Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Coping with Precarity: The Role of Law in Vietnam

Tu Phuong Nguyen,

Tu Phuong Nguyen

This book investigates the paradoxical effects of law on the survival strategies of Vietnamese workers and residents who are caught to live and work in uncertain and sometimes desperate condition. It builds upon the longstanding queries of law in everyday life: Is law able to offer a feasible solution to people’s everyday problems, or is it only a set of abstractions that are distant from and irrelevant to their needs, goals, and expectations? Is law able to empower those who choose to invoke it, or would invoking law only lead to failure and disappointment? How do all these socio-legal processes play out in a Communist-party regime such as Vietnam where law has been instrumental to the ruling party’s political power?

This book shows that law has carved out spaces of everyday resistance whereby citizens are able to negotiate with law enforcement authorities, their employer, and other intermediary actors in order to pursue their needs. However, different from conventional legal consciousness studies that suggest the positive relationship between law and social change, this book argues that the effects of law are much more complex. People’s decisions to use, manipulate, or violate the law as a way to achieve more stability in their lives turn out to be a double-edged sword, as they end up being caught in another challenging and precarious situation.

My study draws upon ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2018 and 2019 with 70 low-income workers and residents in Ho Chi Minh City. Laws and regulations under study include the Labour Code, Law on Social Insurance, Land Law, and Law on Housing. Ethnography allows me to discern the various interpretations and functions of the law, which are not readily available through court cases, official documents, and dispute settings. The fieldwork captures the localized, socially constructed meanings and practices in which law may or may not play a part as people recount their own experiences. These meanings and practices emerge from the stories told by the people, and from the routine, everyday encounters between them and other actors, such as their employers, local authorities, friends, relatives, acquaintances, and others. Through stories, encounters, and conversations circulating within the communities, I was able to draw out instances in which law is invoked, negotiated, and contested, or simply avoided, and how practices and meanings of law change as people negotiate and pursue their needs.

This book argues that legal consciousness has to be understood in terms of people’s experiences of precarity. I use the political economy concept of precarity to capture conditions of insecurity and uncertainty that people experience in their work and lives. The precarity of the Vietnamese people covered in this book is grounded within the broader process of their country’s economic transformation and a new mode of governing that causes work and welfare to be increasingly exposed to market forces and private regulation. Three chapters of the book feature distinctive experiences of precarity of different groups of people. They include factory workers in export industries who work excessive hours but earn barely enough to feed themselves and their families. Despite having worked since their late teens or early twenties, these workers struggle to have enough savings to count on in emergency situations or when extra household spending needs arise. Another group is the retired workers whose wages were frozen and their working conditions got worse following their enterprise’s privatisation. Such a change pushed workers into a financial struggle and created a sense of abandonment, especially among those who had contributed several decades of service to the enterprise. The final group is low-income residents and workers who aspire to have their own houses and settle down, but have for many years struggled to get in the legal housing market. These people’s experiences concerning their employment, social insurance, retirement, and housing turned out to be the most pertinent to a discussion of precarity, and the way precarity enhances our understanding of legal consciousness.

The notion of precarity does not only capture individuals’ vulnerability and their exposure to insecurity in life, but also their adaptability and resilience, and sometimes resistance, for better and more dignified living and working conditions. The above groups of people have managed to turn to the law, exploit its loopholes, or resist it altogether, to solve their problems and achieve more stability in their lives. For example, the factory workers managed to negotiate with their managers and exploit a stipulation in the Law on Social Insurance, one that allows employees to withdraw their social insurance money one year after quitting their jobs, to get extra money for their households. While their behaviour follows the letter of the law, it contradicts and undermines law’s objectives. In other cases, people’s coping strategies became possible due to social networks, patron-client relationships, and corruption – factors that have prevailed and characterised the very nature of Vietnam’s everyday legality.

Ultimately, the particular way in which people’s use of law, or resistance to it, ends up perpetuating their precarity. The stability that they managed to achieve is either short-term or incomplete. Because their coping strategies unfold within the scope and boundary of the law rather than outside of it, they are subject to rules, constraints and sanctions imposed by the law. These people come to experience exclusion, subordination, and even violence as a result of their behavior.

The central thesis of this book is that precarity both shapes and is shaped by the way people experience and engage with the law in their daily survival. Precarity influences the way people perceive, engage with, or resist the law; yet at the same time law creates and reinforces such condition. This mutually reinforcing relationship between law and precarity highlights the double-edged effects of law in daily life: on the one hand, law enables people living and working under precarious circumstances to pursue their needs and achieve greater stability; yet on the other hand, it can disadvantage them further and make their work and lives even more precarious. Understanding the complex dynamics between law and precarity sheds a new light on the role of law that, especially to the lives of people caught in uncertain and often desperate circumstances, can make matters worse rather than better.

What are the factors and processes that enable people to act upon the law, but at the same time operate so powerfully in opposition to the benefits of invoking it, as a means to achieve greater stability? These factors, which play out to various degrees in different case studies, include the (mis)match between law and other sets of values and understandings of justice; legal ambiguity and the prevalence of informal practices; and the regulatory and normative role of the state.

Overall, this book strikes a middle ground between studies that project a positive view about law and social change, and those who portray law as hegemonic and subordinating. It views law as part of the broader social process that constitutes, sustains or mitigates precarity, and shifts the predominant focus of existing analyses of precarity from economic survival to the moral complexities that underpin people’s experiences and their decision making. Since the notion of precarity can travel across countries and regions, and the everyday operation of law everywhere is always ambiguous, arbitrary, and subject to abuse, the conceptual framework developed in this book will be useful and applicable to studies of legal precarity in different contexts. This book will be of interest to researchers and students of law and society, political economy, anthropology, and Asian studies.

Law and Precarity by Tu Phuong Nguyen

About The Author

Tu Phuong Nguyen,

Tu Phuong Nguyen researches labor law, law and society, political economy, state and society relations, and gender in Vietnam. She is the author of Workplace Justice: Rights and La...

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