How's that Working Out For You? Adventures in Democracy, was Teaching Industrial Relations in Vietnam

In order to translate the core assumptions of collective bargaining for Vietnamese undergraduates, I have had to turn my attention to the way democracy is actually practiced in our own country.

Exploring #4 — September 8, 2015

Exploring #4

About 5 miles south of Ton Duc Thang (or a 100,000 dong taxi ride) is a place called Binh Xuyen. You eat there, but it’s not like any restaurant I’ve ever seen. It’s a collection of long bamboo pavilions going zig-zag over 5 acres, maybe more, with stocked fish ponds in between them. You can rent a fishing pole, catch something, and they’ll cook it for you. The pavilions seem to go on forever. I never saw all of them; they must be able to seat a couple thousand people. Some are private one-family pavilions. The slanted coconut-leaf roofs are high and big fans move the air. There are lifelike plaster water buffaloes in the ponds. Wait staff ride bicycles and go on roller blades.


Binh Xuyen has two locations, apparently. This one has been here “for a long time,” says Mark, who brought us here. His Vietnamese name is Tuan Nguyen. It is a traditional eating place that fills up on holidays and dates from back when the fish ponds used to flow into rice paddies. Now, along the divided boulevard that leads down here from the city, high rise apartments that will sell for $100,000 are sprouting up. You look out over the fish ponds and the wetlands, and see construction. This is where the new South Saigon will be.

Hi rise over rice paddy

Mark was born in Vietnam, moved to Houston with his family in 1995 when he was in eighth grade, and is now back in Vietnam to “be part of the new society”. He was introduced to us by Dean Hoa as someone who might be helpful with translating. He’s 34, has been here only ten days and has two jobs already, teaching English. In Texas he played keyboard in a Vietnamese pop band and toured Canada.

At our request he asked the young woman who waited on us some questions about her working conditions. She made 3.5 million dong ($155) per month when she started; she now makes more like 4 million. Our meal cost 995,000, or a quarter of her month’s wages, just for comparison. She works from 8:30 am to 12:30, then has two hours off, and back to work until 9 pm. On Sundays she works a double shift (although how that can be, I don’t know). It’s seven days a week. If she doesn’t take either of her allotted two days off per month, she gets a 500,000 dong bonus. She gets one meal from the restaurant every day. She and her sister came from the country and share a room. She does not get paid at the legally required higher rate for working overtime. This is “the new society.” Although Mark was generally familiar with how people live here, he seemed shocked by this specific example.

Joe and I have found that you can actually read the labor news, Lao Dong newspaper, published by the VGCL, , on line using Google translate. Negotiations are going on right now to raise the minimum wage. In fact, from what I can tell, it has happened. The Vietnam Chamber of Commerce opposes it, saying that 70% of all business in Ho Chi Minh City are not making a profit.

The law on overtime is, like the rest of the labor code, very prescriptive. Here is what it says about overtime:

Article 104: Normal working hours

Shall not exceed 8 hours per day or 48 hours per week (Hazardous work 6 hours per day).

Article 105: Working hours at night (defined)

Work that takes place between 22 the night before till 6 am the following day. (8 pm – 6 am)

Article 106: Overtime work is work that takes place anytime outside of regular working hours.

Employer can request overtime with:

  1. Employee’s assent (Under what conditions can the employee decline to consent?)
  2. Must not exceed 50% of regular hours worked (ie, 8 regular hours plus 4 OT hours. No more than 12/day, 30/month, 200/year
  3. Must provide compensatory leave after “certain number of days of OT”

The following is summarized, not copied verbatim:

Article 97: Wages for overtime and night work

Time and a half for OT on regular days

Double time for OT on weekly day off

Triple time for OT on holidays or paid leave days

Night work: 30% of piece rate in addition to regular rate

Night work OT: OT plus additional 20% of regular rate

The pay for the young woman who waited on us at Binh Xuyen violates the labor code in several ways. For example, she works 7 days a week (7 x 8 = 56 hours) but does not get paid overtime for the hours above 48. It also looks as if she works 10 hours a day, not 8, even subtracting her two hour lunch break. So it’s 7 x 10 or 70 hours per week. Plus she does some night work.

However, enforcement of the labor code is not something you count on.

