November, 2017 Research, Vermont WC

goddessesEmotional Labor: Midnight Goddesses

We land in Taipei in the middle of the night. Two years ago, this airport was just an endless white-walled tunnel with the occasional sign “Transfers.”  Now the temporary walls are down and it turns out they were building a palace of duty-free merchandise, all the big brand names, and it goes on forever. We ask 3 young women at an information desk where to find a pharmacy because Joe has a bad cold. Given the size of this airport, how far away do these young women have to live? What is their commute? Who pays for their uniforms? When do they get home? When do they sleep? Did they know each other before they worked together? I have been reading a book about hotel workers in China, women’s emotional labor.

They don’t know the word “decongestant.”  I hike to the pharmacy, buy some, bring it back and show it to them. In return, they let me take their picture.


Message to the VSG list:

Hello —

Can I please get some information about the practice of paying research subjects in Viet Nam? What is normal social science research methodology here?

We are working with a group of lecturers at Ton Duc Thang to produce a research paper to be submitted to a conference on tourism, and have run into the expectation that interviewees will require payment. We are trying to interview hotel workers in order to answer the question, “Given that tourism is one of the rising industries in Viet Nam, and that the industry itself is expected to be environmentally sound and sustainable, are the jobs of hotel workers also sustainable?”

We have been told that “the three managers who are lined up to be interviewed would need to be compensated for their time, about 500,000 to 1,000,000 dong each and that they’d need to be interviewed first before they would let us interview the workers who also would need to be paid about 100,000 to 200,000 dong to compensate for lost work time.”  A million dong is about $44.00 US.

I realize that there are a number of problems raised by the above, but if I could just get some feedback focused on what is normal social science practice in VN regarding payment of research subjects, that would be appreciated.

Thank you –

Helena Worthen, Visiting Lecturer, TDTU Fall 2017


One of the managers, apparently, is the VGCL rep himself. I assume it’s a man, although it could be a woman. So the union rep, who is probably also an HR employee, is asking for $20-40 in return for allowing himself to be interviewed about the conditions of workers he represents. He will then pass on the names of workers whom he will allow us to interview. But we have to interview him first.

My message to the VSG list (Vietnam Studies Group)  is a follow up to a message from Daniel Helman, who has taken over the Journal Club at TDT now that we are back in the US. (It’s Saturday morning here, and it’s the first day that my brain seems to have recovered from jet lag.)

Answer from the VSG list about paying interview subjects: Yes, it’s normal. One response addressed the value to the researcher of a successful research project, and said that value should be passed along. “How much is the publication of this research worth to you?” in terms of career, income, etc? Well, it’s true: TDT is paying people to write papers.  He mentioned a pig, as an example of a gift. The other, from someone who had worked on a census, talked about the price of a person’s time taken from working hours.  They usually either paid interviewees or at least gave them a gift of some sort, such as a box of cheese.

Time for some re-cap and background.

The research project known as “The Journal Club” for the lecturers at the Labor Relations and Trade Unions Faculty was an experiment. There were, in fact, two research questions. One was, “Are the jobs of hotel workers sustainable?” — in the sense of being a job you can do for years, sustaining a decent life, as compared to a burnout job that you can only do for a few years. That was the question that the paper was supposed to answer.  The second question – my question-  was, “Is it possible under current conditions for a faculty to develop and complete a research project and write a publishable article?”  The answer to this second question, as of now, is “No.”  However, “conditions” is a moving target, so it’s not over yet.

Ton Duc Thang has been promoting itself as a research university and hiring visiting academics to come and do research at it, and now there are enough “foreigners” on board that they make up a visible minority in the faculty lunch room. I have met people from Australia (good friend John Hutnyk), Krysta from Estonia, a man from Bulgaria, a woman from Czech Republic — but she’s teaching Czech language, because they have a close relationship with Charles University there), someone from Ukraine, an Irishman, and others. They come on these one-year contracts, for an undisclosed salary (there is apparently a non-disclosure item in their contracts, which is doomed to be frequently violated since western academics will assume that non-disclosure clauses are illegal; just for the record, Stephen Rosenbaum was offered $2,000 a month) plus the promise of a cash reward if, within a year, at least one article in an ISI journal gets published.

Since the ISI-Web of Science-SCOPUS database is very tech-focused (although with some exceptions — see my earlier blog post on this) the chances that a social science article is going to find a publisher on that list is limited, but even more of a problem is that you can’t research and write up a good article in a year, much less move it through the peer review process and then down the pipeline into a decent journal in that time frame.  You can probably do that with a tech article, at least if they are like some of the ones I saw while poking around on behalf of someone researching electronic transmission for cell phones. These were published in journals that came out frequently, with many articles of only 3-4 pages, full of equations.

That’s why getting tenure at Illinois, a 6 year process, demanded 2 articles in “good” journals (of which they recognized two, but never mind about that).

