members; and seven days’ advance notice to the employer and the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. Strikers can be criminally charged if they block entrances or roads or engage in any other behavior interpreted by local authorities as harmful to public order. A court may issue an injunction against the strike and require the restart of negotiations with employers.
There were credible reports of workers dismissed on spurious grounds after organizing or participating in strikes. Unions initiated most strikes without meeting all the requirements stated above, making them technically illegal, according to Better Factories Cambodia (BFC). Participating in an illegal strike, however, is not in itself a legally acceptable reason for dismissal. In some cases employers failed to renew the short-term contracts of active unionists; in others, they pressured union personnel or strikers to accept compensation and quit. Government-sponsored remedies for these dismissals were generally ineffective.
The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training’s Strike Demonstration Resolution Committee reported that during the first half of the year, 16,585 workers conducted 26 strikes and demonstrations, compared with 28 strikes involving 4,617 workers in the same period of 2018. The report said the committee resolved 16 of the 26 cases successfully while 10 others went to the Arbitration Council.
During the year, the government restricted workers’ right to assembly. On January 2, police pulled down a public display by a group of associations and unions marking the anniversary of a violent government crackdown on a 2014 strike. Phnom Penh municipal authorities initially denied a request by 12 associations and unions to celebrate the March 8 Women’s Day at the National Stadium, but the government eventually allowed these groups to hold a celebration inside the stadium, although it deployed large numbers of riot police to prevent them from leaving the area.
The resolution of labor disputes was inconsistent, largely due to government officials’ ability to classify disputes as “individual” rather than “collective” disputes. The Arbitration Council only hears collective disputes. Unions reported progress in “minority” unions’ ability to represent workers in collective disputes. The Arbitration Council noted it received 68 cases in the first seven months of the year, up from 28 cases for the same period last year, reflecting the ability of minority unions to represent workers in disputes.
There is no specialized labor court. Labor disputes that are designated “individual” disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system was neither impartial nor transparent.
The law places significant, detailed reporting responsibilities and restrictions on labor unions. Union representatives feared many local chapters would not be able to meet the requirements.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Officials reported difficulties in verifying working conditions and salaries in the informal fishing, agricultural, construction, and domestic-service sectors. Legal penalties for forced labor were stringent, including imprisonment and fines, but these penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Although the government made efforts to highlight the problem of forced labor, the extent to which these efforts were effective remained unclear. Moreover, there was some evidence that employers, particularly those operating brick kilns, were violating the law prohibiting forced or bonded labor, and that some local government authorities were turning a blind eye to such abuses. The majority of brick-factory workers did not have access to the free medical care provided by the National Social Security Fund, because those factories were not registered as fund members.
Third-party debt remained an important issue driving forced labor. According to an August report from human rights group LICADHO (Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights), two million Cambodians have loans to microfinance lenders, and levels of debt have “skyrocketed” in recent years, leading to child labor and bonded labor. According to a 2017 survey, 48 percent of 1,010 construction workers in Phnom Penh had debts; 75 percent of the debtors owed money to microfinance lending operations or banks, and 25 percent owed money to family members.
Because most construction companies and brick factories operate informally and without registration, workers in those sectors have few benefits. They are not entitled to a minimum wage, lack insurance, and work weekends and holidays with few days off.
Forced labor, usually related to overtime work, remains an issue in factories making products for export. Unions and workers reported some factory managers had fired workers who refused to work overtime.
Children were also at risk of forced labor (see section 7.c.).
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law establishes 15 as the minimum age for most employment and 18 as the minimum age for hazardous work. The law permits children age 12 to 15 to engage in “light work” that is not hazardous to their health and does not affect school attendance; an implementing regulation provides an exhaustive list of activities considered “heavy work.” These include agriculture, brickmaking, fishing, tobacco, and cassava production. The law limits most work by children age 12 to 15 to a maximum of four hours on school days and seven hours on nonschool days and it prohibits work between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
In May 2018 the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training issued a regulation that provided clear definitions of household work and set the minimum age for household work at 18. The regulation, however, does not specify rights for household workers employed by relatives. While the regulation extends minimum age protections to domestic workers, the labor code does not apply to children outside of formal employment, so children participating in other forms of informal employment are not protected under existing minimum age laws.
The law stipulates fines of up to 60 times the prevailing daily base wage for persons convicted of violating the country’s child labor provisions, but they were not sufficient to deter violations, and such sanctions were rarely imposed.
The Department of Child Labor, part of the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, employed an insufficient number of inspectors to effectively enforce the law. Child labor inspections were concentrated in Phnom Penh and provincial, formal-sector factories producing goods for export, rather than in rural areas where the majority of child laborers work. In addition, the National Committee on Countering Child Labor reported the labor inspectorate does not conduct inspections in hospitality or nightlife establishments after business hours because the inspectorate lacks funds to pay inspectors overtime. In 2018 the government imposed penalties on 10 firms for violations of child labor standards, which was significantly lower than the reported prevalence of child labor in the country.
Inadequate training also limited the capacity of local authorities to enforce these regulations, especially in rural areas and high-risk sectors.
Children were vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor, including in agriculture, brick making, and commercial sex (also see section 6, Children). On March 9, a nine-year-old girl lost her arm in a brick-molding machine in a brick kiln in Kandal Province’s Ksach Kandal district. No criminal action was taken against the owner of the brick kiln. Poor access to basic education and the absence of compulsory education contributed to children’s vulnerability to exploitation. Children from impoverished families were at risk because some affluent households reportedly used humanitarian pretenses to hire children as domestic workers whom they abused and exploited. Children were also forced to beg.
Child labor in export-sector garment factories declined significantly in recent years. Some analysts attributed the decline to pressure from BFC’s mandatory remediation program. Since 2015 the BFC has found fewer than 20 child workers per year in a pool of approximately 550 such factories. In its latest available report for May 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, the BFC discovered only 10 children younger than age 15 working in export garment factories. The BFC and others expressed concern, however, that child labor and other abuses may be more prevalent in factories making footwear and travel goods for export, since these sectors do not fall under BFC’s mandate for monitoring.
See also the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, religion, political opinion, birth, social origin, HIV-positive status, or union membership. The law does not explicitly prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, or communicable disease. The constitution stipulates that citizens of either sex shall receive equal pay for equal work.
The government generally did not enforce these laws. Penalties for employment discrimination include fines, civil, and administrative remedies. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Harassment of women was widespread. A BFC report in March 2018 said more than 38 percent of workers surveyed felt uncomfortable “often” or “sometimes” because of behavior in their factory, and 40 percent did not believe there was a clear and fair system for reporting sexual harassment in their factory.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training is responsible for enforcing labor laws, but the government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were seldom assessed and were insufficient to address problems. Outside the export garment industry, the government rarely enforced working-hour regulations. The government enforced standards selectively due to poorly trained staff, lack of necessary equipment, and corruption. Ministry officials admitted their inability to carry out thorough inspections on working hours and said they relied upon the BFC to do such inspections in export-oriented garment factories.
