Rain, student projects

The rain has started. The mornings are sunny and cool, but mid-day a light wind starts up and by mid-afternoon there’s a downpour. It falls directly from whatever dark cloud is passing overhead, so it starts and stops a lot. The water in the canal is brown and the gutters are full.The rivers are flowing fast. But people seem a lot happier in the rain. A lot of sudden small groups running around barefoot. A team of gymnasts from some university in Denmark is here on a 5-day visit to “business opportunities” in Asia; the guys are out playing soccer in the soccer field, which is ankle deep in water, a lake, really. Falling down, whooping with laughter.

I bought a vast raingear item that I think is really meant to cover you and your whole motorbike, not just you.

Last night Joe and I went to Yummy Beer Garden over in the neighborhood east of the Lotte Mart. Lots of restaurants on that street. This was an outdoor place with many wooden tables under a green plastic tent, decorated with green umbrellas. Full of groups of hearty 30-ish men smoking cigarettes and drinking lots of beer, attended by pretty girls wearing sashes advertising Sapporo. Also an interesting group of middle aged women, also smoking and drinking. We had some rice with crinkly noodles, dried shrimp and chives; some mango and beef salad, and then something called “fatty beef wrap carrots and cucumbers fried” which was totally delicious. Walked home in the rain, felt proud about going on a walk by ourselves through traffic in the dark and rain, discovering a new place to eat. We toasted Richard and hypothesized that he liked this place.

My cross-cultural leadership class for the International Business program went better. I had the students face each other in teams across benches placed facing each other. Each team represented a country cluster (from the GLOBE study). Actually, it worked best if they chose a country from the cluster. Then they presented their profiles. Still, a whole lot of rote numbers and lists, but at least everyone talked. Then they voted for the best team.

Student research project for the Art of Leadership is starting to warm up. Tomorrow is the day for presentations, but not all groups have come to see me.

So far: Group 2, Group 3, Group 7, Group 9, Group 10 and Group 11 have showed up for meetings with me.


Group 2 came first, the group that was going to study Pou Yuen, the shoe company. They went there, on a motorbike (about 40 KM) and stood by the gate but when they tried to talk to a worker, she wouldn’t talk to them. They could not get into the plant, either. There was a big strike there in March 2015, http://www.vietnambreakingnews.com/tag/pou-yuen-vietnam/

This was part of the big strike over social insurance, resulting in a vote in the Assembly to allow workers to collect their social insurance in a lump sum.

They are a bit at loss what to tell them to do.  Go back,  try to talk to another worker? It’s 40 K on a motorbike. Do some web research, read the labor press? This group may decide to choose another place.


Group 3 is going to report on Tan Phu Trung 1, a kindergarten where the mother of one of its members works. They wrote down “Ca 1” which means the first shift or class period, which is 7 am to 9:15, so I set my alarm for 6 am and got to the office right before 7. I waited an hour and left. Vinh called me at 8:15 right when I was carrying the laundry over to the canteen and said that a group was waiting for me. I ate a quick pho breakfast and got back to the office to meet with the group. From now on I’m going to ask people to write down the exact time, not the “Ca”.

Group 3 doesn’t know anything about their workplace yet. They are going there today, to meet with the mother of their friend. They have a survey written up and ready to pass out, including the following questions:

1. Average working hours

  1. Salary
  2. Satisfied with salary?
  3. How about break times?
    5. What is the working environment like?
  4. Are there any problems at work?
  5. What is your relationship with the manager like?
  6. Has the manager organized any vacations for you?
  7. Are you satisfied with your jobs?
  8. What is your opinion about getting a better working environment?
  9. Can you live comfortably on your salary?

These are not good questions to start out with. These are questions about problems. It looks as if they are trolling for problems. They might get thrown out. I suggested replacing these questions with questions from the “Evaluating the Terrain” handout – how many people work there, who owns the property, etc. The “objective” employer and workforce aspects.

They left and headed out to this kindergarten. They hope to have more information by tomorrow.


Group 6 is studying Kentucky Fried Chicken, at 330 Tran Hung Dao Street, District One in HCMC. One of the members of the group has worked there for 2 years. After 2 months she got a labor contract. She started at 16,000 D and then went up to 17,000 D. She works 30-50 hours per week. She lives in the TDT dorm and is in her third year. She says that the salary is “just enough for her living.”

She says there are 140 KFC’s in Vietnam. There are 4 managers in her store and 25 workers, mostly students, part time.

There is no union at the store; if there were a union, the manager would “be” the union. He would hand out all the information that the union hands out.

The place is short-staffed. There is too much work to do. Everyone does everything – cooks, does the cashier, cleans the tables. Lots of people get hired but they don’t stay long because the work is too hard—to much pressure. However, there are many people there who have worked longer than she has. There are no benefits, although the manager takes them all on a picnic together somewhere.

She went into the kitchen and took photographs of all the cooking equipment, the sinks and tables and pots. She also got photographs of people working at the counter and customers hanging around. This will be part of their powerpoint presentation.


Group 10 was going to report on the lecturers who work at Ton Duc Thang but have changed their minds; they will report on Vietopia, owned by HIM LAM CO., which has one site in Ho Chi Minh City and a new one opening in Hanoi soon. It is a large site, about 14,000 square meters. It is sort of a childcare-child enrichment center that takes kids from ages 5-15. Parents accompany children under age 8; older kids come alone. Entry per month for a parent is 45,000 dong and for a child 280,000 ($12) dong. If a parent wants a 3-month card it costs 599,000 dong ($26). About 2,500 kids come to Vietopia. On a holiday, 2,000 kids are there at the same time.

All the workers are under 30 years old. They are from around Ho Chi Minh City, not migrants.

There are about 200 part-timers and 100 full-time workers. The full-time workers earn 3,800,000 dong per month, or 45,600,000 per year, That’s $169 per month, less than the $181 per month that Boulton gave as average for Vietnam. It includes lunch. However, the food is not good.

There are 5 supervisors, one for one area and two for the other two areas on the site. The supervisors are “unpredictable” and the workers don’t obey them.

One member of Group 10 works at Vietopia. She works part-time, eight days per month, for 4 hours per day and is paid 70,000 dong ($3.12) or 16,000 (71 cents) per hour. This is more than at Lotte Mart, where the pay is 12,000 (53 cents) per hour. Her job involves checking tickets and teaching children about jobs such as doctors, radio announcers, taxi drivers and firemen. She speaks some English.

The company gives her a uniform which she washes herself. Each play “job” has its own coat. They also give her 600,000 dong per month ($26) to spend to buy lunch. She does not have a labor contract, which means that she is not a registered worker and the company does not pay social insurance for her.

She says that the part-time workers are more or less OK about their work, as compared to the full-time workers who complain a lot and talk about quitting.


Group 7, which thought it had an appointment one day but in fact had signed up for a day next week, found me at the gym and we all went to the canteen to talk. They also are doing Vietopia, because two of the young women in the group work there.

Their information was about the same. Two additional pieces: The director of the company is a woman but the owner is “someone secret”. Investors include Pepsi and Apollo English Education in Vietnam, which on the web turns out to be a company run by a Khalid Muhmoud, who also runs something called the British University in Vietnam and other operations.

One of the young women in Group 7 went to get her pay for this month, which should have been 560,000 (8 x 70,000 D). Instead, it was 540,000. She says this has happened before and to other people. Where did the missing 20,000 D go? We talked about ways to approach the supervisor about this – always in a group, to start with.

The leader of that group is a young man who described himself as “intercultural.” He speaks pretty good fluent English and knows a lot about American culture, which he has learned from the internet and friends and cousins in Orange County (“Cam”, which is the word for Orange in Vietnamese). His mother speaks English, and his grandfather, who was in the South Vietnamese military, spoke English and French. His grandfather is now deceased.

I asked him our question about why students in classes talk with each other when others are speaking. “Because they don’t care,” he said. “They don’t know any better.” He expressed a lot of opinions about the Vietnamese education system, saying that many people think it is “garbage,” that the Education Minister doesn’t care and does nothing, and that everything has gone downhill since 1975.


Group 9 was originally going to study a garment factory where a brother of one of the members works, but they have decided to do something different and are quite emphatic about it. They are going to look at a furniture shop where another member of the group works.

The names of the shop is UMA (Anh Nguyen Company), website http://uma.vn/default/online-shopping/ Amazon carries some of their lighter stuff like little home décor items.

There are 10 shops in this business, one of them in District 7 very near Ton Duc Thang. They sell furniture – middle class, nice but not fancy furniture, the kind of things ordinary people can buy. Looking at the website, I’d say it’s IKEA type, pretty nice and not cheap. The owners are one Vietnamese and two Swedish people. Apparently there are lower taxes of some sort if a Vietnamese person is the “front” for a business; foreigners can then invest at a different rate. It’s been in business for about 10 years.

One member of Group 9 works here. She works second shift, from 2:30 pm to 9:00 pm (half an hour for lunch). First shift is from 8 am to 2:30 pm. She works 6 days a week, and also takes 5 classes, going to school in the mornings. She is “temporary staff” and has no contract.

There are six people working at her level (two women and four men), 3 supervisors, 1 manager, 2 deputy managers, 3 cashiers, 3 cleaners and two guards. The manager, deputy managers, and cleaners have labor contracts.

Her job is to pick up the furniture when it is delivered, check it against a list that tells what it’s supposed to be (inventory) and stock it. She says that everyone is involved in doing this, everyone except the cashiers.

She does not know where the furniture is manufactured. She says there is a warehouse where they do repairs and fix mistakes.

She earns 19,000 (85 cents) per hour and about 2,700,000 ($120) per month. After she has been there 6 months she might earn what the sales staff earns, which is 20,000 per hour. There is a lot of overtime and no overtime pay. There are no payments into social insurance. The company will pay for insurance if she has an accident. The company provides a refrigerator and microwave and she goes out to buy her lunch and dinner food, brings it in and warms it up and eats it there.

She comes from a province, Dong Nai, about 60 K from HCMC and lives with her sister in a rented room.

Right now they are re-building the store, moving all the furniture around and painting the walls. During the rebuilding, they are being given a 25,000 dong subsidy for meals.

She says that the workers at this place all say “I feel so tired.” They work hard painting the walls, re-stocking and arranging the furniture. It’s very physical work. They are not all very strong, but everyone does it.

The staff has “TINA” – (I explained the feeling of “There is No Alternative” in class last week). The manager will yell, “I don’t care how you feel, you need to complete this job.” They would like the manager to listen and not get angry. “He is a nice man, but he doesn’t know how to lead or improve his behavior.”


Group 11 knows someone who works at Starbucks in a nearby mall. It’s a new shop, just opened last April. She works part time, which in this case is 4 days a week, 8 hours a day from 6 am to 2 pm and also goes to Tan Duc Thang. She makes 15,000 D per hour. She lives at home with her parents who pay her living expenses and her school tuition. She can keep her earnings from Starbucks and spend them any way she wants.

She and a manager open the store in the morning. She prepares the machines, sets up the coffee and arranges the merchandise. Then she is a waitress and fixes drinks. Actually, all the employees do everything. They clean the tables, run the cash register and do accounting, which is how she knows how much money is brought in each day: $60 million dong.

All twelve employees (8 workers, 4 managers) are under 30 years old, maybe under 25. They like the job a lot. It has good benefits. She didn’t want to tell the group anything more about the benefits. Mainly, they get to speak English with customers. They gave her a labor contract even though she is part-time and they talked about the union with her, gave her the option of joining the union.

Starbucks is owned by Viet Food Media, which has an enterprise level union. However, the Starbucks workers don’t care about the union. They think that they are in a service industry and the union is not relevant. The union does not communicate; it’s form over content.



No labor contracts (except for Starbucks and KFC, even though workers are part-time)

Pay below minimum wage

If no labor contract, no registration; no payment into social insurance

Students working long hours while going to school

Everyone is physically tired

No group that was attempting to talk to someone at one of the manufacturing plants likely to have participated in one of the big strikes is having success in getting anyone to talk to them.


Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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