It takes a lot in any culture for dissatisfaction to rise to the level of a dispute. Workers have to get together and agree about what to do and at least threaten to use their leverage, which is always something collective involving their work, their “power at the point of production”. Pervasive violation of the labor code is something that you might think would do the trick. But once you see it and get together with other people and document it, what happens next? In some cases wildcat strikes, as have been common for the last 10 years here.(but seldom in retail or food service or tourism).

How disputes get resolved and how resolutions get enforced is not laid out in the labor code. Instead, it just says that “the resolution of labour disputes shall be initially implemented” – meaning that the dispute shall get resolved, period. And then it says who does that.

Here is the language — of course, it’s a translation:

Chapter 14, Resolution of Labor Disputes, Section 1 General Provisions says:

Item 5. The resolution of labour disputes shall be initially implemented through direct negotiation by the two parties to harmoniously resolve the interests of the two disputing parties in order to maintain the stability of the production, business and guarantee the public order and security.

“Direct negotiation” can mean anything from one-on-one dialog between a worker representative and the employer to a mass meeting. It could be something that was decided on the spur of the moment, oral rather than written, and not precedent-setting. It could also be something formal and structured. The main thing is that in “direct negotiation” parties talk to each other: it is not indirect.

Then, should the “direct negotiation” mentioned in Article 5 fail to produce a resolution, the law sends the problem up the ladder of authority to a third party:

Item 6. The resolution of the labour disputes shall be carried out by a competent agency, organization or individual when one of the two parties submits a request due to the fact that one of the two parties refuses to negotiated, or does not negotiate successfully, or negotiates successfully but reneges on the agreement.

The ‘competent agency” is MOLISA, the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs. It can levy fines, but they are small compared to the money saved by the enterprise by not paying workers what they are due. Some companies simply consider it a cost of doing business.

The law, in other words, is very specific and prescriptive about what the conditions of work ought to be. But the law does not establish a procedure that moves the situation from a violation of the law to a dispute about obeying it, to an agreement that it will be enforced and assurance that the violation will not happen again.

If all else fails, the law does make provisions for going on strike legally, but those provisions are apparently so complex that this tactic is never used. Instead, you get these wildcat strikes.

In our system the levels of actual enforcement (especially in the 90% of workplaces that are nonunion) are not actually much better than Viet Nam, unless workers take some collective action to bring attention to the condition. There is a path in our system through which both labor board violations and labor law violations can end up in Federal Court, but years go by while that process is grinding along.

The Lao Dong website says that there is currently a campaign of training local workplace representatives. There are photographs of large groups of men and women sitting and desks in classes; it looks like the labor extension classes we did in Illinois. I want to know what they’re studying and learning,

We have been asked to prepare a bargaining simulation exercise to be given to about 30 faculty and students next week. We have talked about how and if to try to make the enforcement issue part of the exercise. I am going to suggest that we try something else and stay away from enforcement.

Exploring #3 — September 6, 2015

Exploring #3

Saturday afternoon in Ho Chi MInh City

We went into the city on a bus with our new friend George, who lives in the same faculty housing as we do, only #9 (we are #7). He is Thai, the son of teachers, has been in every South Asian country, got his Phd in English Language Studies at Leeds University in Yorkshire and is now here in a tenured position teaching and helping them set up their English language graduate program. The church in the background is the cathedral. On the right, the yellow building is the Post Office.

   New friend George

He took us through District 1 to an enormous pedestrian mall where a statue of Uncle Ho looks down toward the river. The mall is bordered by high-end international brand stores: Chanel, Hugo Boss, and splendid hotels. The building in the background is City Hall.

H&J Bap Ho statue

Down the mall by the river rises the spire of what’s called “the lotus building.” Supposedly there is a swimming pool and restaurant on the leaf of the lotus.

Lotus bldg

Guards in the mall go on roller blades. No guns – we haven’t seen any guns at all here, except in the War Remnants Museum

Guards on rollerblades

I’m trying to catch the color and flash of the motor scooter traffic, but haven’t really figured out how to do it. There are huge flocks of them, but they go slowly and smoothly and not more than 15-20 mph.