The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, however, did conduct training and testing for more than 600 labor inspectors during the year and stated that each inspector was required to pass a test to stay on the job.
Work-related injuries and health problems were common. On June 23, a Chinese-owned and -designed facility collapsed in Sihanoukville, killing 26 local workers and injuring 26 others. Those victims and their families could not get full compensation from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) because the construction company was not registered.
There was insufficient inspection of construction worksites by the government. Occupational safety and health laws for the construction industry have penalties that are not sufficient to deter violations.
The minimum wage covered only the garment and footwear sector. It was more than the official estimate for the poverty income level.
By law workplace health and safety standards must be adequate to provide for workers’ well-being. Labor inspectors assess fines according to a complex formula based on the severity and duration of the infraction, as well as the number of workers affected. Labor ministry inspectors are empowered to assess these fines on the spot, without the cooperation of police, but there are no specific provisions to protect workers who complain about unsafe or unhealthy conditions. The number of inspectors was insufficient to effectively enforce the law. In June the government ordered provincial officials to inspect brick kilns for child and bonded labor, and it launched a campaign to eliminate child labor in brick kilns by the end of the year.
Mass fainting remained a problem. The NSSF noted that 417 workers in five factories reportedly fainted during the first six months of the year, down from 1,350 workers during the same period in 2018. Observers reported excessive overtime, poor health, insufficient sleep, poor ventilation, lack of nutrition, pesticides in nearby rice paddies, and toxic fumes from production processes all continued to contribute to mass fainting.
Compliance with safety and health standards continued to be a challenge in the garment export sector largely due to improper company policies, procedures, and poorly defined supervisory roles and responsibilities.
The NSSF reported that during the first half of the year, 24 workers died in traffic accidents on the way to or from work, an increase from eight in the same period in 2018. The accidents injured 920 others, an increase from 62 during the same period in 2018. Workers’ unsafe transportation was a big concern for stakeholders of the garment industry. On April 4, five workers lost their arms in a crash when the truck they were riding on collided with another truck.
Workers and labor organizations raised concerns that the use of short-term contracts (locally known as fixed duration contracts) allowed firms, especially in the garment sector where productivity growth remained relatively flat, to avoid certain wage and legal requirements. Fixed duration contracts also allowed employers greater freedom to terminate the employment of union organizers and pregnant women simply by failing to renew their contracts. The law limits such contracts to a maximum of two years, but more recent directives allow employers to extend this period to up to four years. The Arbitration Council and the ILO disputed this interpretation of the law, noting that after 24 months, an employee should be offered a permanent “unlimited duration contract.” (Also see section 7.a.).
The law provides for a standard legal workweek of 48 hours, not to exceed eight hours per day. The law establishes a rate of 130 percent of daytime wages for nightshift work and 150 percent for overtime, which increases to 200 percent if overtime occurs at night, on Sunday, or on a holiday. Employees may work a maximum two hours of overtime per day. The law prohibits excessive overtime, states that all overtime must be voluntary, and provides for paid annual holidays. Workers in marine and air transportation are not entitled to social security and pension benefits and are exempt from limitations on work hours prescribed by law.
Workers reported overtime was often excessive and sometimes mandatory; many complained that employers forced them to work 12-hour days, although the legal limit is 10, including overtime. Workers often faced dismissal, fines, or loss of premium pay if they refused to work overtime.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an authoritarian state ruled by a single party, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), and led by General Secretary and President Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. The most recent National Assembly elections, held in 2016, were neither free nor fair, despite limited competition among CPV-vetted candidates.
The Ministry of Public Security is responsible for internal security and controls the national police, a special national security investigative agency, and other internal security units. The Vietnam People’s Army aids civilian authorities to provide relief in times of natural disaster. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearance; torture by government agents; arbitrary arrests and detentions by the government; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including arbitrary arrest and prosecution of government critics, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; significant restrictions on freedom of movement including exit bans on activists; restrictions on political participation; significant acts of corruption; outlawing of independent trade unions; trafficking in persons; and use of compulsory child labor.
The government occasionally took corrective action, including prosecutions, against officials who violated the law, but police officers and state officials generally acted with impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press; however, in practice the government did not respect these rights, and several laws specifically encroach on freedom of expression. The government also continued to use broad national security and antidefamation provisions to restrict freedom of expression. Such laws establish the crimes of “sabotaging the infrastructure of socialism,” in addition to “sowing divisions between religious and nonreligious people” and “propagandizing against the state” as serious offenses against national security. It also expressly forbids “taking advantage of democratic freedoms and rights to violate the interests of the state or lawful rights and interests of organizations or individuals.”
Freedom of Expression: The government continued to restrict speech that criticized individual government leaders or the party, promoted political pluralism or multiparty democracy, or questioned policies on sensitive matters, such as human rights, religious freedom, or sovereignty disputes with China.
Representatives from state-run organizations and progovernment groups visited activists’ residences and attempted to intimidate them into agreeing the government’s policies were correct, according to social media and activists’ reports. Family members of activists also reported numerous incidents of physical harassment, intimidation, and questioning by Ministry of Public Security officials. Harassment also occurred at workplaces and included threatening telephone calls and insulting activists in local media and online and attacks on activists’ homes with rocks, shrimp paste, and gasoline bombs. There were reports such abuses caused injury and trauma requiring hospitalization.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The CPV, government, and party-controlled mass media organizations exercised legal authority over all print, broadcast, online, and electronic media, primarily through the Ministry of Information and Communications under the overall guidance of the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission. The law requires editors in chief to be CPV members; many outlets apply this to additional managers as well. One of the leading newspapers, Thanh Nien, demoted 13 managing editors and deputy editors who were not party members in November 2018.
Many nongovernmental entities, however, produced and distributed publications by subcontracting, joint-publishing, or buying permits from government or other public publishing entities. State-run media reported private entities produced more than 90 percent of all publications in the country, although outright private ownership or operation of any media outlet or publishing house was prohibited. Media independent of government authority operated on a limited basis online, primarily via blogs and social media, but independent journalists faced government harassment.
By law the government may fine journalists and newspapers from five to 10 million Vietnamese dong (VND) ($220 to $440) for failing to cite their sources of information or for using “documents and materials from organizations and personal letters and materials from individuals.”
The law allows the government to punish publishers if they publish “untruthful information” in the fields of statistics; atomic energy; management of prices, charges, fees, and invoices; education; civil aviation; vocational training; hydrometeorology; cartography; and health.
