Neo-Imperialism and the Precarious Existence of Vietnamese Factory Workers During the Covid-19 Lockdowns in 2021

  • Scott G. McNall
  • Ly Quoc Dang
Keywords: Vietnam, neo-imperialism, commodity and value chains, precarious labor, Covid lockdowns


Based on interviews with Vietnamese factory workers we discuss the impact Covid lockdowns had on their lives and illuminate how fragile their economic circumstances are in general. Both the government and major international corporations, such as Samsung and Nike, took extraordinary steps to keep workers on factory floors when covid infections started spreading in 2020. The government and businesses pressed laborers to work, sleep, and eat in their factories to stop the spread of the virus and to keep production lines moving. There was a determined push to get people vaccinated. It wasn't just the Vietnamese government that tried to get jabs in arms; ninety U.S. corporate executives urged the U.S. government to speed vaccine delivery to the country. Japanese, South Korean, and other Southeast Asian companies located in Vietnam also joined in these efforts. The purported reason was that supply chains had been disrupted by covid and exporters feared they would not have products on the shelves for the coming holiday season. We argue that focusing on supply chain disruptions obscures the fact that what is being transferred between developing countries and those in the core is not just television sets and tennis shoes but human labor power. It is a form of economic imperialism in which countries no longer conquer another nation to extract wealth but operate through international corporations unfettered by ties to any specific country. The Vietnamese government offers international corporations significant tax breaks and other benefits to set up shop in industrial zones. Their profit margins are high and come at the expense of workers, who must work overtime and enlist other family members in their labor force to survive. We conclude by identifying actions the Vietnamese government could take to alleviate the plight of factory workers.


ACCLIME. “Resolution 68 Implementing Policies to Support Businesses and Individuals Impacted by COVID-19.†(July 9, 2021). Retrieved on April 21, 2022 at:

Kimberly Amadeo, “Vietnam War Facts, Costs and Timelines.†The Balance. February 19, 2020. Retrieved on April 15, 2022 at:

Anthony A. Brewer. Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey. (London: Routledge, 1990.)

Shoshy Cimet, “Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour Face Ongoing Headwinds from Vietnam Factory Closures.†Yahoo News (September 13, 2021). Retrieved on April 12, 2022 at:

William Dalrymple. Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2019.)

William Duiker, “Vietnam: A Revolution in Transition.†Southeast Asian Affairs (1989):351-368).

Economic Research Institute, “Average Wages of Vietnamese Workers,†Retrieved on April 12, 2022 at:,education%20for%20a%20Factory%20Worker.

The Economist, “The Economy that Covid-19 Could Not Stop.†(September 4, 2021):56-57.

English Review, “Returnees from Pandemic Areas Receive Support.†(January 26, 2022.†Retrieved on April 19, 2022 at:

Marjorie van Elven. “Garment Factory Workers in Vietnam Forced to Rely on Excessive Overtime.†Fashion United. (April 12, 2019). Retrieved on April 22, 2022 at:

Cheng Enfu and Lu Baolin, “Five Characteristics of Neoimperialism: Building on Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.†Monthly Review. 73. no1 (May 1, 2021). Retrieved on July 11, 2022 at:

Dony Garment, “The Best from Vietnam Clothing & Apparel Manufacturers: CM, CMPT, FOB, OEM, ODM, Readymade Garments.†(September 30, 2020). Retrieved on April 21 at:

Healy Consultants. “Setting Up a Company in Vietnam Free Trade Zones, 2022.†Retrieved on April 19 at:

Terence Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein, “Commodity Chains in the World-Economy Prior to 1800.†Review X, no1 (Summer, 1986:157-170).

International Labor Organization. “The ILO in Vietnam: Vietnam and Decent Work.â€(2016). Retrieved on July 11, 2022 at:

International Labor Organization. “ILO, Viet Nam Join Forces to Promote International Labor Standards and Decent Work for All.†(May 20, 2021). Retrieved on July 11, 2022 at:,ILO%2C%20Viet%20Nam%20join%20force%20to%20promote%20international%20labour%20standards,during%20the%202021%2D30%20period.