Scooters in intersection

Vietnamese Design

A couple of weeks ago a professor of landscape architecture from Italy, with his huge malamute dog, was here. He stayed a couple of rooms down from us, in one of these spaces tucked under the bleachers of the soccer stadium. He walked his huge fuzzy Malamute dog at night and I presume left it in his room with the air conditioning on all day. I asked him what he thought of the design of the campus and he laughed and said, “It’s very Vietnamese.” Since then I have been trying to figure out what he meant by Vietnamese design.

Based on this campus, I would say that it has to do with extremely efficient use of space. This campus is like a jigsaw puzzle. Twenty thousand students attend here, doing different activities weaving in and out without apparent traffic conflicts. There can be a regional soccer tournament going on at the same time as exams, a musical competition and the arrival of a new wave of students enrolling mid-term.

Multiple uses of space are a theme, too. People play badminton on the road around the stadium, rehearse dances on the apron in front of the gym, eat in the 11th floor faculty dining area carved out of the high roof of the student canteen on the 10th floor, and hold team study-group meetings on the broad covered terrace of the canteen. As is planning the whole thing out in advance, very carefully, which may be a Vietnamese character feature. The academic and administrative buildings are on one side of the canal and the housing and recreation is on the other. Overall, it’s a half-dozen towers, some terraces at the bottoms of the buildings, some roads and a playing field, all in the space of one New York City block. This includes the three gates, which have guard houses and guards at each one.

Although the campus is surrounded by soggy field that drain into tidal rivers, it is built as if it was going to be in the heart of a city. If you look down from the 11th floor dining room onto the open space to the west, you can see a barge pulled up along the riverbank and an excavator unloading the soil on the barge into a truck, which in turn takes the soil out into the field and dumps it, building a curving road. Hollis an Leanna say that when they were here two years ago, it was jungle. With a few months there will be buildings there.

Various 8 or 10-person delegations of students from Denmark seem to show up here regularly. We walk past them between the canteen and our room, Room #7. They are often assigned Rooms #5, #6 or #8, so we see them sitting on the threshold working their cell phones.

The most recent delegation was architecture students. Danes speak English very well. I asked one of them, “So, what do you think of Vietnamese design?”

One of them responded, “They do everything in teams so you don’t see much original creative thinking. They are very good at fulfilling an assignment, though.”

That rang an alarm bell in my mind. They do in fact do everything in teams. Our class has assigned the student projects to teams. I am not really sure how these teams work. We’ll see.


Who are our students? — September 4, 2015

Who are our students?

We got our questionnaires back. Here are the highlights. Take into consideration that there was translation from the English into Vietnamese and then back into English. Mai translated and put it all into an Excel sheet.

Out of 65 students in my class there are 20 young men.

The biggest group, 12, is from here in Ho Chi Minh City. The next biggest groups, 4 or 5, come from Lang Am, Quaang Ngai, Dak Lat, Am Gian and Dang Nai. One or two students came from 17 other cities, with one from Guangdong, China.

One third, or 22, say their parents are farmers. I assume this means that they are people who live primarily from farming, and I think it’s subsistence farming, including growing enough rice to eat. Maybe they grow coffee. This number is a little fuzzy because several students didn’t list their parent’s jobs.

Nine students say their parents are workers. “Employees” is different – five say their parents are employees. We think that means white-collar workers.

All the students who say they are from Ho Chi Minh City say their parents are workers, teachers, employees, and business people. There is one government worker and one in the Army.

Some of the students from other cities – Hai Phong, Dak Lat, Kien Gang – say their parents are in business. But mostly, if there is only one student from a place, that student’s family is farmers.

Two thirds of them (over 40) have never worked. For those who worked in the past, the big job is wait staff: five waitresses and three waiters. They have worked at family restaurants, coffee shops, and KFC, which has many stores here. One worked at Lotte Mart, two worked in fashion shops, one was a “Product Promotion Boy.” Two worked in childcare. One helped her parents plant coffee, one was a handyman and one is a self-employed graphic designer who gets paid “sometimes.”

Right now, twenty one of them are working while going to school. These are all part-time jobs. There is a freelancer, a handyman, someone who works on line, one who works “in the HR room”, one at KFC, two selling coffee, a tutor, a model for a modeling company and someone who works for “an education company.” The others supply actual company names: a food company named An Nam, UMA Furniture, the Von Tron Do Company, Dau Tay Company, Vietopia, Broken Rice (a restaurant chain), a receptionist at World Gym, and one still working as a “promotion boy.”