In November 2018 the CPV publicly denounced Chu Hao, who at that time was director and editor in chief of the Tri Thuc Publishing House, for “disobeying the Party’s regulations” and “self-evolution.” Hao, a former vice minister of science and technology and a prominent intellectual, had directed Tri Thuc to publish books with themes of freedom and democracy, such as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which the CPV viewed as contrary to the official party line. Hao left the CPV, and as a result also lost his position at Tri Thuc.
The law limits satellite television access to senior officials, foreigners, luxury hotels, and the press, but persons throughout the country continued to access foreign programming via home satellite equipment or cable.
The government permitted activities of journalist employed by foreign-based media outlets. The law requires “live” foreign television programming to run on a 30- to 60-minute delay to enable content monitoring. In fact, such programming ran on a 10-minute delay. Viewers reported obstruction of various commentaries, documentaries, and movies on human rights incidents in the country, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Soviet era, or reports involving trade tensions between the United States and Vietnam.
Major foreign media outlets reported the government delayed or refused to issue visas for reporters who previously covered sensitive political topics, particularly reporters for the overseas Vietnamese-language press. In May an international journalist was refused a visa request to report on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill. This same reporter had previously written an article likely seen by the government as unfavorable.
The information ministry may revoke the licenses of foreign publishers; foreign publishers must renew their licenses annually.
The government also sought to impede criticism by monitoring meetings and communications of journalists.
Violence and Harassment: There continued to be a significant number of reports of security officials attacking, threatening, or arresting journalists because of their coverage of sensitive stories. Independent journalists faced restrictions on freedom of movement, various forms of harassment, and even physical attacks in the form of staged motorbike accidents if they reported on sensitive topics.
Foreign journalists required formal permission to travel outside Hanoi for reporting. When foreign journalists requested access to an area considered sensitive, such as the Northwest or Central Highlands, or report a story the government might consider sensitive, authorities often either intentionally delayed their response or denied permission to travel.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information and Communications and the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission frequently intervened directly with media to dictate or censor a story.
Propaganda officials forced editors of major media outlets to meet regularly to discuss what topics were off-limits for reporting. More often, pervasive self-censorship, including among independent journalists and bloggers, due to the threat of dismissal and possible arrest, enabled the party and government to control media content. The government punished journalists for failing to self-censor, including by revoking journalists’ press credentials.
In August, two protests against Beijing’s maritime survey seeking information on petroleum reserves in an offshore area in the country ‘s exclusive economic zone took place in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and a third protest near a site popular with Chinese tourists in Danang received no local media coverage.
National Security: The law stipulates administrative fines of 20 million to 30 million VND ($880 to $1,330) for journalists, newspapers, and online media that publish or broadcast information deemed harmful to national interests and up to 50 million dong ($2,200) for information considered to be distorting history and the revolution’s achievements. In some cases, these “violations” may lead to criminal proceedings.
Citing laws protecting national security, police arrested and ordered journalists to restrict criticism of government policies or officials.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, censored online content, and monitored private online communications without legal authority. The limited number of licensed internet service providers (ISPs) were fully or substantially state-controlled companies. The government monitored Facebook posts and punished those who used the internet to organize protests or publish content critical of the government. On September 22, in separate trials, the People’s Court of Cai Rang district, Can Tho City, convicted Facebook users Nguyen Hong Nguyen and Truong Dinh Khang of “abusing democratic freedoms,” and sentenced them to two years’ and one year’ imprisonment, respectively. According to NGO reporting, Nguyen reportedly used his Facebook account to read articles, watch videos, and view pictures with “antistate” content. Khang reportedly posted and shared articles on Facebook that reportedly “defamed the party, state, and Ho Chi Minh.”
The government sometimes blocked websites it deemed politically or culturally inappropriate, including sites operated by overseas Vietnamese political groups in addition to the websites of Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC Vietnamese news service. State-owned internet service providers (ISPs) routinely blocked domestic Vietnamese-language websites that contained content criticizing the CPV or promoting political reform.
An administrative rule compels owners of all websites and social networking sites to cooperate with the Ministry of Information and Communications to prevent the spread of “bad, toxic news.” The government has used this tool to remove nearly 8,000 video clips from YouTube since 2017, according to the ministry.
Another rule requires all companies and organizations operating websites providing content on “politics, economics, culture, and society” or social networks, including blogging platforms, to register with the government. The government also requires such owners to submit detailed plans of their content and scope for approval. Such companies and organizations must locate at least one server in the country to facilitate government requests for information and must store posted information for 90 days and certain metadata for up to two years.
The government forbids direct access to the internet through foreign ISPs and requires ISPs to provide technical assistance and workspace to public security agents to allow them to monitor internet activities. The Ministry of Public Security has long required “internet agents,” including cyber cafes, to register the personal information of their customers, to store records of internet sites visited by customers, and to participate in government investigations of online activity. Internet cafes continued to install and use government-approved software to monitor customers’ online activities. The Ministry of Public Security enforced these and other requirements and monitored selectively.
The Law on Cybersecurity, scheduled for implementation in January, had not as of December gone into effect, as discussions continued on the implementing decree.
The government continued to pressure firms such as Facebook and Google to eliminate “fake accounts” and content deemed “toxic,” including antistate materials. On July 9, the Ministry of Information and Communications announced Google removed nearly 6,700 video clips, YouTube blocked six YouTube channels, and Facebook blocked nearly 1,000 links, 107 fake accounts, and 137 accounts that defamed the CPV and government.
Force 47, a special unit within the Ministry of National Defense, monitored the internet for misinformation and antistate propaganda.
Authorities also suppressed online political expression by direct action against bloggers, such as arrests, short-term detentions, surveillance, intimidation, and the illegal confiscation of computers and cell phones of activists and family members. The government continued to use national security and other vague provisions of the penal code against activists who peacefully expressed their political views online. Political dissidents and bloggers reported the Ministry of Public Security routinely ordered disconnection of their home internet service. In September 2018 the People’s Court of Tu Son town convicted citizen journalist Do Cong Duong of “disrupting public order” for filming a forced eviction, according to an NGO. He was sentenced to four years in prison. Duong was subsequently convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms” and sentenced in October to an additional five years in prison, reduced on appeal to four. On November 28, a brother and sister and another activist were sentenced to a combined 23 years in prison for posting articles on Facebook criticizing the government’s weak response to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, corruption, and environmental degradation.
Social network and blog users are required to provide their full name, national identification number, and address before creating an account. In-country website and social network operators must allow authorities to inspect local servers upon request and must have a mechanism to remove prohibited content within three hours of detection or notification by authorities.
Despite this restrictive environment, numerous groups and individuals criticized current and former local and national officials or members of government affiliates on social media, particularly Facebook. In response to reports from the Ministry of Information and Communications alleging that content violated certain laws, Facebook drastically increased the amount of content restricted in Vietnam. According to Facebook’s Transparency Report, from July to December 2018, it restricted access to 1,553 posts based on local law, compared to 265 content restrictions in the first half of 2018 and only 22 restrictions in the second half of 2017.
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Foreign academic professionals temporarily working at universities in the country could discuss nonpolitical topics widely and freely in classes, but government observers regularly attended classes taught by both foreigners and nationals. The government continued to require international and domestic organizations to obtain advance approval for conferences involving international sponsorship or participation. The government allowed universities more autonomy over international exchanges and cooperation programs, but visa requirements for visiting scholars and students remained onerous.
The government continued to prohibit any public criticism of the CPV and state policy, including by independent scientific and technical organizations, even when the criticism was for a purely academic audience.
The government exerted influence over art exhibits, music, and other cultural activities by requiring numerous authorizations.
Many activists reported Ministry of Public Security officials threatened university leaders if they did not expel activists engaged in peaceful activities from their respective universities and pressured them and their family members not to attend certain workshops. Multiple activists also reported academic institutions refused to allow them or their children to graduate due to their advocacy of human rights.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Laws and regulations require persons wishing to gather in a group to apply for a permit, which local authorities issued or denied without explanation. Only those arranging publicized gatherings to discuss sensitive matters appeared to require permits, however, and persons routinely gathered in informal groups without government interference. The government generally did not permit any demonstrations that could be perceived as political. The law permits security forces to detain individuals gathering or protesting outside of courthouses during trials.
The Ministry of Public Security and local police routinely prevented activists from peacefully assembling. There were numerous reports of police dispersing gatherings of environmental activists, anti-China activists, land rights advocates, human rights defenders, bloggers and independent journalists, and former political prisoners.
Police and plainclothes authorities routinely mistreated, harassed, and assaulted activists and those demonstrating against the government. On June 25, approximately 20 family members of prisoners and activists were beaten by individuals in plain clothes outside Prison No. 6 in Nghe An province while attempting to visit prisoners engaged in a 30-day hunger strike to protest maltreatment in the facility. Activists identified a number of Nghe An police officials and prisoners detained on drug offenses among the attackers. Some family members were severely beaten with wooden sticks and metal rods. The attackers also stole personal papers, money, and cell phones.
In February more than 1,500 H’mong residing in the northern provinces were physically prevented from attending traditional spring festivals. Two of the H’mong were reportedly physically assaulted by local authorities, who told festivalgoers they had been ordered to prevent them from reaching the festival location.
The constitution affords individuals the right of association, but the government severely restricted freedom of association. Seeking to suppress unwelcome political and religious activities, the country’s legal and regulatory framework includes mechanisms particularly aimed at restricting the freedom of NGOs, including religious organizations, to organize and act. The government generally prohibited the establishment of private, independent organizations, insisting that persons work within established, party-controlled mass organizations, usually under the aegis of the VFF.
Laws and regulations governing NGOs restrict their ability to engage in policy advocacy or conduct research outside of state-sanctioned topics and prohibit organizations focused on social science and technology from operating in fields such as economic policy, public policy, political issues, and a range of other areas considered sensitive. Authorities also did not permit them to distribute policy advocacy positions publicly.
The 2018 Law on Belief and Religion requires religious groups to register with authorities and to obtain official approval of their activities. Some unregistered religious groups reported an increase in government interference.
According to some recognized groups and others attempting to register, implementation of the law varied from province to province. Some registered organizations, including governance, women’s rights, and environment-focused NGOs, reported increased scrutiny of their activities.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some limits on the movement of individuals, especially those convicted under national security or related charges or outspoken critics of the government.
In-country Movement: Several political activists on probation or under house arrest, along with others not facing such legal restrictions, were officially restricted in their movements. Authorities continued to monitor and selectively restrict the movement of many prominent activists and religious leaders, including Nguyen Dan Que, Pham Chi Dung, Pham Ba Hai, Nguyen Hong Quang, Thich Khong Tanh, Le Cong Cau, and Duong Thi Tan. Several activists reported authorities had confiscated their national identification cards, preventing them from traveling domestically by air or conducting routine administrative matters.
Religious leaders are required to specify no more than two to three geographical areas where they will be preaching. They reported that preaching outside of the approved areas was illegal, although enforcement of the law was inconsistent.
Government restrictions required citizens and resident foreigners to obtain a permit to visit border areas, defense facilities, industrial zones involved in national defense, areas of “national strategic storage,” and “works of extreme importance for political, economic, cultural, and social purposes.”
Citizens must register with local police when staying overnight in any location outside of their own homes; the government appeared to enforce these requirements more strictly in some Central and Northern Highlands districts. Foreign passport holders also needed to register to stay in private homes, although there were no known cases of local authorities refusing to allow foreign visitors to stay with friends or family. There were multiple reports of police using the excuse of “checking on residency registration” to intimidate and harass activists and prevent them from traveling outside of their place of registration (see sections 1.d. and 1.f.).
Authorities did not strictly enforce residency laws for the general population, and migration from rural areas to cities continued unabated. Moving without permission, however, hampered persons from obtaining legal residence permits, public education, and health-care benefits.
Foreign Travel: Prospective emigrants occasionally encountered difficulties obtaining a passport or exit permission, and authorities regularly confiscated passports of activists, at times indefinitely. There were multiple reports of individuals crossing the land borders with Laos or Cambodia illegally because they were unable to obtain passports or exit permission; in some cases, this included persons wanted for crimes and political or other activism.
The Ministry of Public Security continued to use foreign travel prohibitions against certain activists and religious leaders, including seven Catholic priests. Authorities banned and prevented dozens of individuals from traveling overseas, withheld their passports on vague charges, or refused to issue passports to certain activists or religious leaders without clear explanation although activists believed that international travel authorization was denied to reduce those activists’ opportunities to speak out against the Vietnamese government. Authorities also refused to issue passports to the family members of certain activists.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
According to 2018 UNHCR statistics, there were approximately 29,500 recognized stateless persons and persons of undetermined nationality living in the country. No updated statistics were available for the year. This was a substantial increase from the estimated 11,000 stateless persons acknowledged in 2016, due to increased government effort to identify such persons. The bulk of this population are ethnic H’mong living in border areas, but it also included a number of women who lost their citizenship after marrying a foreigner but then lost their foreign citizenship, primarily because of divorce. In the past the government naturalized stateless ethnic Vietnamese who had lived in Cambodia, but there was no information on naturalization efforts or options for those identified as stateless persons during the year.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The ability of citizens to choose their government through free, fair, and periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by a secret ballot that guaranteed free expression and the will of the people was severely limited. Although the constitution provides the ability to elect representatives to the National Assembly, people’s councils, and other state agencies directly, constitutional and legal provisions established a monopoly of political power for the CPV; the CPV was the only party allowed to put forward candidates for office and it oversaw all elections. National Assembly elections take place once every five years by secret ballot. The constitution sets the voting age at 18 and allows candidates to run for election to the National Assembly or People’s Council at 21. The last National Assembly election took place in 2016.
