The Czechoslovak-Vietnamese Labor Exchange Program, 1967-1989


A review of Socialist Internationalism At Work: Changes in the Czechoslovak-Vietnamese Labor Exchange Program, 1967-1989, by Alena K. Alamgir

The sociologist Alena Alamgir has written a conceptually sophisticated and solidly archival-based dissertation that should interest and benefit scholars of Vietnamese-Czechoslovak international relations, state socialism, labor migration, the Vietnamese diaspora, and even transnationalism. It is indeed a basic argument of hers that transnationalism is presented as descriptive but actually carries “traces of prescriptive arguments as well”; in comparison, scholars “who used [the concept of internationalism], put it front and center” (p. 11).  Alamgir points out that the transnationalist framework has not given enough attention to “the role that the [involved] states play in these processes,” and when it does it “tends to privilege and focus on the actions of the labor-receiving states” (p. 57).  Her dissertation redresses the imbalance, and, in this reviewer’s judgment, makes a strong case that internationalism provides potent explanatory power about labor migration and diaspora regarding twentieth-century Vietnamese history.

After a detailed and well-argued introduction, Alamgir historicizes the labor and exchange program that sent workers from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam or DRV – later, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam or SRV – to Czechoslovakia. She utilizes an abundance of materials from the Czech National Archive, plus the archives of three  governmental ministries.  Chapter 1 sets up the historical context, noting that the program was unusual for having been “built essentially from scratch, virtually in the absence of any previous ties” between the two countries (p. 60). The Cold War context was essential to understand the origin of this program, as it was shaped powerfully by solidarity and internationalism between the DRV and European communist countries in 1950 and thereafter. Although the USSR was by far the largest European supporter, Czechoslovakia, for its size, gave a considerable amount of aid in 1955. As was the case with other fraternal European countries, some of the aid was military in nature while other forms were economic, medical, and educational.

Out of this consistent if complex socialist internationalism, Vietnamese officials requested the Czechoslovakia and several other European countries, “unambiguously and forcefully,” to receive and train workers in heavy industries and other fields (p. 76). Initially hesitant, Czechoslovakia agreed to take in thousands of Vietnamese notwithstanding the expectation that it will be funding virtually all of the monetary cost to the program. In June 1967, the first batch of Vietnamese workers arrived to Czechoslovakia for training in several fields: heavy industry, chemical industry, construction, energy, food processing, and, intriguingly, filmmaking.

The reception of the Vietnamese marks the beginning of “paternalistic internationalism”: a phase that ran until 1973. It was followed by the second phase called “mutually advantageous internationalism” (1973-1979); then the last phase dubbed “beleaguered internationalism” (1980-1989). All three phases are treated in Chapter 2, the longest chapter of this work.  On the first phase, Alamgir traces standard procedures and stages of Vietnamese life on Czechoslovak soil.  Upon arrival, workers were screened for diseases, put up in housing quarters, given clothing, received linguistic training, and, months later, technical training. Paternalism was embedded in each step, with the Vietnamese being viewed as much as educable children as socialist siblings. The donation of clothes to the workers, for example, carried a dual function. It symbolized the intervention of the Czechoslovak state in “the intimately personal sphere of the Vietnamese workers’ lives”; and it “enabled the Czechoslovak state to strip the incoming workers of these cultural markers and replace them with its own” (p. 91). Alamgir calls it an example of a broader “socialist civilizing mission of sorts,” in which Czechoslovakia was willing to help its fraternal Asian county modernize at a not inconsiderable cost to the Czechoslovak state.

By 1973, however, paternalistic internationalism began giving way to a more mutually advantageous position: one from aid to cooperation. There were more Vietnamese participants in the program and the Czechoslovak state provided more time for language schooling, among other costs. At the same time, conditions of Vietnamese began to change slowly from an apprenticeship-worker model to a guest-worker type of labor exchange. A major reason for this shift came from the difficulty of the Vietnamese state to provide enough jobs for its citizens. Yet another reason has to do with Czechoslovakia, which reworked the language of the renewed treaty with Vietnam in 1979 and “moved closer to the for-profit model… that was slowly taking shape in the minds of the Czechoslovak policymakers over the past several years” (pp. 121-122). This model benefited both states, albeit in quite different ways. It also signaled a departure from the original intent of internationalism and, as consistently pointed out throughout the dissertation, showed significant parallels to practices of labor migration in capitalist countries.