As far as I can tell, there are no provisions made for being a part-time student.

Of the 21 students who are working, 16 are young women, 5 are young men. Two list their parents as “tutors”, one lists his parents are “labor,” and all the rest of the students who are working list their parents either as “farmers” (11) or “workers” (4). Three didn’t list their parents’ jobs.

None have been in a union or are aware of having been in a union, except for one young woman who is “staff in a Japan shop.”

Vinh in my classroom

students working in groups; Vinh on the left

They are in the Labor Relations and Trade Unions program because they are generally interested, it’s a new program, and they want to protect labor rights and work “in the HR room,” which probably means office. They are taking this class because it’s required – oh, they also want to learn to think like leaders. What do they want from me? They love my voice (1), want to learn English (several) want to learn about the US labor experience (quite a few) and hope that the next class will be more interesting and funny.

So do I.

Starting to Explore 2 — September 3, 2015

Starting to Explore 2

Adjuncts everywhere will recognize this:

The office next to ours has a sign, Faculty Lounge, over the door. It’s a square room like ours with glass interior walls, a window looking outside, air conditioning and a dozen upholstered chairs around the walls. This is the office for adjuncts. It also serves as an ad hoc meeting room.

This afternoon the archetypical situation of adjuncts was taking place in that room: In one corner, a middle-aged woman was grading papers on one arm of her chair while nibbling her lunch which was laid out on the other arm of her chair. She had a dishtowel on her lap to protect her dress. Her book was open on a chair in front of her. On the opposite side of the room a group of students were meeting about something.

I have often seen adjuncts sleeping in this office. They go to the same corner chair, pull a scarf or a jacket over their head, and lean against the wall for a nap.

We’ve been told that many adjuncts in the Labor Relations and Trade Union Faculty are union staff.


The immediate problem in labor relations (the term for the system of which “earning a living” is a part) Vietnam is these wildcat strikes. Quynh Chi Doh writes, probably in 2011, in The Challenge from Below: Wildcat Strikes and the Pressure for Union Reform (available as a pdf download from the web, just google it):


Wildcat strikes have become the central issue of Vietnamese industrial relations in the last five years. According to the official statistics of the VGCL, there were over 1,900 strikes reported from 1995 to 2007, and over 1000 strikes from January 2007- July 2008. As can be seen in Figure 1, strikes abruptly exploded in early 2006 and peaked in 2007 with 541 strikes involving over 350,000 workers.[12] As of August 2008, more than 400 strikes have been tallied. Strikes occurred first and foremost in the foreign-invested enterprises in labour-intensive manufacturing industries such as textile-garment, footwear, wood processing, electronics, and seafood processing (Figure 2).

A later document by Erwin Schweisshelm, from the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation office in Hanoi, gives updates with a graph of the wildcat strikes through 2013. See   He explains why there was a drop in the number of strikes in 2011 and what kind of progress toward an increased minimum wage there has been, among other things (read it). Friedrich-Ebert is a private German cultural and educational foundation associated with the Social Democratic Party.

Angie Ngoc Tran writes about the fundamental contradiction that motivates these strikes:

In Vietnam, the state centralizes control over both labor and capital, and it grants exceptions to accommodate global corporations’ demands, consistent with Ong’s “neoliberalism as exception.” …Moreover, the Vietnamese state maintains control over all facets of labor-management relations to ensure the labor peace and flexibility necessary for on-time delivery of goods for the global supply chain. But the state often – though not always – does permit the labor newspapers and local labor unions to report on predatory capitalist practices (pg. 262 of Ties that Bind: Cultural Identity, Class and Law in Vietnam’s Labor Resistance).

The contradiction is between ensuring on-time delivery of goods for the global supply chain and ensuring labor peace. Push too hard on the on-time delivery of goods, at a price that the global supply chain is willing to pay, and you get strikes. You lose labor peace. And if there is no active union which can choose an effective way to strike legally, these will be wildcat strikes.

If I re-wrote the first sentence of the paragraph above to say, “The contradiction is between ensuring on-time delivery of goods for the global supply chain and ensuring a decent wage for Vietnamese workers,” see how different that would be? However, that’s not what is going on, according to Angie Ngoc Tran. The focus is on addressing the wildcat strike problem to build legal, manageable avenues of dialogue that will enable resolution of the most urgent strike issues: labor peace. This involves education and training.