Recent Elections: The 2016 National Assembly election allowed limited competition among CPV-vetted candidates but were neither free nor fair, and the government did not allow NGO monitoring. The CPV’s Fatherland Front chose and vetted all candidates through an opaque, multistage process. CPV candidates won 475 of the 496 seats. The remaining 21 were non-CPV candidates unaffiliated with any party. There were no candidates from a party other than the CPV.
According to the government, 99 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 election, a figure activists and international observers considered improbably high. Voters may cast ballots by proxy, and officials charged local authorities with assuring that all eligible voters cast ballots by organizing group voting and verifying that all voters within their jurisdiction had voted. There were numerous reports throughout the country that election officials had stuffed ballot boxes to create the illusion of high turnout.
The law allows citizens to “self-nominate” as National Assembly candidates and submit applications for the VFF election vetting process. In the months leading up to the 2016 National Assembly elections, an informal coalition of legal reformers, academics, activists, and human rights defenders attempted to register as self-nominated, non-CPV “activist independent” candidates. In contrast to the party’s candidates, these candidates actively used Facebook and social media to advertise their policy platforms. VFF officials refused, however, to qualify any activist independent candidates, and authorities instructed official media to criticize some of them. According to press reports, the VFF allowed two self-nominated candidates on final ballots, but both individuals were party members.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Political opposition movements and other political parties are illegal. Although the constitution states that “all Party organizations and members of the CPV operate within the framework of the constitution and the laws,” the CPV Politburo in fact functioned as the supreme national decision-making body, although technically it reported to the CPV Central Committee.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process. The law sets a target of 35 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly and provincial people’s councils to be women and 18 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly to be from minority groups. The 132 women in the National Assembly comprise 27 percent of the body. The 86 ethnic minority delegates comprise 18 percent of the assembly.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There was, however, a noticeable increase in the number of high-profile arrests and prosecutions of high-ranking officials for corruption. This included existing and retired officials from the Politburo, central party, military, and public security services.
Corruption: The lack of public consultation on land-use plans and government land compensation frameworks was the primary driver of corrupt land transfers, the major type of corruption. Corruption in financial, banking, natural resource mining, and public investment sectors also remained significant political and social problems.
A new Anticorruption Law came into effect July 1. Highlights include provisions enabling stricter and more effective scrutiny of income and assets of public officials.
The Ministry of Public Security reported it processed 181 corruption cases in the first nine months of the year. Media reported that, in the first six months of the year, the CPV punished 256 party members for corruption, an increase of 21 cases compared with the same period in 2018. Among those punished were a deputy prime minister and 12 leaders of ministries or their rank equivalent. In February, two former ministers punished by the CPV in 2018 were arrested on accusations of receiving bribes in excess of $three million from a private businessman.
Financial Disclosure: The new Anticorruption Law requires all state officials, commissioned officers of police and military forces, career military personnel, holders of positions as deputy manager and above in public service agencies and state-owned enterprises, and state enterprise financial management officers to disclose to their agency their income and assets within 10 days from the date of designation or employment. Any change of at least 300 million VND ($15,000) requires an additional declaration. Directors of provincial departments and higher ranks, or persons in charge of official management, management of public funds, public property or public investment or who have influence over the operation of other entities as prescribed by the government are required to submit annual disclosures. Nominees to be National Assembly and People’s Councils’ delegates are required to do so in line with voting law. The law provides for reprimand, warning, suspension, or removal for noncompliance.
The government reported that in 2018 approximately 1,136,902 government workers disclosed their assets and incomes, accounting for 99.8 percent of those required to do so. Only 44 of these statements were verified, of which six were identified as incorrect. Media, however, reported many cases of nondisclosure or false disclosure that were not followed up.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The government did not permit independent, local human rights organizations to form or operate, nor did it tolerate attempts by organizations or individuals to criticize its human rights practices publicly.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits using or threatening violence against women, including rape, spousal rape, “other sexual contacts,” and “forced sex crimes.” It also criminalizes the rape of men. Conviction for rape is punishable by imprisonment of up to 15 years, depending on the severity of the case. Authorities prosecuted rape cases but did not release arrest, prosecution, conviction, or punishment statistics. There was little information on the prevalence of rape or on reporting of the crime.
Authorities treated domestic violence cases as civil cases unless the victim suffered injuries to more than 11 percent of their body. The law specifies acts constituting domestic violence and stipulates punishments for convicted perpetrators ranging from warnings to imprisonment for up to three years.
Domestic violence against women was common. The Women’s Union reported in November at least 58 percent of married women were worried about domestic violence on a daily basis and that 87 percent did not seek help. Officials acknowledged domestic violence was a significant social concern, and the media discussed it openly. Social stigma prevented many survivors from coming forward due to fear of harassment from their spouses or family.
While police and legal systems generally remained unequipped to deal with cases of domestic violence, the government, with the help of international and domestic NGOs, continued to train police, lawyers, community advocates, and judicial officials in the law; supported workshops and seminars that aimed to educate women and men about domestic violence and women’s rights; and highlighted the problem through public awareness campaigns.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. Publications and ethics training for public servants did not, however, mention the problem of sexual harassment.
In serious cases, victims may sue offenders outside the workplace under a law that deals with “humiliating other persons” and specifies punishments for conviction that include a warning, noncustodial reform for up to two years, or a prison term ranging from three months to two years.
Coercion in Population Control: The constitution stipulates society, families, and all citizens implement “the population and family planning program,” which allows couples or individuals the right to have one or two children, with exceptions based on government decree. There is no legal provision punishing citizens who have more than two children; however, there were reported instances where local authorities imposed administrative fees on families in Nghe An province who had more than two children. There were unsubstantiated reports this practice occurred in many localities across the country.
The CPV and certain government ministries and local governments issued their own regulations on family size for their staff. A decree issued by the Politburo, for example, subjects CPV members to official reprimand if they have three children, removes them from a ranking position if they have four children, and expels them from the CPV if they have five children. Violating the decree also decreases the likelihood of promotion and may lead to job termination. The CPV did not enforce these provisions consistently.
Discrimination: The law provides for gender equality, but women continued to face societal discrimination. Despite the large body of law and regulation devoted to protecting women’s rights in marriage and the workplace as well as provisions that call for preferential treatment, women did not always receive equal treatment in employment, education, or housing, particularly in rural areas.
Although the law provides for equal inheritance rights for men and women, a son was more likely to inherit property than a daughter, unless otherwise specified by a legal document such as a will.
The Women’s Union and the government’s National Committee for the Advancement of Women continued to promote women’s rights, including political, economic, and legal equality, as well as protection from spousal abuse.
Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to 2018 data, the national average male to female sex ratio at birth was 115.1 boys to 100 girls, up three percentage points from 2017 and falling short of the target of 112.8 boys to 100 girls, according to the General Office for Population and Family Planning under the Ministry of Health. The government acknowledged the problem, highlighted reduction of the ratio as a goal in the national program on gender equality and continued to take steps to address it.
To address the issue of gender equality, the government has issued legal documents prohibiting gender identification prior to birth and prohibiting gender-based violence and discrimination. Violations of these provisions are subject to fines or even imprisonment. The government continued to work through the 2010 National Strategy on Gender Equality. At the local or provincial level, some authorities give cash incentives for giving birth to female children. For example, Hau Giang provincial authorities awarded couples that give birth to two females a one-time sum of VND 390,000 to 1.3 million ($17 to $56). In some provinces, females enjoy preferences in education, vocational training, starting up a business, etc.
Birth Registration: By law the government considers anyone born to a citizen parent to be a citizen. Persons born to non-Vietnamese parents may also acquire citizenship under certain circumstances.
Children born to stateless parents or to a stateless mother and unknown father may acquire Vietnamese citizenship if the stateless parents or stateless mother are permanent residents, making the process difficult in most cases.
The law requires a birth certificate to access public services, such as education and health care. Nonetheless, some parents, especially from ethnic minorities, chose not to register their children, and local authorities prevented some parents from registering children to discourage migration.
Education: Education is free, compulsory, and universal through age 14, although a variety of school fees are common. Under a government subsidy program, ethnic-minority students were exempt from paying school fees. Authorities did not always enforce required attendance laws or enforce them equally for boys and girls, especially in rural areas, where government and family budgets for education were limited and children’s labor in agriculture was valuable.
Gender gaps in education declined, but certain gaps remained. There were substantial differences in the education profile of men and women at the postsecondary level, notably in applied technology programs.
The government sometimes denied education to children from families not registered in their locality, with particular discriminatory effect on H’mong communities in the Central Highlands and on the children of some political and religious activists.
Child Abuse: The government did not effectively enforce existing laws on child abuse, and physical and emotional mistreatment was common.
According to a 2016 UNICEF report, the latest data available, violence against children occurred in many settings including schools and homes and was usually inflicted by someone known to the child. The most common types of school violence were bullying and corporal punishment by teachers. The number of reported cases of child abuse, especially child sexual abuse, was increasing. UNICEF stated there were no effective interdisciplinary child and gender sensitive procedures or processes for handling child abuse reports, and the responsibilities of the responsible agencies were unclear. The child protection workforce, especially at local levels, from social workers to relevant professionals such as police, judges, prosecutors, teachers, and medical experts, was poorly trained, uninformed, and generally insufficient to address the problem.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18 for girls and 20 for boys, and the law criminalizes organizing marriage for, or entering into marriage with, an underage person.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes all acts of sale or deprivation of liberty of children as well as all acts related to the exploitation of children in prostitution and forced child labor for children under 16. The exploitation of children in prostitution is not fully criminalized for 16- and 17-year-old children. Sentences for those convicted range from three years’ to life imprisonment, and fines range from five million to 50 million VND ($220 to $2,200). The law specifies prison sentences for conviction of acts related to the exploitation of children in prostitution, including harboring prostitution (12 to 20 years), brokering prostitution (seven to 15 years), and buying sex with minors (three to 15 years). The production, distribution, dissemination, or sale of child pornography is illegal, and a conviction carries a sentence of three to 10 years’ imprisonment. The country is a destination for child sex tourism.
The law prohibits all acts of cruel treatment, humiliation, abduction, sale, and coercion of children into any activities harmful to their healthy development and provides for the protection and care of disadvantaged children.
The minimum age of consensual sex is 18. Conviction for statutory rape may result in life imprisonment or capital punishment. Penalties for sex with minors between the ages of 16 and 18, depending upon the circumstances, vary from five to 10 years in prison. The penalty for rape of a child between the ages of 13 and 16 is seven to 15 years’ imprisonment. If the victim becomes pregnant, the rape is incestuous, or the offender is in a guardianship position to the victim, the penalty increases to 12 to 20 years’ imprisonment. The law considers all cases of sexual intercourse with children younger than 13 to be child rape, with sentences ranging from 12 years’ imprisonment to death. The government enforced the law, and convicted rapists received harsh sentences.
Displaced Children: Media reported approximately 21,000 children lived on the streets and sometimes experienced police harassment, sexual exploitation, and abuse.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://www.travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There were small communities of Jewish foreigners in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City; there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The constitution provides for the protection of persons with mental and physical disabilities. The law prohibits discrimination against or mistreatment of persons with physical disabilities, mental disabilities, or both, and protects their right to access education and other state services, but the government struggled to enforce these provisions. Persons with disabilities faced widespread social stigmatization.
The law protects the rights of persons with disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transport, judicial system, and other state services; however, the majority of persons with disabilities faced challenges in exercising their rights.
Services for the disabled were often unavailable, and policies declared were not implemented. For example, although representatives from a broad range of ministries, including Construction, Finance, Planning, and Transport, incorporate the need for accommodations for persons with disabilities in joint planning, and the law requires new construction or major renovations of government and large public buildings include access for persons with disabilities, enforcement was sporadic, particularly outside major cities.
Access to education for children with disabilities, particularly deaf children and children with intellectual disabilities, remained extremely limited.
There is no legal restriction on the right to vote for persons with disabilities, although many polling stations were not accessible, especially to persons with physical disabilities.
While the provision of social services to persons with disabilities remained limited, the government made some efforts to support the establishment of organizations of persons with disabilities and consulted them in the development or review of national programs, such as the National Poverty Reduction Program, vocational laws, and various education policies. The National Committee on Disabilities, the Vietnam Federation on Disability, and their members from various ministries worked with domestic and foreign organizations to provide protection, support, physical access, education, and employment. The government operated a small network of rehabilitation centers to provide long-term, in-patient physical therapy.
NGOs reported they continued to face challenges applying for funding and offering training for disability-related programs from certain provincial governments, which hampered access for international experts to conduct training.
The law prohibits discrimination against ethnic minorities, but societal discrimination was longstanding and persistent. Local officials in some provinces, notably in the highlands, discriminated against members of ethnic and religious minority groups. Despite the country’s significant economic growth, the economic gap between many ethnic minority communities and ethnic majority communities persisted. Ethnic minority group members constituted a sizable percentage of the population in certain areas, including the Northwest, Central Highlands, and portions of the Mekong Delta.
International human rights organizations and refugees continued to allege authorities monitored, harassed, and intimidated members of certain ethnic minority groups, particularly ethnoreligious minorities in the Central and Northwest Highlands, including Christian H’mong. Local officials in several provinces in the Central Highlands, including Doan Ket village, Dak Ngo commune, Tuy Duc district, Dak Nong province, continue to deny registration to more than 1,000 H’mong Christians who had migrated there in recent years, according to an NGO. As a result school officials did not allow the H’mong children to attend school.
Some members of these groups fled to Cambodia and Thailand, seeking refugee status as victims of oppression; the government claimed these individuals were illegal migrants who left the country in pursuit of economic opportunities. Human rights groups stated the government pressured Cambodia and Thailand to deny these individuals refugee or temporary asylum seeker status and to return them to Vietnam.
Authorities used national security laws to impose lengthy prison sentences on members of ethnic minorities for connections to overseas organizations the government claimed espoused separatist aims. In addition activists often reported an increased presence of Ministry of Public Security agents on historically significant days and holidays in regions inhabited by ethnoreligious minorities.
Government programs meant to address the socioeconomic gap between ethnic minorities and the majority community continued, and the government also continued to allocate land to ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands, although land expropriation in these areas was also common.
As of December 2018, there were 315 ethnic minority boarding schools in 49 provinces serving 109,245 ethnic minority students, mostly in the Northwest and Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta. No statistics were available for the year. The government also worked with local officials to develop local-language curricula. Implementation was more comprehensive in the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta than in the Northwest Highlands. The government also subsidized several technical and vocational schools for ethnic minorities.
The government granted preferential treatment to domestic and foreign companies that invested in highland areas populated predominantly by ethnic minorities. In addition the government supported infrastructure development programs that targeted poor, largely ethnic-minority areas and established agricultural extension programs for remote rural areas.
The law does not prohibit discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, or access to government services. The civil code gives individuals who have undergone a “sex change” the right to register their new status. Sexual orientation and gender identity were the basis for stigma and discrimination.
HIV and AIDS social stigma and discrimination hindered HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.
According to the 2015 Stigma Index, the latest available data, 11.2 percent of persons with HIV reported having experienced violations of their rights within the 12 months prior to the survey. Individuals with HIV continued to face barriers accessing and maintaining employment. Being arrested and detained in compulsory rehabilitation centers for continued use of heroin or methamphetamine also prevented drug users from accessing HIV and health services, although such treatment is considered a basic right of such patients.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution affords the right to associate and the right to demonstrate but limits the exercise of these rights, including by preventing workers from organizing or joining independent unions of their choice. While workers may choose whether to join a union and at which level (local or “grassroots,” provincial, or national), the law requires every union to be under the legal purview and control of the country’s only trade union confederation, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), a CPV-run organization. Only citizens may form or join labor unions.
The law gives the VGCL exclusive authority to recognize unions and confers on VGCL upper-level trade unions the responsibility to establish workplace unions. The law stipulates the VGCL answers directly to the CPV’s VFF, which does not protect trade unions from government interference in or control over union activity.
The law also limits freedom of association by not allowing trade unions full autonomy in administering their affairs. The law confers on the VGCL ownership of all trade-union property and gives it the right to represent lower-level unions. By law trade union leaders and officials are not elected by union members but are appointed.
The law requires that, if a workplace trade union does not exist, the next level “trade union” must perform the tasks of a grassroots union, even where workers have not so requested or have voluntarily elected not to organize. For nonunionized workers to organize a strike, they must request the strike “be organized and led by the upper-level trade union,” and if nonunionized workers wish to bargain collectively, the upper-level VGCL union must represent them.
The law stipulates trade unions have the right and responsibility to organize and lead strikes. The law also establishes substantive and procedural restrictions on strikes. Strikes that do not arise from a collective labor dispute or do not adhere to the process outlined by law are illegal. The law forbids strikes over “rights-based” disputes. This includes strikes arising out of economic and social policy measures that are not a part of a collective negotiation process, as they are both outside the law’s definition of protected “interest-based” strikes.
The law prohibits strikes by workers in businesses that serve the public or that the government considers essential to the national economy, defense, public health, and public order. “Essential services” include electricity production; post and telecommunications; and maritime and air transportation, navigation, public works, and oil and gas production. The law also grants the prime minister the right to suspend a strike considered detrimental to the national economy or public safety.
The law prohibits strikes at the sector- or industry-level and prohibits workers and unions from calling for strikes in support of multiemployer contracts.
The law states the executive committee of a trade union may issue a decision to go on strike only when at least 50 percent of workers support it.
Laws stipulate an extensive and cumbersome process of mediation and arbitration before a lawful strike may occur. Unions or workers’ representatives may either appeal decisions of provincial arbitration councils to provincial people’s courts or strike. The law stipulates strikers may not be paid wages while they are not at work. The law prohibits retribution against strikers. By law individuals participating in strikes declared illegal by a people’s court and found to have caused damage to their employer are liable for damages.
The laws include provisions that prohibit antiunion discrimination and, nominally, interference in union activities while imposing administrative sanctions and fines for violations. The laws do not distinguish between workers and managers, however, and fail to prohibit employers’ agents, such as managers who represent the interests of the employer, from participating or interfering in union activity. Penalties were not adequate to deter violations.
According to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA), there were 67 strikes in the first half of 2019. Most of them occurred in southern provinces. Approximately 82 percent of the strikes occurred in foreign direct-investment companies (mainly Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Chinese companies). The strikers sought higher wages, better social insurance, and better meals between shifts. None of the strikes followed the authorized conciliation and arbitration process and thus authorities considered them illegal “wildcat” strikes. The government, however, took no action against the strikers and, on occasion, actively mediated agreements in the workers’ favor. In some cases the government imposed heavy fines on employers, especially of foreign-owned companies, that engaged in illegal practices that led to strikes.
Because it is illegal to establish or seek to establish independent labor unions, there were no domestic NGOs involved in labor organizing. Local, unregistered labor NGOs, however, supported efforts to raise awareness of worker rights and occupational safety and health issues and to support internal and external migrant workers. Multiple international labor NGOs collaborated with the VGCL to train VGCL-affiliated union representatives in labor organizing, collective bargaining, and other trade union issues. The International Labor Organization (ILO)-International Finance Corporation (IFC) Better Work project reported management interference in trade union activities was a significant issue in garment factories.