The guest-worker model fully bloomed during the 1980s, the last phase of this history. The program saw a gradual decentralization of responsibilities for the workers, shifting from the Czechoslovak state to the companies employing the Vietnamese, who grew into a “fully mobile labor force” working especially in the textile, rubber, chemical, and fashion jewelry industries. Accompanying this transition was a significant shift in gender among the participants. Although there had been women in the earlier phases, the last wave saw a much larger number of female participants in the program. Partaking in the production of consumer goods, the Vietnamese work force helped to serve the interest of Czechoslovak state socialism in maintaining its political legitimacy. At 29,600 people, the Vietnamese constituted by far the largest group of foreign workers in Czechoslovakia in August 1989. (Cubans were the next largest group at 7300 workers).

Although the dissertation does not put it this way, it is not too much of a stretch to say that this labor force was well integrated into the mainstream of the Czechoslovak economy by the end of the 1980s, albeit with a difference. After a short chapter 3 on the roles of Czechoslovak and Vietnamese administrators and other institutional actors in the program, the remaining chapters demonstrate the difference in three fascinating analyses. They are respectively about the complicated interactions of gender ideology and Vietnamese female workers; complaints from workers, female and male, on wage, rights, and related matters; and the racialization of workers in the context of socialist ideology.

Chapter 4 begins with an explanation that the ideology of the Czechoslovak state held up the model of “citizen-women.” (A version of this chapter has been published elsewhere Alena K. Alamgir, “Recalcitrant Women: Internationalism and the Redefinition of Welfare Limits in the Czechoslovak-Vietnamese Labor Exchange Program, 1967-1989,” Slavic Review 73:1 (2014): 133–155.)  This model contained significant assumption about “innate gender differences” that translated into different policies and practices for women. As a result, Vietnamese women were treated differently from their male counterparts in a number of respects.  At the same time, they were treated differently than Czechoslovak women.  For example, Czechoslovak women, who comprised nearly one-half of the work force in 1975, were encouraged to have more children and given many incentives if they did. In contrast, Vietnamese women were disciplined if they were pregnant, including by being sent back to Vietnam. Indeed, the “bulk of early departures [from the program] consisted of people forced to return due to disciplinary reasons and pregnant women” (p. 218). In other words, productivity and fertility were considered incompatible for a Vietnamese female guest-worker.

Nonetheless, Alamgir stresses that this practice was the exception to the overall practice of internationalism on the Czechoslovak part, as Vietnamese workers throughout the duration of the program could access nearly all benefits as Czechoslovak citizens. She explains the exception partially in the context of the “socialist civilizing mission” inherent to the initial paternalistic conceptualization of the program. Moreover, the pregnancy policy was an outcome of the Czechoslovak state juggling its internationalist commitments to Vietnam on the one hand and its socialist commitment to maintain the standards of living for its citizens. Foreign workers, Vietnamese and otherwise, helped to fill the shortage in labor, including shortage caused by Czechoslovak women on maternity leave. Drawing the line at pregnancy did not mean a withdrawal from internationalist commitments. But it meant balancing this commitment with others in the interest of maintaining the socialist goals for the Czechoslovak economy and society.

If Chapter 4 complicates the understanding of gender among the guest-workers, Chapter 5 complicates the theoretical literature on exploitation and resistance in state-socialist economies. The 1980s saw a growing commodification of foreign workers, Vietnamese and otherwise. The relative lack of exploitation in the first two phases of the program changed into one of greater exploitation and, correspondingly, greater dissatisfaction and resistance by both workers and the Vietnamese state. Alamgir attributes this dissatisfaction to three causes: structural changes in the program, relations of production on the shop floor, and wage policies and wage politics. In comparison to the earlier apprentice-worker model, the guest-workers received much less linguistic training; had little or no vocational training; were not given the “better jobs” on the factory floor; were paid low wages and subjected to compulsory transfer; and, on the whole, were subjected to the needs of Czechoslovak companies rather than the needs of the Vietnamese state. As a result, the workers staged strikes that lasted from one day to weeks. Between May and September 1982, for example, there were at least fifteen strikes staged by the Vietnamese. “Given how rare strikes were in state-socialist Czechoslovakia,” states Alamgir, “the incidence of strikes conducted by Vietnamese workers is nothing short of stunning” (p. 265).

Vietnamese delegations and the Vietnamese Embassy in Prague also intervened on behalf of the workers. They worked with Czechoslovak officials, sometimes contentiously, on issues such as establishing a minimum wage and transferring workers from the agricultural, forestry, and construction sectors (where conditions were harsher and pay lower) to industrial companies. This chapter ends with a discussion on the role of socialist and internationalist ideology, which “constituted an important resource used by both the Vietnamese workers and Vietnamese officials while pushing for the resolution of contentious issues” (p. 281). On the whole, chapter 5 is deepest in presenting and analyzing Vietnamese agency and perspectives about the program.

Chapter 6 is perhaps the most sophisticated and fascinating of the dissertation, and it continues to complicate the theoretical literature on labor migration by examining race and racialization. (For a published version of this chapter, see Alena K. Alamgir, “Race Is Elsewhere: State-Socialist Ideology and the Racialisation of Vietnamese Workers in Czechoslovakia,” Race & Class 54: 4 (2013): 67-85.)  In particular, it takes on a paradox that showed official rejection of racism on the one hand and, on the other, the racialization of Vietnamese and other foreign guest-workers in popular discourse.

After presenting the scholarship on the subject, including an important debate in 2002 on racialization in the Soviet Union, Alamgir argues that it has not accounted for “how an explicitly anti-racist official ideology became translated into popular stances that trafficked in racialized images and attitudes” (p. 302). She interprets the discrepancy between state and society by situating the workers in the context of the official ideology of “honest socialist work.” This ideology insisted that any residents of Czechoslovakia, including the Roma, could leave behind their “old” ways; adopt conditions “normal” to a modern state; and become proper socialist citizens of the country. A central condition had to do with labor and, especially, a work ethic deemed appropriate by state and citizens.

Alamgir reviews a number of police reports and citizen’s letters to the state and concludes that there were three factors at work.  First, the hostile Czechoslovak speakers in the reports “carved out for themselves the identity of model socialist citizens, who appreciate both the opportunity for, and the value of, “honest work.” Using this identity, they would then portray the foreign workers as willfully violating socialist precepts, thus allowing themselves to express hostility against foreign workers without fearing official reprisals since, technically, they were echoing the state’s ideology” (p. 310).  In other words, official ideology was used as both explanation and justification for a public discourse coming into an increasingly racialized view of Vietnamese, Cuban, and African (but not Polish) workers.

Second, many Czechoslovak citizens perceived the Vietnamese workers to not have the appropriate “gratitude” towards Czechoslovakia for having provided them with work and wage. This attitude reflects the hierarchical and paternalistic civilizing mission discussed earlier in the dissertation, and the perceived ingratitude among the Vietnamese rationalized hostility, including that in racial terms. Finally, complaints against the Vietnamese served as reminders of the Czechoslovak state’s obligation to maintain the standards of living for its proper socialist citizens. Ironically, the perception of some 60,000 Vietnamese living in the Czech Republic today has changed again, as they are “routinely compared to, and contrasted with, the Roma, echoing the ‘model minority’ discourse familiar in the United States” (p. 320). This last point illustrates further the elasticity of race as a social category, albeit rooted in a historical context of socialist internationalism during the Cold War era.

This review barely does justice to this dissertation. Left unsaid, for instance, are a number of references and comparisons to labor migration in capitalist countries that should benefit scholars of capitalist labor. Or, it has not mentioned changes in the organizational make-up of Vietnamese group leaders and interpreters that contributed to “beleaguered internationalism” during the 1980s. It is not an insignificant point to the scholarship on Vietnamese bureaucracy and politics.

To this reviewer’s regret, historical sociology no longer holds the scholarly prominence it once had. This dissertation, however, shows the possibilities that practicing historical sociologists could contribute to the discipline of history, among others, on an array of issues relevant to past or present. It is hoped that a refined monograph will eventually come out of this rich dissertation, which won the 2015 Theda Skocpol Award from the American Sociological Association. In the meantime, there is no question that it should benefit scholars of Vietnam’s international relations, Vietnamese socialism, and the Vietnamese diaspora.

Tuan Hoang
Pepperdine University

Primary sources
The Czech National Archive
The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs Archival Materials
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive
The Archive of Security Forces (Interior Ministry Archive) in Brno-Karnice and Prague locations

Dissertation information
Rutgers University. 2014. 373 pp. and xvii. Advisor: József Böröcz.

Image:  Photograph by Author.

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