What did we learn from the student reports? (1)

Joe and data

All the reports summarized and put into a table, printed out and taped together.


This will be the first of several posts on this topic. In this post, I’m just describing the  initial sorting process that had to be done with all the student reports when they came in.

Combining Joe’s class and mine, we got 33 total reports. Each report represents the work of a team of five to seven students. Setting aside the workplaces chosen by more than one team, there were 26 different workplaces.


The workplaces that were studied are:

01. Anh Nguyen Furniture (sales, export)
02. Anh Tuan (construction and development)
03. Banyan Luggage (retail)
04. Bluelin Health Mgmt (exercise machines, sales, women’s spa)
05. California Restaurant (restaurant)
06. CircleK (convenience, like 7-11)
07. DeVoung (shoes)
08. Dominos’ Pizza
09. Dungo Bank
10. Golden Hope Cooking Oil (Food processing)
11. Happy Cleaners (cleaning service)
12. Highlands Coffee (coffee shop)
12a. Highlands Coffee
13. KFC (fast food)
13a. KFC
14.Nah Be Textile
15. Nguyen Kim Machine (repair, electrical)
16.NyDec COPAL (electronic mfg)
17.Phong Phu Textiles
18. PouYouen (shoes)
19. Starbucks (coffee shop)
20. Strawberry (childcare)
20a. Strawberry
21.Tan Phuy Trun Kindergarten (SOE)
22. TDTU Security Guards
22a.TDTU Security Guards
23. TST Insulation (refrigeration for seafood)
24.VCS Home Shopping (tech internet sales)
25. Vietopia (childcare, entertainment)
25a. Vietopia
25b. Vietopia
26. Wise Solutions IT (tech service)


Seven workplaces were studied more than once: Strawberry, Vietopia, Highlands, TDTU Security Guards, CircleK, and KFC.

We asked our students to report what these Vietnamese workplaces looked like from the workers’ point of view. This is basic organizing research: what an organizer has to find out about a workplace. For Joe’s class, it was about organizing directly. For my class, which is supposed to be about leadership, it is about what kinds of leadership emerged when there was a problem.

They did a lot of survey questionnaires. Actual observations were not common, unless they had a team member working in one of these workplaces. But in some places they interviewed workers after work. They did some media research. They found company brochures and company videos. There were some elements of participant action research (PAR) where students were also workers. Each group met with Joe or me twice.


So the sample is small, opportunistic, and has no independent variables or statistical value. Nonetheless, it is descriptive and can be considered a snapshot or maybe a pilot research exercise. The most important thing is that the stories that came out of it tell what people actually did and said. This is not looking down at workforces from a helicopter.

Stud rep Eng 1

From an English composition teacher’s point of view, however, the student reports were all plain data. There was no analysis, nothing about implications, no conclusions, no connections made between what the students were observing and what they had learned in other labor relations classes. The presentations were accompanied by skillful Power Points. The paper reports that were handed in with each presentations copied those slides, so we saw pie charts and bar charts, photos of workplaces and lists of employees and organizational trees of how the company or, in one case, how the union was organized. We had of course not thought to ask for anything more. I hadn’t occurred to me that they would hand in raw data without any analysis at all.

When I met with Vy and An and asked them what the problem was, they understood my question. They explained that Vietnamese students are trained to respond to what teachers say they expect. So we had made a list (a handout which we called “Evaluating the Terrain,” which I may post) of things you have to look at in order to prepare for organizing, and they just followed the list.


The problem, which is a major problem for our experience teaching in Vietnam overall, is this: If the students think that teachers want them to give back just what the teachers gave them in the first place, how can the teachers learn anything? Do you suppose that these reports simply mirror back what we told the students we expected them to find?


That would be pretty unfortunate. However, let’s keep going.

Stu rep Vtnm 2

The fact that the reports were sheer data, without any analysis or conclusions, meant that when I sat down with the stack of reports, I had to start from scratch. The first thing I had to do was decide what questions I was going to ask of the data. There were many possible questions to ask: role of women workers, effectiveness of unions, pay at manufacturing plants vs pay at retail operations, impact of foreign ownership, etc. I didn’t have time to work through all 26 reports and answer all the possible questions, so I picked what seemed to me like the most obvious one to start with.

What workplaces had a union?

