What Did We Learn from Student Reports? (2)


The students’ final presentations were supposed to be stories about what people did in the workplaces to make their work lives better. Theoretically, the stories were supposed to be about collective action: organizing or leadership. However, we emphasized that what was most important was to tell what really happened, not to make something up. If it wasn’t there, it wasn’t there.


They were also supposed to look ahead and explain what should or could happen.


These are some stories from Joe’s second class and my class. I either typed or took handwritten notes as fast as I could while Vinh whispered a translation into my ear as the students presented. Each student had 10 minutes. The presentations were the product of a team effort; each team would choose one or two students to present for the team.


Some overall thoughts, having to do with how to use these stories as the basis for teaching: What are they about? What do they show? What is missing? These are not meant to be criticisms of the students’ work. Instead, they are thoughts about what the students’ work tells me about labor relations in Vietnam.

Wrapped inside those thoughts is our perennial question, “What do they think we can teach them?” Do we actually know something that they need to know, and that we have the potential to teach?

  •             These are all stories about solving an immediate problem.
  •             The choice for the worker is often between solving the problem or quitting. For workers who have individual labor contracts, there is a process for quitting, but many of these part time workers do not have labor contracts. So the problem gets serious, at least for that one worker, before they try to do anything about it.
  •             If the problem gets solved it gets solved for the moment, not incorporated into something that will apply to others in the future.
  •             The solution is not written down.
  •             In workplaces where there is a management intermediary between the workers and the person who can make the decision, it is harder to get a problem solved. Passing a dispute up a chain of command makes it less likely that the problem will get solved. An example of such an intermediary would be the HR manager.
  •             Proposals for the future always mentioned strengthening the local union and usually educating members, teaching workers about the law. They did not talk about assisting or encouraging workers to organize and apply collective power.
  •             Neither the solution nor the problem is analyzed as an aspect of the overall relationship between workers and employers.   Therefore nothing leads to an overall change in that relationship.
  •             There is no general awareness of ways to count the value that labor contributes to the product. This would be a way to enter the issue of the political economy of a given workplace. We asked students, at a minimum, to ask whether a worker at, for example, KFC, could afford to buy lunch regularly at KFC. The answers were usually “No.” While this is beyond the scope of these stories, an awareness of the distance between what workers earn and the value of what they produce would give a different meaning to “problem.”

A student, reading this (and I know several will) might say, “But she didn’t ask us to do that.”  True, I didn’t, and neither did Joe. We asked them to tell us what they saw. If they didn’t see something, they weren’t supposed to make it up. There’s enough of a problem already with us suspecting that they try to give us what they think we expect. Their whole exam system promotes that, too.

But here are the stories. There’s the whole range of workplaces here, from ones with no union presence at all to ones with a union that seems to get something done.

Anh Tuan

At Anh Tuan, construction and development, the employer provides labor clothes (PPE) but they are not enough and workers do not know how to use them. Also, in 2010 the pay was three days late (this is a construction company that pays people by the day’s work, at the end of each week). The employees didn’t have their money so they started to break the tools. The supervisor got angry and yelled: “Any other person who breaks tools will get laid off.” They got paid two days later. But when the workers went away for Tet they got sick a lot. They don’t sign a labor contract for construction so they don’t enforce the law. They need a union to protect their rights and benefits.

Nguyen Kim

At Nguyen Kim (repair of electrical machines), the workers are from a lot of provinces. They had a lot of complaints about low wages. The union did not pay attention to the comments of the employees. The union seemed to be just for the leaders. The feeling of union members was not good. When the students researched the CBA, they found that it only followed the law. When the union members raised ideas or suggestions, they were shy and the weaker party, they did not know how to protect themselves. One employee proposed to collect signatures to ask for a raised wage, but only a few people joined in and the plan was postponed. If the employer does not solve this problem, the workers will get a stronger voice and it will affect the profits of the company

Nah Be Textile

At Nah Be Textile, there were three problems. There were workers who did not have enough skill and the employer found mistakes in the product. Those workers would get fined. Second, if they forgot to wear an ID or violated some other policy, the workers would get fined three days’ pay. Third, a lot of workers thought the restaurant did not provide enough food and was not clean. The union called for the opinions of workers and took the problem to a different level. After one month, the agreement was made that the employer would cover training costs for new products. There would be no penalty for the first time someone violated a policy, a reminder the second time, and only a third time would there be a fine. The employer would will also build new, clean toilets and have air conditioning. The union was talking about building a dormitory for workers. The reason to have a dormitory was that the workers came from different provinces and could not afford the cost of housing in HCMC.


At Strawberry, workers did not get paid overtime on a holiday. Many workers wanted to quit. Some of the others thought that the job was boring. They want to have a union but don’t know how.


At NyDec COPAL, electronic manufacturing, 1,200 people stopped work for two days on the second of December, 2013. They have a CBA on paper but do not follow it. The current problem with overtime is that the employer arranges the list. The solution would be to have people register for the list.

Happy Cleaners

At Happy Cleaners, the cleaning company was about to lose its contract with TDTU. (TDTU was taking the work back in-house.) Here is the story of one worker who cleaned the downstairs B Building. He comes from the provinces,. He has to work a lot, especially on rainy days. He was about to lose his job. He talked with another employee who does cleaning also but who was employed directly by TDTU. They compared their wages and working conditions. He talked with his work leader and higher. So all the employees of Happy Cleaners went to work for TDTU. They saw the benefit of comparing wages with other companies. This union has some strong members who will learn the labor code. Other workers should compare wages and learn the labor code. All of the employees moved from Happy Cleaners to TDTU because workers at TDTU have a labor contract and a CBA.

Anh Nguyen

At Anh Nguyen, where they assemble and sell furniture, there is no union. This is a disadvantage to the workers. Most workers here don’t know what the union is. I (the presenter for this group) was the person working here. I publicized about the union so they have a more positive opinion so that they won’t quit this job, I explained about the union and social insurance for the workers. The goal of our research is to find the leader, the real leader. It is very hard for us to find a leader, because some they don’t have enough knowledge and skill to become the leader, or they are shy to lift their voice in front of the manager. For this research, we can learn more how to communicate with the leader, how to modernize them, portray them so they strengthen their voice in front of the employer, also to teach them how to do surveys and how to enforce the law in reality.

VCS Home Shopping

 At VCS Home Shopping, a call center for selling electronics and appliances, the company doesn’t have a union. The company set a target of 34 million; if you can get the target you can have the bonus of 5M for your call center. So we have to register for OT. It is not forced – they persuade you. We have a very large blackboard where they write a timeline with the target for each day. All of the workers try their best to do OT because also they will get paid for OT. But the bonus of 5M will divided up to 60 employees so it is very small. At the end, we go over the target, and we are very happy when we receive the bonus. We use the bonus to have a party. In the near future we will have a union here, because if we have the union we can share opinions. The emergent leader is Miss X, not because of her high position, but also because she is very respected by a lot of people and besides working hard she is fun and clever with other people. For example, when a worker makes a mistake, she doesn’t yell, she talks softly to her and reminds her. She has become the emergent leader. She ‘s the recruiter so she works in the HR dept taking care of payroll.

Tran Phu Trung Kindergarten

At Tran Phu Trung Kindergarten they are a SOE and they have a union. At the time the school was established, they didn’t have a union. A group of employees found an emergent leader, a person who could get the trust of workers.

TDTU Security Guards

The Security Guards have a union. In November 2013, when they had their health checkups, they found that most of them had a health problem (from breathing the pollution from the traffic). So they made proposal to union and the union talked with President of the University. The department of security researched different parking lots and proposed that the President make a policy regulation that all the motorbikes have to turn off the engines. Also, one worker wanted to meet regularly, not always officially, to eat or drink together and understand each other better. They face a variety of problems. One is that they often have to talk with foreigners, and can’t speak English. Another is their 24-hour shifts and their health. And the third is that the older workers expect to be replaced by younger workers who have more energy.

DeVoung Shoes

DeVoung Shoe Company is a huge shoe company, with a union. But people don’t know what the union does. In 2013, in the shoe line, there was a stoppage that was moving toward a strike. There were a lot of orders coming in and workers were told that if they didn’t do OT they would not get paid. Also, the meal was bad. The workers were very angry and they asked for union to solve the problem. They waited a very long time. After a while, they sent one representative directly to the Director to speak, and the Director threatened to lay them off. This made them organize a strike. It was very effective. It spread out into other companies. After that the provincial Federation of Labor came down to the factory itself. The learning point that we get from this story is that when there is not a presence of the union here, the union cannot solve the problem, especially if it is a foreign-owned company. The workers had to have the higher level intervene in the dispute. But it’s hard for workers to find workplace leaders because they don’t have enough education and knowledge.

For DeVoung, we (the team) propose five solutions for the union: First, a committee of the union has to be elected by employee, not decided by employer. We have to clarify the difference between outside leaders and emergent leaders. For now, they will assign a leader, but we propose that an emergent leader be elected by workers. Second, we have to organize to collect the workers’ opinions rather early about payment, pay raise, about working conditions. Third, the district level of the Federation of Labor has to go directly to the local union to train them and educate them and explain how to represent workers and strengthen their voice in front of the employer. Fourth is that we have to have a close relationship between workers, the local union and the district level Federation of Labor. Fifth and last, we must regularly hold social dialog to understand the workers so that in the CBA we clarify things like the value of the subsidy. We need to get very specific in the CBA. We must also organize an outside cultural communication stream between VN and Taiwan so that people can understand the culture of a foreign-owned company in Vietnam.

Kentucky Fried Chicken

Here is the story at Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Just before TET, the employer announced that each person who worked during TET would get a 14 month bonus (two extra month’s worth of salary). This made workers want to stay at KFC. It was hard work, lots of OT, and stressful. After the end of TET, our friend did not get the 14 month bonus. She talked to other workers who also did not get their bonus. They went directly to the supervisor. The supervisor said that your friend did not make the target. That is why she does not get the 14th salary. But then our friend sees that full time workers (FT) can get the bonus but the part time (PT) cannot. She works part time. This shows that the union here doesn’t function as a proper union to protect the workers. Our plan for the future is to make a separation between HR and the union. Then, collect workers’ opinions regularly, have meetings and build a strong relationship between PT and FT. The next thing that has to happen is that union has make the policy clear to the workers because the employer just said 14th month salary, but didn’t say PT or FT. They don’t have a labor contract here. Most PTs are students, they turn over and they quit their job and just stay a short time, so it’s hard to find an emergent leader among them. So the end of the story is that they did not get their money. Will they get it this year? Not clear.

At KFC, the second story is that there was a lot of overtime. During the holidays, there was 90 hours of overtime in one month. Also Saturday and Sunday, you could not go home early. Also one of the problems is that the meal was not good. This caused a strike. Four workers gathered together and said, “We don’t want to work any more, we don’t want to work overtime and we want to increase our wage.” The four leaders got together and formed a temporary union to stand up to the employer and have a strong voice about overtime and also, if you work overtime, to get paid the higher wage. In the future, they will bargain with the employer about how to improve meals. They will use social dialog for this. They will mobilize people to join the union and the leaders will involve workers and have collective opinions with no discrimination.


Vietopia (1) has a union but HR is the union. We do not hear about social dialog or CBA. There are a lot of current problems. Here is our story. In December 2014 one of the workers was laid off, because she said something bad about the company on Facebook. In reality, she just shared that she had to work OT one hour but got no pay for it. She also said that the manager didn’t have a good policy. When she heard that she was laid off, she went to the company and she cried. I think that she cried not because she was laid off but because it was unfair to lay her off because she dared to speak out with the voice of the worker. She never got her job back.

Vietopia (2 and 3) also reports that HR is the union here. In December 2014, someone was laid off. So the person who takes care of the doctor’s role model section found that she had too many customers but no help. She couldn’t eat her lunch. She had no one to turn over her shift to. She was very angry and talked with co-workers, who were also angry at the short-staffing. She asked if they agreed, and they were friendly to her. They called two delegates to go with her to see the supervisor. After the two delegates talked with the employer, the employer apologized and agreed that they had given her too much work. This calmed the spirit of the employee. They solved this problem before the union became involved. The union doesn’t touch the workers. It’s very weak. Some plans for the union: the union has to collect and inspire the workers so it can solve the problem immediately, not make the problem bigger. The union must also organize different activities to make close relationship between workers and managers. Also the local union must contact with higher level of Federation of Labor to prevent the problem becoming bigger in the near future.

Highlands Coffee

At Highlands Coffee in 2012, there were two workers working here. At the beginning they just got paid 2M 400, not enough to live in HCMC. They decided to ask the supervisor for a pay raise. The manager agreed that when he met with higher level of managers he would ask for pay raise. The two workers said that if they didn’t get the pay raise they would quit. The manager wanted to keep these two persons until the end of the week in order to find another person to replace them. They quit the job.

The workers here they don’t know what a union is. They want someone to explain to them what is a union. There should be an organization to bargain for them. The store has to solve immediately the problem. It’s hard to find an emergent leader at a workplace like this where there are a lot of of middle managers who can’t make decisions. Now that we have TPP it is necessary to have the union to sign the CBA but it has to be h be a real functioning union.

Pou Youen Shoes

Pou Youen Shoes is a big company, total workers over 80,000-90,000, with a very strong union. But most of the activities that the union organizes just improve their spirits – singing, sport, to improve their health. They have entertainment outside working hour, but only workers who live in HCMC can join these events. Workers who live in apartments far away can’t join and miss some of the very real benefits. But the union gets money for the workers and also has policy of loaning to workers with difficulties, a good policy of social insurance and medical care insurance.

Our recommendation is that the union can propose to the manager that they give a bonus for seniority, so that we can have the policy for the benefits, so that the worker can stay longer for the company. Some of the persons who live far away from here, coming from provinces live in apartments far from factory. We organized things for them making handmade things such as handicrafts. For the kindergarten, inside their company, they want to lower the fee and give a 50% discount. Worker want to have more facilities to practice their health. These are all the recommendation and the meet of the works in Pou Youen.

In June 2013, there were several strikes at Pou Youen. The first strike was actually about a political issue: China had attacked Vietnam. Pou Youen is Taiwanese and there is something political here between the Taiwan and Chinese which the workers didn’t understand. So it was not a proper strike for the workers. But later it became a very strong union and publicized information relevant to the law so that the workers were well equipped with the understanding of the law. They were frustrated with the government about social insurance so they went on strike for the social insurance that year.

There was also the fire in Pou Youen in August 2013 in Building A-10. Now 42,000 square meters on floors 5 and6 were burnt. The reason here is that Pou Youen doesn’t take care of fire prevention. There are a lot of violations so they don’t have the safety about fire and they can get burnt. We have to train the workers who work here as well as the managers to know how to prevent the fire and build good exit ways so that it is easier for the person working here to not get burned.


How much can we rely on these stories to inform us about what work in Vietnam is like? I think that actually, they’re pretty useful. I say this because the more we talk to people who have an overview of work, workers and unions here, the more it sounds as if this is a pretty good, if micro picture of what’s going on.

Joe’s class

Joes class c H




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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