1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Toward Foreign Direct Investment
Since Vietnam embarked on economic reforms in 1986 to transition to a market-based economy, the government has welcomed FDI, recognizing it as a key component of Vietnam’s high rate of economic growth over the last two decades. Foreign investments continue to play a crucial role in the economy: according to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office (GSO), Vietnam exported USD 281 billion in goods in 2020, of which 72 percent came from projects utilizing FDI.
The Politburo issued Resolution 55 in 2019 to increase Vietnam’s attractiveness to foreign investment. This Resolution aims to attract USD 50 billion in new foreign investment by 2030. In 2020, the government revised laws on investment and enterprise, in addition to passing the Public Private Partnership Law, to further the goals of this Resolution. The revisions encourage high-quality investments, use and development of advanced technologies, and environmental protection mechanisms.
While Vietnam’s revised Investment Law says the government must treat foreign and domestic investors equally, foreign investors have complained about having to cross extra hurdles to get ordinary government approvals. The government continues to have foreign ownership limits (FOLs) in industries Vietnam considers important to national security. In January 2020, the government removed FOLs on companies in the eWallet sector and reformed electronic payments procedures for foreign firms. Some U.S. investors report that these changes have provided more regulatory certainty, which has, in turn, instilled greater confidence as they consider long-term investments in Vietnam.U.S. investors continue to cite concerns about confusing tax regulations and retroactive changes to laws – including tax rates, tax policies, and preferential treatment of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In 2020, members of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hanoi noted that fair, transparent, stable, and effective legal frameworks would help Vietnam better attract U.S. investment.
The Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI) is the country’s national agency charged with promoting and facilitating foreign investment; most provinces and cities also have local equivalents. MPI and local investment promotion offices provide information and explain regulations and policies to foreign investors. They also inform the Prime Minister and National Assembly on trends in foreign investment. However, U.S. investors should still consult lawyers and/or other experts regarding issues on regulations that are unclear.
The Prime Minister, along with other senior leaders, has stated that Vietnam prioritizes both investment retention and ongoing dialogue with foreign investors. Vietnam’s senior leaders often meet with foreign governments and private-sector representatives to emphasize Vietnam’s attractiveness as an FDI destination. The semiannual Vietnam Business Forum includes meetings between foreign investors and Vietnamese government officials; the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council (USABC), AmCham, and other U.S. associations also host multiple yearly missions for their U.S. company members, which allow direct engagement with senior government officials. Foreign investors in Vietnam have reported that these meetings and dialogues have helped address obstacles.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
Both foreign and domestic private entities have the right to establish and own business enterprises in Vietnam and engage in most forms of legal remunerative activity in non-regulated sectors.
Vietnam has some statutory restrictions on foreign investment, including FOLs or requirements for joint partnerships, projects in banking, network infrastructure services, non-infrastructure telecommunication services, transportation, energy, and defense. By law, the Prime Minister can waive these FOLs on a case-by-case basis. In practice, however, when the government has removed or eased FOLs, it has done so for the whole industry sector rather than for a specific investment.
MPI plays a key role with respect to investment screening. All FDI projects require approval by the provincial People’s Committee in which the project would be located. By law, large-scale FDI projects must also obtain the approval of the National Assembly before investment can proceed. MPI’s approval process includes an assessment of the investor’s legal status and financial strength; the project’s compatibility with the government’s long- and short-term goals for economic development and government revenue; the investor’s technological expertise; environmental protection; and plans for land use and land clearance compensation, if applicable. The government can, and sometimes does, stop certain foreign investments if it deems the investment harmful to Vietnam’s national security.
The following FDI projects also require the Prime Minister’s approval: airports; grade 1 seaports (seaports the government classifies as strategic); casinos; oil and gas exploration, production, and refining; telecommunications/network infrastructure; forestry projects; publishing; and projects that need approval from more than one province. In the period between this year’s Investment Climate Statement and last year’s, the government removed the requirement that the Prime Minister needs to approve investments over USD 271 million or investments in the tobacco industry.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
The World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index ranked Vietnam 70 of 190 economies. The World Bank reported that in some factors Vietnam lags behind other Southeast Asian countries. For example, it takes businesses 384 hours to pay taxes in Vietnam compared with 64 in Singapore, 174 in Malaysia, and 191 in Indonesia.