Michelle Jamrisko and Dieu Tu Uyen, “Tangled Supply Chain Highlights Threat to Global Economy.†Bloomberg (August 31, 2021). Retrieved on April 12, 2022 at:

Sarah Johnson and Nhung Nguyen. “’Hunger Was Something We Read About,†Lockdown Leaves Vietnam’s Poor without Food.†The Guardian. (September 8, 2021.) Retrieved on July 11, 2022 at:

John Hopkins, “Vaccination Rates Across the World,†Retrieved on April 12, 2022 at:

Kwame Nkrumah. Neo-Colonialism: The Last State of Imperialism. (New York: International Publishers, 1966).

Lam Le, “Workers in Vietnam Lived Inside Factories to Keep Samsung’s Products on Shelves during the Pandemic.†Rest of the World: Reporting Global Tech Stories.†(November 22, 2021.)

V.I. Lenin. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1917/1970).

Douglas S. Massey, et al., “Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal.†Population and Development Review. 19, no. 3 (September 1933): 431-466.

Terrance McDonough. “Lenin, Imperialism, and the Stages of Capitalist Development.†Science & Society. 59, no.3 (1995):339-367.

Scott G. McNall, Ly Quoc Dang, and Teresa Sobieszczyk. “Ecotourism in Costa Rica and Vietnam: Is It Sustainable?†Sustainability 9, no. 3 (June 16):144-154.

Anh Minh, “Give Vietnam More Vaccine, American CEOs Tell Biden.†E.VNExpress (August 15, 2021). Retrieved on April 12 at:

Kwane Nkrumah. Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. (New York: International Publishers, 1965/1966.)

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “Global Value Chains and Trade.†Retrieved on July 6, 2022 at:

OXFAM. “One Pair of Shoes that We Make Is Valued More than Our Whole Month’s Salary.†(2021). Retrieved on April 20, 2022 at:

Porter, Michael. Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance. (New York: Free Press, 1985).

Reuters, “Nike Supplier Halts Production at 3 Vietnam Plants Due to Covid-19.†(July 15, 2021). Retrieved on April 20 at:,due%20to%20a%20coronavirus%20outbreak.

Eric San Juan, “Is There a Glimmer of Hope for Vietnamese Workers?†Equal Times (February 18, 2020.†Retrieved on July 11, 2022 at:

Intan Suwandi, Value Chains: The New Economic Imperialism. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019.)

Tienphong News. “Deputy PM Asks for Measures to Attract Workers Back.†(November 12, 2021). Retrieved on April 21, 2022 at:

Trang Thi Kieu Tran, “Collective Bargaining and Collective Agreements in Vietnam: From Legislation to Practice.†Japan Labor Issues. 1, no.3 (2017). Retrieved on July 11, 2022 at:

Quynh Tran, “Life in Southern Vietnam’s Super-Cheap Apartments.†E.VNEXPRESS, February 10, 2017 Retrieved on February 17, 2022 at:

Hong Anh Tuan. “Doi Moi and the Remaking of Vietnam.†Global Asia 4, no. 3 (September 2009). Retrieved on April 19 at:

Ngoc Tuyen, (May 8, 2017.) “Vietnam Cuts Size Limits for Apartments to Reach Low-Income Buyers.†E.VNEXPRESS, May 8, 2017. Retrieved on February 17, 2022 at:

Vietnam Briefing, “Vietnam’s Industrial Zones: Strategies for Small and Medium Sized Businesses.†(Febuary 23, 2018)l m Enterprises.†(February 23, 2018). Retrieved on April 21, 2022 at:

Vietnam News, “HCM City to Provide Low-Interest Loans to Landlords to Help Them Upgrade Boarding Houses for Workers.†November 25, 2021. Retrieved on February 17, 2022 at:

World Bank, “Nike in Vietnam: The Tae Kwang Vina Factory.†1999, Document 51433. Retrieved on April 20, 2022 at:

World Bank, “Vietnam’s Economy is Forecast to Grow about 4.8% in 2021, Press Release.†(August 24, 2021). Retrieved on April 21 at: