The number was sharply up from the 541 strikes reported in 2007 and part of an upward trend in industrial unrest over recent years in the low-wage economy that has seen more than a decade of high export-led growth.

"High inflation made the lives of low-income workers more difficult," said the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour official, who asked not to be named. "The strikes were mainly for higher wages and benefits."

The Lao Dong (Labour) daily earlier estimated that companies in Vietnam were hit by 775 strikes nationwide last year, mostly in the industrial south.

Vietnam, after years of strong growth that reached 8.5% in 2007, saw its economy slow to 6.2% growth in 2008 and, according to the International Monetary Fund, faces a rate of about 5% in 2009.

Consumer prices surged in 2008 - with annual inflation at 23%, and food prices shooting up by about twice that rate - squeezing the pay packets of millions of workers, many of whom earn about $50 per month.

The Labour Ministry predicts that, amid the global economic slowdown, more than 150,000 Vietnamese workers will loose their jobs this year. Ministry officials declined to comment on how they calculated the figure.

Vietnam bans labour unions that are independent of the ruling Communist Party, and industrial relations experts have said that most workplaces lack transparent arbitration mechanisms to settle labour disputes.

Vietnam has in past years jailed members of the United Workers-Farmers Organization, which demands the right to form independent labour unions, for "abusing democracy and freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state." Workplace disputes have traditionally risen before Vietnam's Tet lunar New Year, which falls in late January this year, when consumer prices go up and workers need more money and days off to travel home to their families.

Agence France Presse - January 10, 2009