On November 11, 1918, French authorities in Indochina created the first labor code for its rubber plantations there, tying workers to the land in a way that would never have been acceptable in France and instituting a brutal labor regime that would eventually feed the strong anti-colonialist movement there.
As the rubber industry took off in Indochina in the early twentieth century, French authorities demanded pliant labor for it. French planters wanted cheap labor, they wanted a lot of it, and they didn’t want to have them move around. But malaria was endemic in Cochinchina (South Vietnam before the 1975 unification of the country). Planters looked as far as China and Java to find laborers. Sanitation was becoming a major issue that planters and the French colonial government had to take seriously. In one rubber plantation in 1914, mostly with Cambodian migrant laborers, over one-half of workers were found to have malaria during a two-day doctor’s visit. This obviously had a major impact on both the willingness of workers to leave the highlands to work in these plantations and the production of rubber. Other industries faced similar sanitary problems; a cholera epidemic in 1908 killed over 1,500 railroad workers in the region.
In November 1917, the French colonial government put together a commission to combine the needs of tying labor in place and keeping it relatively healthy. Somewhat oddly announced on Armistice Day, the new labor code only applied to Cochinchina. It was created with very little Vietnamese input–two of the fourteen members were Vietnamese, with the rest being French officials and planters. The new labor code required workers to carry identification cards with their pictures. It also required a three year contract for agricultural labor. This was a new frontier in pinning labor on the land, as planters had long complained about the inability to force workers to labor for them for more than one year. There were severe penalties for worker resistance, especially active organized labor resistance. An early draft even gave planters the right to hunt down workers who left the plantation, but that seemed a bit harsh and lawyers said it was basically slavery, which was technically illegal. But big fines and jail time for organizing or desertion were included.
Now, the colonial government knew it was going to take some heat for such a draconian labor code. So it tried to frame the new labor code as good for workers because it improved working and living conditions. Theoretically, this could have been true although it is hardly a justification for the horrors of the labor code in general. But it was not true in the end. The labor code provided housing, free medical care, “adequate” food, and some protection for mothers who worked there. But the vagueness of the food provision allowed planters to still give workers low-quality food and not enough food. Planters would recruit labor by falsely promising free food. It took until 1927 until a revision to the labor code specified that at the very least, planters had to give workers rations of rice daily.
While some workers left places such as the highlands of northern Vietnam seeking better opportunities than the peasant life could provide, but a lot of times, it was basically human trafficking, luring people in with the promise of something better and then holding them in a state of near-slavery. When workers got sick, as they often did, the plantations would attempt to charge the northern villages where the workers came from for their medical care. Major legal cases within the colonial legal system came up over this issue of responsibility for ill workers. A big part of the problem is that while the labor code was indeed passed in 1918, the actual implementation and enforcement of the limited positive provisions of it were extremely slow to nonexistent for several years, as we saw earlier with the food problems.
In the early years after the institution of the labor code, only about 4 percent of the workforce actually deserted and only a few of them were rounded up. But by the late 1920s, conditions deteriorated even further, there were more escape attempts, and a greater system of labor surveillance arose to corral those workers. By this time, about 11 percent of workers were escaping. Death rates were skyrocketing and many sought to flee these horrible lives. Somewhat ironically, the plantations with slightly better conditions had higher desertion rates because they tended to be near the cities, while the truly brutal camps were out near the Cambodian border and there was nowhere for the workers to go so they tended to escape less often. Among the terrible conditions that led workers to escape was planters refusing to give rice to sick workers, an endless system of fines that kept workers in peonage, physical abuse, brutal working conditions, illegal imprisonment, and of course low wages.
Malaria was also endemic. On one plantation in 1927, 23 percent of workers died of malaria in the first six months of the year. Not just came down it, died from it. The plantation director claimed it was because the workers were a bunch of opium addicts and also blind when they arrived to work. The actual reason for this was the deforestation to create rubber plantations and the standing water this left that created mosquito infestations. But of course what did the planters care? Eventually, this led to enough bad press that quinine became a common treatment for sick workers. Malnutrition also continued to be a huge issue. Beriberi was a real problem. The plantations were often pretty far away from the rice-growing regions and so shoddy import networks were created, but this often did a poor job of providing enough food to live.
One story will suffice to describe this labor system. Tran Kinh got sick. He worked sick for three days and on the fourth could go no more. When he requested time off to heal, his boss beat him with a rattan cane and then docked him three days of salary for being lazy. A few months later, he got sick again. This time, the director of the plantation tied his feet together and threw him against the base of a coconut tree. He sat there for three days, exposed to the weather and without food. Finally, someone took mercy and gave him some rice, but he got even sicker. There are other stories like this as well, but evidently the archival evidence is limited before 1927 because most of this was just not reported.
A revised labor code in 1927 attempted to address some of these issues and provided more rules and regulations, but in the end did little to really make a difference in the lives of exploited workers.
In conclusion, it is indeed shocking that communism became appealing for large sectors of the Vietnamese workforce in the coming decades.
I drew from Michitake Aso’s 2018 book, Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897-1975, to write this post.
This is the 375th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.