I think that this is where Joe and I theoretically have a small role- ensuring labor peace. Not, at least not directly, in ensuring a decent wage for Vietnamese workers.

Jan Sunoo, the ILO mediator who provided us with a Dropbox full of materials, included a guide for mediators who are going to talk to workers and employers where there is a wildcat strike. After the strike is settled, it says:

Most likely, the strike could have been prevented if the company had good ongoing communication with workers facilitated by an active union and active social dialogue mechanisms. Recommend training by the upper union or VCCI/VCA or IRASC or DOL to put such mechanisms in place.

This guide says the way to avoid wildcat strikes is by developing active local unions and training upper union officials and other government officials. That will certainly increase the capacity of local and upper level unions.

So what’s visible to me now is one prong of a plan, a strategy to deal with wildcat strikes by developing active local unions and training people.

My next challenge is to try to correlate this with what the students appear to know already. One problem (not the only problem) is that I do not know what they know, and that’s usually what a course starts out with. If it’s a course in a regular curriculum, you know what the pre-requisites are if there are any. If it’s an extension labor ed class, you find out in the first class. Here, my ignorance about the lives of my students is compounded by the language barrier.

But whenever I get a glimpse of what they know, it looks as if they know a lot. The young woman who came to my office to return the book certainly knew a lot about what the situation is. The students who made lists in Joe’s class about what people want from their local union certainly were clear about what local unions ought to be able to do.

Starting to Explore 1 —

Starting to Explore 1

Starting to Explore 1

On September 2, which is Independence Day, we went into Ho Chi Minh City to what is called The War Remnants museum.

The actual “remnants” are household items from My Lai: two woven fish baskets, a few trays, some other small things too modest to be remembered, or maybe I was so upset that I couldn’t focus on them. These are things that were salvaged, it doesn’t say by whom or when, from the site of the massacre. These lie on a low display case beneath a lot of photographs. By the time you get to this display you have been through a whole floor of photographs and then another half floor, so you know what you’re looking at.

My Lai, part of a village named Son My, March 16, 1968, is where Company C of the 23rd Infantry killed 504 Vietnamese, mostly women and children plus a few old men. Killed, raped, shot, etc. This is the massacre that only Lt. William Calley was ultimately convicted for, although 26 US soldiers were charged. There was a photographer present; I should have written down his name but didn’t.

The Museum itself is three stories high. You enter through a gate, buy a ticket for 15 dong, and find yourself in a large courtyard full of military aircraft. There’s a gigantic troop helicopter on your right. On your left planes nearly bump noses. Around the corner are tanks.

I went straight in and up to the third floor, which is where the exhibit I’d read about started. It’s organized around photojournalists who were killed in the war (I counted about 80): blown up by land mines, crashed in helicopters, just plain shot. It’s an installation of a travelling exhibit called Requiem, assembled by photojournalist Tim Page, who is British, now living in Australia. Look him up on Wikipedia

Telling the story of the war through the hundreds of collected photos of named photojournalists, with brief stories of their lives on plaques on the wall in English and Vietnamese, steadies the impact of what you’re looking at enough to make it possible to hang in there and view the whole thing.

War rem 2

On the left are photos from a Life Magazine spread done by Larry Burroughs where he rode with a helicopter crew on a foray.

The floor below is more photographs and includes the My Lai display. Another gallery has photos of the children of people poisoned by Agent Orange; no end of suffering. A big collection box seemed nearly full of paper money.

The bottom floor has guns, amazing numbers of different kinds of guns, some the sort that you carry yourself, some as big as cars.

Coming out of the museum I felt as if the war was still going on. I remember life in San Francisco during that period, the kind of things that were on TV, the demonstrations, the arrests, the feeling that while I was crossing the street someone else was getting killed in my name on the other side of the world. The background to the dancing-on-the-beach culture of the 60s’ was always the war.

There were only a few references to the anti-war movement in the US in the War Remnants Museum. But I think that the photojournalists who captured the horrors of the Vietnam war contributed significantly to the anti-war movement in the US.

However, there aren’t a lot of photojournalists left these days. ISIS beheads them. The photos of Palmyra are taken from satellites.