With Vietnam’s economy wallowing in the doldrums, inflation rising like a banh mi in a brick oven, and the cost of living for ordinary working Vietnamese creeping upwards with every new tax and fee, the last thing officials have needed this year is any untoward attention on financial shenanigans in the upper ranks. But over the past several weeks, that’s exactly what they have gotten, in spades.
In late August it was revealed that the top officers of four state-owned utility companies in Ho Chi Minh City had secretly manipulated hiring practices in order to award themselves annual salaries equal to what many American CEOs might make, often as much as 41 times the monthly wages of their seasonal employees. Then in mid-October, after raising electricity rates for the fifth time since 2011, state-owned Electricity of Vietnam was discovered to have flushed approximately $5.7 billion down the public toilet on risky ‘investments’ in ‘non-core areas’ and luxurious personal appropriations for staff.
And, finally, in late October Vietnam’s three largest telecom providers all announced at roughly the same time that they were hiking 3G rates by anywhere from 20-43% on the country’s 20 million smartphone users for the second time this year, setting off accusations of law-bending collusion on the part of the telecoms.
Vietnamese are long-accustomed to public and private officials lining their own pockets at the expense of ordinary citizens. In a society where public calls for transparency and public accountability are met with charges of ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ and ‘anti-state activity,’ such graft is all too easy to pull off. But a combination of slightly more assertive journalism, behind-the-scenes fears over a wilting economy that’s being dragged down by untouchable state-owned enterprises, and what some suspect is political infighting within the CPV have created a perfect storm this autumn of very public revelations of just how mucked up the system and its masters are.
In early September, the Ho Chi Minh City municipal inspectors’ office revealed that it had discovered eight executives from four of the city’s state-owned public utility company had enriched themselves with public funds by improperly hiring seasonal workers at low salaries, dodging Labor Code regulations, and implementing shady accounting practices. While seasonal workers were hired at salaries of less than US $300 per month, officials awarded themselves packages of more than US $10,000 per month. Two of the officials from the city’s Urban Drainage company, the City Public Lighting Company, the Saigon Transport Work Company, and the City Park and Tree Company were fired, and six others were “removed” from their posts. None face criminal charges.
“This shows how unequal and unfair is the difference in income distribution of the state companies in general.”
At a Dantri article online, commenter Tuan wrote, “This shows how unequal and unfair is the difference in income distribution of the state companies in general. How good are those directors that they can have that huge income which is hundreds of times larger than the employees’?”
Noting that no criminal charges had been filed and all executives had been merely asked to return the money, dinhlan wrote, “This is one way of embezzlement, corruption and stealing people’s money that needs to be prosecuted under the law.”
Commenter Chu Tốt wondered, “How could the management system of the State let this situation occur? I really do not understand. The biggest difficulty many companies are facing right now [in this economic crisis] is product consumption. But for the electricity and water industries, the price never goes down, and always go up because of the monopoly.”
Others couldn’t help noting that despite the officials’ unseemly high salaries, the four companies are terrible at fulfilling their supposed responsibilities. Vũ văn sơn observed, “This is the the reason millions of people have to ride in the muddy streets in the heavy rains. This is why the government spends so much money on the city’s sewer system but the situation never improves. After all, they use mostly seasonal workers with extremely cheap wages!”
At a Facebook page about the scandal, member Le Ninh tried to empathize: “It’s unfair, but if you place yourself in that position, what do you do? Do you really want to pay very high salaries for your workers, and you just get a little income? This is the problem, because everyone is selfish.” Another member, Codon Lenoi, went further, justifying the practice and blaming foreigners for using it for political gain: “Exploiting hired labour is extremely normal, because it’s just human nature. I just hate the reactionaries to post photos or videos that sully Vietnam.” The problem, he suggests, isn’t greed and corruption, it’s those who reveal such problems with Vietnamese society.
At a Vietnam.net news article, one reader took up the inevitable call for greater public accountability for public utilities: “To make the wages transparent to the public is a very easy solution. Why doesn’t the state do that?”
At another Facebook page, irony was the order of the day: “Why do you keep saying high salary means corruption? They have to think of hundreds of thousands of creative salary plans to justify that. For example: are street lights fashionable and trendy? The lights in the parks can light from head to toe? Dig up the sewer over and over; pumping water while it’s raining & flooding around. Poor them, it must be so exhausting.”
“To make the wages transparent to the public is a very easy solution. Why doesn’t the state do that?”