Labor activists and representatives of independent (non-VGCL) worker organizations faced antiunion discrimination. Independent labor activists seeking to form unions separate from the VGCL or inform workers of their labor rights sometimes faced government harassment. In February 2018 a court convicted and sentenced peaceful labor and environmental activist Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years’ imprisonment under vague articles of the penal code. Binh, arrested in 2017, advocated for compensation for fishermen affected by a 2016 toxic waste spill and posted critical online content about the government’s response to the spill (see section 1.d.). In addition, authorities continued to use foreign travel prohibitions against labor activists, including the chairwoman of the independent Viet Labor Movement, Do Thi Minh Hanh (also see section 2.d.).
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The constitution and law prohibit forced or compulsory labor. The labor code’s definition of forced labor, however, does not explicitly include debt bondage. In January penal code amendments entered into effect that criminalized all forms of labor trafficking of adults and children younger than 16. The penalties were not sufficient to deter violations; in fact, the law does not provide any penalty for violating provisions prohibiting forced labor. NGOs continued to report the occurrence of forced labor of men, women, and children within the country (see also section 7.c.).
Labor recruitment firms, most affiliated with state-owned enterprises, and unlicensed brokers reportedly charged workers seeking overseas employment higher fees than the law allows, and they did so with impunity. Those workers incurred high debts and were thus more vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The newly ratified labor code establishes that only people age 18 or older are eligible to work. However, other laws address conditions for employment of children under the age 18. The constitution prohibits “the employment of persons below the minimum working age,” generally 13, with exceptions set by the Labor Ministry. The law prohibits children under 18 from working heavy, hazardous, and dangerous jobs.
Illegal child labor was reported in labor-intensive sectors such as garments and textiles, construction, agriculture, and some manufacturing. Local media also reported children working as beggars in gangs whose leaders abused the children and took most of the children’s income. Some children started work as young as 12, and nearly 55 percent of child workers did not attend school.
In the garment sector, children as young as six and up to 18 reportedly produced garments in conditions of forced labor. The most recently available information from government raids, NGOs, and media reports during the year indicated this was most common in small, privately owned garment factories and informal workshops. Reports indicated these employers beat or threatened the children. In addition, there was evidence children as young as 12 were working while confined in government-run rehabilitation centers. Employers forced these children to sew garments without pay under threat of physical or other punishments.
The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws and policies. Government officials may fine and, in cases of criminal violations, prosecute employers who violate child labor laws. As part of the government’s 2016-20 National Plan of Action for Children and National Program for Child Protection, the government continued efforts to prevent child labor and specifically targeted children in rural areas, disadvantaged children, and children at risk of exposure to hazardous work conditions.
International and domestic NGOs noted successful partnerships with provincial governments to implement national-level policies combatting child labor.
Also see the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, disability, color, social class, marital status, belief, religion, HIV-status, and membership in a trade union or participation in trade union activities in employment, labor relationships, and work but not explicitly in all aspects of employment and occupation. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on political opinion, age, language, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
No laws prohibit employers from asking about family or marital status during job interviews.
The government did not effectively enforce employment discrimination laws but did take some action to address employment discrimination against persons with disabilities. Companies with a workforce composed of at least 51 percent employees with disabilities may qualify for special government-subsidized loans.
Discriminatory hiring practices existed, including discrimination related to gender, age, disability, and marital status. Women were expected to retire at age 60, compared with age 62 for men, affecting women’s ability to rise to managerial ranks and have higher incomes and pensions.
Women-led enterprises continued to have limited access to credit and international markets. Female workers earned, per year, an average of one month’s income less than male workers, with skilled female workers earning less than male workers with similar skills. Many women above the age of 35 found it difficult to find a job, and there were reports of women receiving termination letters at 35. The VGCL’s Institute of Workers and Trade Unions noted women older than 35 accounted for roughly half of all unemployed workers in the country.
Social and attitudinal barriers and limited accessibility of many workplaces remained problems in the employment of persons with disabilities.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The minimum wage varies by region. In all regions, the minimum wage exceeds the World Bank official poverty income level.
The law limits overtime to 50 percent of normal working hours per day, 30 hours per month, and 200 hours per year, but it provides for an exception in special cases, with a maximum of 300 overtime hours annually, subject to advance approval by the government after consultations with the VGCL and employer representatives.
The law provides for occupational safety and health standards, describes procedures for persons who are victims of labor accidents and occupational diseases, and delineates the responsibilities of organizations and individuals in the occupational safety and health fields. The law provides for the right of workers to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The law protects “labor subleasing,” a pattern of employment, and thus extends protection to part-time and domestic workers.
The Ministry of Labor is the principal labor authority, and it oversees the enforcement of labor law. The Labor Inspections Department is responsible for workplace inspections to confirm compliance with labor laws and occupational safety and health standards. Inspectors may use sanctions, fines, withdrawal of operating licenses or registrations, closures of enterprises, and mandatory training. Inspectors may take immediate measures where they have reason to believe there is an imminent and serious danger to the health or safety of workers, including temporarily suspending operations, although such measures were rare. The ministry acknowledged shortcomings in its labor inspection system and emphasized the number of labor inspectors countrywide was insufficient.
The government did not effectively enforce labor laws, particularly in the informal economy.
Credible reports, including from the ILO-IFC Better Work 2019 Annual Report, indicated factories exceeded legal overtime thresholds and did not meet legal requirements for rest days. The ILO-IFC report stated that, while a majority of factories in the program complied with the daily limit of four hours overtime, 77 percent still failed to meet monthly limits (30 hours) and 69 percent exceeded annual limits (300 hours). In addition, and due to the high prevalence of Sunday work, 40 percent of factories failed to provide at least four days of rest per month to all workers.
Migrant workers, including internal economic migrants, and uncontracted laborers were among the most vulnerable workers, and employers routinely subjected them to hazardous working conditions. Members of ethnic minority groups often worked in the informal economy and, according to the ILO, informal workers typically had low and irregular incomes, endured long working hours, and lacked protection by labor market institutions. Additionally, workers in the informal sector are only eligible to pay into a voluntary social insurance fund covering only retirement and survivors’ allowances. Workers in the formal sector and their employers contribute to a system that covers sickness, maternity, labor accidents, and occupational disease as well as retirement and survivors’ allowances.
On-the-job injuries due to poor health and safety conditions and inadequate employee training remained a problem. In 2018 the government reported 7,997 occupational accidents with 8,229 victims, including 972 fatal incidents with 1,038 deaths. Among the fatal incidents, 578 incidents involved contracted laborers, while 394 incidents involved uncontracted laborers.