An inmate grasps a hefty wooden mallet and smashes it through concrete at his feet, working in the shade of a stately white building that his fellow prisoners are constructing in southern Vietnam.
Police officers in bold green uniforms usher everyone away from the men working in faded, olive and white-striped prison garb.
Nobody on the trip could remember such an event happening before; five foreign journalists and numerous officials travelling through archetypal Vietnamese countryside – rice paddies rising up the hills like corduroy, buffalo sauntering along dusty roads – to visit Thu Duc prison, once a re-education camp for southern Vietnamese.
The invitation was for one reason – a European trade deal that brings Vietnam’s treatment of its prisoners into sharp focus.
Vietnam has taken a crucial step in its economic recovery plans after its national assembly ratified both the Vietnam-EU free trade agreement and International Labour Organization (ILO) convention 105, obliging the country to cease all forms of forced labour, including against political dissidents in prisons like Thu Duc.
The economic arrangement promises a plethora of financial benefits, including eventually removing 99% of trade tariffs on either side. ILO convention 105 is one of eight fundamental labour agreements Vietnam needs to fulfil in order to secure the trade deal.
Lieutenant-general Ho Thanh Dinh, director of Vietnam’s prison system, vehemently denied all claims of torture or politically motivated mistreatment of inmates to the visiting delegation before leading the tour of around Thu Duc, three hours drive east of Ho Chi Minh City.
The prison has 6,000 inmates, including 150 foreign nationals and once held convicted sex offender Gary Glitter.
Briton Joe Hui, 63, who is serving a life sentence for “stealing around $700,000” from the Vietnamese government, was among the inmates who were allowed to speak to journalists.
“I tell you honestly, in here, very good … In Vietnam, in this prison, if you follow procedures and obey the officers, nothing happens,” he says. “I am sick, so I do not need to go to work. High blood pressure.”
His complaint is he would like to spend more time outside for exercise. “Being in a room for too long, sit and sleep, is not good for health. I ask only for one hour. I think it’s reasonable,” he says.
Vietnam has faced much international criticism over human rights. An Amnesty International report in May 2019 said at least 128 prisoners of conscience were held where “conditions remain appalling, with evidence of prisoners being tortured”, and that they were routinely held incommunicado and in solitary confinement.
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, one of Vietnam’s most high-profile former inmates, known as “Mother Mushroom”, was given a 10-year sentence in 2017 for posting blogs deemed as anti-state.
“Where I stayed, every prisoner must go to work every day. The police tried to ask me to work … but I refused,” she says, adding that she had not been allowed health checks or tampons in the first eight months, and had been beaten by other prisoners.
“Many prisoners I had a chance to meet … if the orders said that you have to finish 10 clothes per day, it means you have to spend at least nine hours working hard,” she adds. “The prisoners don’t have a chance to rest or have a day off when they are sick.
“The prisoners had to work hard to reduce the years they would spend in prison, but I did not work, because I said I would spend all 10 years.”
Quynh was released in October 2018, shortly after a state visit from former US defence secretary Jim Mattis, and now lives in exile in the US.
Prison labour is not in itself illegal, but making prisoners work without pay, or under threat of menace or potential penalty – such as losing a reduction in sentence – is against international accords.
Lawyer Le Cong Dinh, another high-profile former inmate, was sentenced to 5 years for political subversion in 2009. In 2013, he was released after what he described as “pressure by the international community”.
“All prisoners,” he says, “including political ones, are forced to work hard and free of charge. Managers of prisons usually use prison labour forces to provide services or carry out manufacturing work which is paid for by companies.”
Minh Nguyen, based in Hanoi with the UN’s office on drugs and crime, says: “Generally speaking, one can see evidence of the government’s efforts to improve respect for human rights in Vietnamese prisons, although prisons are still facing numerous challenges.”
“Work is de facto an obligation as it is a mandatory requirement to then be considered for suspended sentence and other benefits,” he says. “Prisoners would work eight hours for five days per week. They might receive additional food or, if their productivity is higher than pre-set production targets, they may receive some payment for the extra work.”
In an ILO press release, the UN agency praised Vietnam for achieving this new “milestone” of convention 105, while reasserting that forced prison labour remains “the only condition on the basis of which all World Trade Organization member states are expressly authorised to ban the import of goods produced using it”.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division, says: “Forced labour still happens in Vietnam’s prisons, hidden behind the entirely opaque and unaccountable operation of those facilities.
Forced labour also occurs in drug detention centres where those held are not taken to court but still face detention”, he says. “In the employment sector there is a lack of effective regulation of informal sector shops and small businesses, with child labour and forced labour still seen in those sectors.”
Chris Humphrey is the Vietnam bureau chief for Deutsche Presse-Agentur