In mid-October, following the fifth rise in electricity rates since 2011, it was reported that “government inspectors” had uncovered evidence of creative accounting techniques from state-owned Electricity of Vietnam, which produces 70 percent of the electricity in Vietnam and is the country’s sole distributor. EVN has been losing money hand over fist, it seems, as a result of “poor investments” worth billions of U.S. dollars into enterprises having nothing to do with electricity or infrastructure. They included insurance, stock, villas, tennis courts, swimming pools, personal ‘loans,’ and other luxury amenities for its top staff. EVN board chairman Hoang Quoc Vuong has stated the monopoly was just being “humane” in building houses, tennis courts, and kindergartens for employees working in remote areas.
At a DanTri news article about the revelations, reader hùng wrote, “This shows the poor management in all state-owned companies.” Huy Pham snorted, “So sick, they are criticized every time, but nothing ever changes.” Khương dũng suggested, pointedly, that those involved “look at China, where corrupt officers like this are executed.”
At VNExpress, as with the DanTri article, many comments expressed frustration that ordinary people are the ones who always pay the price for such extra-legal antics.
Hoàng writes, “Increased electricity prices cause negative impacts to the lives of many people, especially laborers and low-income people. This significantly impacts the socio-economic health of the nation … Why are we still rewarding the business that has revenue loss, and they keep increasing wages for their top employees? The authorities need to have strict measures for these people.”
Reader An Lâm waxed poetic:
“Dear Mr. Power Monopoly,
Please don’t cut, this is my money.
Please don’t bother to say lengthy excuses.
You guys have caused enough trouble.
You said you would decrease the price,
Making us waiting in worry.
What do you use our money for?”
In a long-ranging discussion at VozForums about the financial shenanigans, sarcasm and black humor reigned.
“It’s all the people’s fault,” opined Clone.magicflame. “EVN invests in insurance, but people don’t use insurance. EVN invests in banks, but people don’t put money in the banks. EVN invests in real estate, but people don’t buy it. Of course they lose money! So they say, ‘Alright, you don’t want to help us, this time we’ll raise the price on electricity and kill you all!’” Replied cachett: “The most valuable natural resource in Vietnam is 90 million stupid people.”
In August, Reuters and other outlets reported that Vietnam’s three most powerful telcos — again, all state-owned enterprises — had begun lobbying government officials to approve yet another rise in 3G rates, claiming that increased competition from enormously popular over-the-top chat apps like Viber, Line, KakaoTalk, and Zalo were cutting into their profits. State media reported that there was discussion of the possibility of regulating, even banning, such chat apps as a result. In mid-October, all three telcos bumped up prices on their popular 3G packages for the second time this year. Coming so closely on the heels of this summer’s restrictive new Internet controls known as Decree 72, the move set off alarms for the 20 million (and growing) smartphone users in Vietnam, and even raised questions about an illegal coordinated strategy. The telcos justified the rate hike by claiming, correctly, that their 3G rates are among the lowest in the world. Yet in light of this fall’s other revelations, few commenters took the news or the explanation at face value.
BĐ lobbed, “Vietnam’s 3G rate is lower than the rest of the world’s, but executive salaries in Vietnam are equal to the world’s best.”
A widespread sentiment was that the quality of 3G service in Vietnam is far too poor to justify another rise in prices. At gaming forum gamek.vn, user Toi la toi wryly observed, “We pay for 3G but we use 2G.” Commenter phuocbanks added, “Those two words, ‘raising fees,’ are so familiar to Vietnamese now.” At another forum, genk.vn, member VietCoin wrote, “In every year’s report, mobile operators always have trillions of VND profit; why don’t they use that money to invest in better 3G instead of just raising fees again?”
“The most valuable natural resource in Vietnam is 90 million stupid people.”
User zaqws took the side of the telcos: “I’m a student and not satisfied with 3G quality. However, I think Vinaphone and Viettel have to buy machines, facilities from foreign countries with high fee, so how they provide cheap service with that expensive investment?”
At a Vietnamese Facebook page entitled Tech Daily, a commenter named Nguyễn Quốc Dũng obliquely tied the telcos’ move to Decree 72: “Such a good idea! Raising 3G rates makes people less dependent on Internet and social media. Bravo, operators! *sarcastically*.”
At the Dantri article on the five utilities’ abuses, Nguyễn Tiến Thành summed up a sentiment that may best describe this autumn’s news: “So many fellow soldiers were lost in the war; so many people have sacrificed to build this nation today, but the leaders only live in luxury and forget that they actually owe people a lot. We demand that the government examine all of those things and bring back fairness for us.”