Theoretically, all workers can be and are supposed to be represented by a union. This is the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor or VGCL. But whether there is actually a union in a certain workplace is another matter. So, out of 33 workplaces:


  • 9 had no presence of a union at all. Many workers did not seem to know what a union was.
  • 4 workplaces had a union leader who was also the management HR officer
  • 5 had a union, but described it as ineffective. I included in this 2 workplaces where there was an enterprise union at the head office but no one at the branch worksite had any contact with it.
  • 8 workplaces had an active union


Here are the 9 workplaces that had no union: Anh Nguyen Furniture, Banyan Luggage, Bluelin Women’s Health, California Restaurant, Domino’s Pizza, VCS Home Shopping, and Wise Solutions. These are all small retail or service workplaces.

There were two exceptions: Happy Cleaners, which did the cleaning and housekeeping work for TDTU and where there was a union for the office workers only), and Anh Tuan Construction, a large company that had but no union and where workers are hired by the day. Happy Cleaners hired older women to do the actual work (older than 40; there is a lot of age discrimination here!) and had a union for the office workers only.


Here are 4 companies that have a union leader who is also the HR manager: DeVuong shoes, KFC which has many branches in HCMC, TST Insulation which manufactures equipment for refrigeration, a hugely important aspect of the seafood industry, and Vietopia, which is a semi-Disney childcare and entertainment facility for upwardly mobile families and kids. This arrangement would fulfill the letter of the law.


These 5 companies had what looked like, when you read the reports, weak unions: CircleK, where there is a union for full time workers only; Donga Bank, Highlands Coffee, where there is enterprise union at headquarters, no local union; Starbucks, where there also is an enterprise level union but no local union, and Strawberry, which is a smaller version of Vietopia, an entertainment/education facility for children.


Finally, these are the 8 workplaces that appear to have active unions. Golden Hope manufactures cooking oil; Nah Be is textiles; Nguyen Kim produces electrical machines; NyDec COPAL manufactures electronics; Phong Fu also does textiles, Pou Youen manufactures shoes, the Security Guards work at TDTU and Tran Phuy Trun is a state-owned kindergarten that was founded back in the 1980s.


Six of these last 8 workplaces appear to have collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), although I couldn’t be absolutely sure: the TDTU Security Guards, Phong Phy Company, Golden Hope Cooking Oil, Nguyen Kim Electric Machine Repair, Nah Be Textile and NyDec COPAL , which is owned by a Japanese company.


Note that in Vietnam, you can have a CBA or (maybe and) individual labor contracts. There is a whole section of the labor code dedicated to individual contracts. So a company where there is a union but no CBA might have individual labor contracts for the workers. I do not know what the role of the union in troubleshooting individual contracts or setting them up would be.


Doing this kind of thing is a good way to find out what questions to ask.


What do workers make for wages?


I did a quick scan of what workers make, if they work full time. Four million dong (4M) is $178. Minimum wage in HCMC (it varies by province) as of September 2015 was 3.5M dong; in rural areas it was 2.15M.



PouYouen: 4.1M

Tan Phuy Trun: 3.0 – 6M

KFC: 2M – 3.5M

Vietopia: 2.8 M

Wise Solutions: 6.5 – 10M

Phong Phu – 4.5- 10M

Highlands: 4.5M

Nguyen Kim: 3.5 – 5.5 M


So with the exception of Vietopia and maybe Tan Phuy Trun, these jobs pay just above minimum wage. Apparently, when a union negotiates a CBA, the wage that is negotiated is rarely much more that minimum wage. The legal minimum wage is the wage.


To see what it was like to live on these wages, students asked workers about their budgets. They got answers generally like these:


Typical budget for single person: 5.5M

Many workers cannot support a family (need 6.5M)

Many workers cannot save

Many workers depend on OT, commissions, subsidies, bonuses

Were they satisfied with their jobs? No, “Not satisfied.”


But Vy pointed out that the questionnaires that most reports depended on did not separate out reasons why workers were not satisfied – it could be a bad day, or they didn’t like their supervisor, or the work was too hard; you couldn’t tell from the questionnaires whether wages were really the problem or not. The questionnaires were too simple.

students examnning rawdata

I posted the long sheet of all 26 reports and students came and looked at it.

 Student work


One thing we found out is that many of our students are working, some of them up to 30 or 40 hours a week (full time work is supposedly 48 hours a week; it is not clear to me whether someone could work 48 hours a week and still be considered part time). They do this while they go to TDTU, which amazes me. KFC apparently even recruits through TDTU!


So I wanted to compare how much money they are earning at the different places they work. There is no mention of part time workers in the labor code except for one brief section, and there is no separate part-time minimum wage. Employers just divide the full-time wage by the number of hours employed, which can vary even more because some hours-worked-per-month are based on 26 and some 27 days. Or, more realistically, they just offer whatever the student worker will accept. The labor code does state that part-time workers are entitled to all rights, benefits and privileges. Under Vietnamese law, part-time is not automatically assumed to be temporary or casual.