In May 2021, USAID and the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) released the Provincial Competitiveness Index (PCI) 2020 Report, which examined trends in economic governance: . This annual report provides an independent, unbiased view on the provincial business environment by surveying over 8,500 domestic private firms on a variety of business issues. Overall, Vietnam’s median PCI score improved, reflecting the government’s efforts to improve economic governance and the quality of infrastructure, as well as a decline in the prevalence of corruption (bribes).
The government does not have a clear mechanism to promote or incentivize outward investment, nor does it have regulations restricting domestic investors from investing abroad. Vietnam does not release periodical statistics on outward investment, but reported that by the end of 2019 total outward FDI investment from Vietnam was USD 21 billion in more than 1,300 projects in 78 countries. Laos received the most outward FDI, with USD 5 billion, followed by Russia and Cambodia with USD 2.8 billion and USD 2.7 billion, respectively. SOEs like PetroVietnam, Viettel, and SOCB are Vietnam’s largest sources of outward FDI, and have invested more than USD 13 billion in outward FDI, per media reports.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
Vietnam’s new Labor Code came into effect on January 1, 2021. The CPTPP and the EVFTA have helped advance labor reform in Vietnam. In June 2020, EVFTA helped push Vietnam to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 105 – on the abolition of forced labor – which will come into force July 14, 2021. EVFTA also requires Vietnam to ratify Convention 87, on freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, by 2023. Although Vietnam has made some progress on labor issues in recent years, including, in theory, allowing the formation of independent unions, the sole union that has any real authority is the state-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labor. Workers will not be able to form independent unions, legally, until the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA) issues guidance on implementation of the Labor Code.
According to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office (GSO), in 2020 there were 54.6 million people participating in the formal labor force in Vietnam out of over 74 million people aged 15 and above. The labor force is relatively young, with workers 15-39 years of age accounting for half of the total labor force.
Estimates on the size of the informal economy differ widely. The IMF states 40 percent of Vietnam’s laborers work on the informal economy; the World Bank puts the figure at 55 percent; the ILO puts the figure as high as 79 percent if agricultural households are included. Vietnam’s GSO stated that among 53.4 million employed people, 20.3 million people worked in the informal economy.
An employer is permitted to lay off employees due to technological changes, organizational changes (in cases of a merger, consolidation, or cessation of operation of one or more departments), when the employer faces economic difficulties, or when the employees are harassing others at work. There are no waivers on labor requirements to attract foreign investment. COVID-19 increased the number of layoffs in the Vietnamese economy. In March and April 2020, and again in September 2020, the government provided cash payments and supplemental cash for companies, to help pay salaries for workers and offer unemployment insurance.
The constitution affords the right of association and the right to demonstrate. The 2019 Labor Code, which came into effect on January 1, 2021, allows workers to establish and join independent unions of their choice. However, the relevant governmental agencies are still drafting the implementing decrees on procedures to establish and join independent unions, and to determine the level of autonomy independent unions will have in administering their affairs.
Labor dispute resolution mechanisms vary depending on the situation. Individual labor disputes and rights-based collective labor disputes must go through a defined process that includes labor conciliation, labor arbitration, and a court hearing.
Vietnam has been a member of the ILO since 1992, and has ratified six of the core ILO labor conventions (Conventions 100 and 111 on discrimination, Conventions 138 and 182 on child labor, Convention 29 on forced labor, and Convention 98 on rights to organize and collective bargaining). While the constitution and law prohibit forced or compulsory labor, Vietnam has not ratified Convention 105 on forced labor as a means of political coercion and discrimination and Convention 87 on freedom of association and protection of the rights to organize.