But here is what part time pay looks like. 20,000 is 89 cents; 11,000 is 49 cents. This is per hour.


VCS Home Shopping: 20,000 D/hr

Bluelin Women’s – 20,000 D/hr

An Nguyen: 19,000 D/hr

Banyan Luggage – 17,000 D/hr

Strawberry – 17,000 D/hr

Vietopia: 16,000 D/hr

Starbucks: 15,000 D/hr

Highlands: 14,000 D/R

KFC: 13,000-17,000 D/hr

Domino’s: 13,000 – 15,000 hr/

Circle K: 12,000 – 15,500 D/hr

California Rest. – 11,000-12,000 D




However, in addition to your hourly wage, Vietnamese workers, full or part-time, get a lot of side payments called bonuses. They can get a meal subsidy, often 15,000 D; an extra meal subsidy if they do overtime. They use this to go out and buy food and then sometimes there is a microwave where they can heat it up. At many large workplaces, the employer has cooks and a kitchen and prepares a meal. Many complaints are about the quality and quantity of the meal. You can get a gift of some sort – an umbrella or a gold ring – after a certain number of years. You can get a transportation bonus, a parking bonus, or a subsidy to help you pay rent. One of the most important bonuses is a 13th month bonus at Tet, which provides people with enough money to go to their hometown for the holiday. One place – KFC – as we found out, actually offers a 14th month bonus. You can also get rewards for meeting targets of sales or production and commissions if a whole group meets a target. And the employer can pay accident insurance or medical insurance for you.


Of course, shifting compensation to bonuses reduces employer tax liability and social security revenue. So does the failure to register workers, because not until a worker becomes registered, by having a labor contract, does the employer have to pay social insurance on him.


So now, looking through all these reports, I have to go back and ask, “What kinds of information have I found so far that would help in organizing or create opportunities for leadership?” This is always assuming that organizing efforts and leadership are most effective when they come from the bottom-up.


What kinds of problems do workers face in these workplaces?


One way to construct an answer to this question is to go through the student reports and ask what kinds of labor laws are likely to go unenforced. If a standard exists as a law, then organizing to make the employer obey the law is likely to be understood by workers. Issues such as this are “rights” issues in Vietnam, as compared to what are called “interests,” which are not matters of existing law but involve addressing what workers want above the minimums. Some people say that the distinction between “rights” and “interests” is just a red herring.


Examples of laws that are likely to go unenforced include laws about individual labor contracts, such as the one that says all workers must have labor contract after two months and the law that says limited duration contracts can roll over only once and the employer must offer unlimited duration contact after one limited duration contract.


I looked at the reports to see what workplaces had labor contracts, and found that in many workplaces, workers simply do not have labor contracts or else get them after 3 months (not two) or after a combination of training contracts or probationary contracts.


Laws about overtime are also likely to be violated, such as that overtime (OT) earns time and a half pay, that “excessive” OT is prohibited, that prep and cleanup time should be paid and that there should not be any coerced OT.


Laws about wages are another example. There are cases of low wages, wages that don’t rise to minimum wage, missing money (wage theft), and of course no pay for prep or overtime or improper pay for OT fall into this category.

Employers also scamp on payments into the social benefits fund (taxes). They should pay in on all registered workers’ wages. However, if a worker is unregistered – if a worker does not have a labor contract, in other words – then no money is paid on that worker. Also, it’s clear that employers are shifting payments into meal subsidy, the OT extra meal, parking, transportation, housing subsidies, rewards for meeting targets, commissions, the Tet bonus (a thirteenth month’s pay) and medical insurance and accident insurance. Shifting compensation to bonuses reduces employer tax liability and social security revenue.


Other possible targets for collective action include unfairness of any kind, age and gender discrimination. Women over 40 are often unable to get hired except as cleaners or other lowest-wage workers. They lie about their age to get factory jobs. As a woman well over 40, I noticed this. There is also an absence of clean toilets, water, decent and sufficient meals. These seem to have been the most frequent triggers of collective action of any.


I put all of this into a 35-slide Power Point which I asked Vinh to email out to the students, and then made a 15-slide version that I showed to the class the next day, before they started giving their reports.


While they told their stories, Vinh whispered translation into my ear and I typed as fast as I could. I will provide some of those stories in my next post and I will also try to pull out some of what they mean, from where I’m looking at it.




















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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