Having done peer review I know that when the peer reviewer gets the article, they are given a 6-week deadline or maybe even a 3 month deadline, and many peer reviewers don’t even make those deadlines. So imagine a researcher at Ton Duc Thang — one who was really using the research capability of TDT to do their work, not the capability of some home university that provided full journal article access – trying to do the research, analyze the findings, submit the article, wait for the review, do the revisions, and then wait until the pipeline cleared and their article made the light of day –the idea that this can happen on a one-year schedule is simply nuts.  To say nothing of the lack of full text access to articles through the library. Either it’s nuts, or Dr. Ut, who appears to be mogul of the research department at TDT, doesn’t understand how things work, or else there is something else going on. (I think the latter is the case; see earlier post on the announcement of TDT as the #2 university in Viet Nam.)

But in my pursuit of the answer to question #2 — namely, is it possible for real faculty members at TDT to achieve the research goals publicized by the university, under current conditions — we designed the optimum low-threshold situation possible for a project. We saw an announcement of a conference: “Engaging Vietnam: Tourism, Development and Sustainability,” to be held in HCMC in December of this year. Proposals due August 31 (it was about August 20 when we saw this announcement); conference in December; then the paper deadline March 31 2018, and some papers from that group to be selected to get tuned up to make it through the peer review process for consideration to be published int he Journal of Viet Nam Studies. Very well-sponsored conference involving the U of Hawaii, Oregon State, some place in Australia, a bunch of Vietnamese universities, etc.

So I wrote up a proposal, got it approved by our team, and submitted it and we were accepted. That was early September. The idea was to have meetings in the faculty office every other MOnday afternoon from 2-4 to check in on progress. Right away, I drafted 3 survey protocols — one for union reps, one for managers, one for workers. The idea was to get 2 or 3 of the union reps and managers, just to hear what the “official” line was — we didn’t really care about what their work lives were like or whether their jobs were sustainable; we wanted to know what they thought these were like for workers. The protocol for workers was more flexible and open-ended. We spent a meeting in mid September going over the protocols, translating them into Vietnamese, and making the questions “more realistic.” Then the idea was to go out and do some interviews. Maybe just a few per week. Everyone had copies of the papers with the questions, so that was not a problem.

Which was followed by meetings through September and into October with no interviews accomplished.  Daniel did some google searches for Vietnamese language journal articles and came up with a bunch, of which I could read the titles or abstracts of about 44 of them and the full article of one that was translated into English: they were all versions of the same study of motivation of workers, each one in a different hotel, trying to find out what factors would keep workers “satisfied” and motivated. They all found that approval by supervisors and sense of belonging to a team were motivating factors whereas punishment and money did not have much positive effect. They all looked like survey data and they were all in the service of management, to help management find positive ways to motivate workers.  Nothing about whether the jobs were any good.

At my end, I started reading some English language articles about hotel worker jobs generally. Just off the top of the list that was available was one about “emotional labor” for women in hotels in China (that was a book actually; see the Midnight Goddesses above). Another was about what happened when stress was included in New Zealand Labor Law as a hazard, requiring employers to address the sources of stress rather than making it the employee’s problem (through counseling); the engineering vs PPE situation. I presented these at our last Journal Club meeting, to show that in the English-language literature about jobs in the hotel industry, the questions that were considered appropriate topics of research were much broader, less instrumental than how to motivate workers to stay in their jobs without paying them more. The New Zealand article, which interviewed 35 people (same as our target number) was a close enough parallel to what we were working towards so that our faculty could recognize that we were in the same ball park. The idea was that, if our interview subjects described their work as stressful  (and hotel work is famously stressful –that’s just a given in the English language research) then we would have the beginnings of a framework for comparing their jobs with a general theory about hotel work. And if they insisted that it was not stressful — well, that’s information.

But by the end of October, no one had done a single interview. This is despite week after week of people making a commitment, down to naming a specific day, on which they would do an interview. I actually got quite upset about this and spoke angrily in several meetings. One problem seemed to be that people were waiting for me to tell them to start interviewing. Vinh had to calm me down and influence me to change my behavior, which I tried to do.

Oh well. Back to Berkeley.

The question remains, however: is the university administration, by pushing lecturers to do research, setting them up for failure? If they are teaching 4 classes per semester and there is no budget or support for research, no graduate students to do the first sweep of lit reviews,  set up a nice database, start the coding, draw the diagrams etc etc — how are they supposed to do it? At the same time as they have to learn English and teach in English? At what point does someone say the emperor has no clothes? Or just keep their mouth shut, and  get cynical.

I was asked, “In the US, aren’t there some professors who do research and others who just teach?”  True; but that’s not what you expect to see as the basis for calling something a “research university.”

No wonder the best researchers I know are not university-affiliated. Do Quynh Chi, Ha Dang, Ha Do — none of them connected to a university.  And then there are the “research institutes.” Apparently all the arms of government have research institutes.


Marin Headlands, morning fog, from balcony. 


Saturday in Berkeley: Met with Stephen Rosenbaum at Peet’s this morning — he got a sudden offer to do a 16-month gig in Myanmar and therefore turned down one of the $2,000 a month full-time positions at TDT, but hopes he can pick it up later.


One week in Berkeley, then to Vermont to check on the house after about 10 different renters had come and gone, and to enjoy some cold air. It’s been down in the 10’s here. Drove up to Barre on Nov 11 to attend the Vermont Workers Center annual membership meeting. It’s held in the old Labor Temple, built by Italian socialists in the 1890s — Italians because, once railroads came to the granite and marble mountains of Central Vermont, allowing the quarries to not only cut but also carve the monuments that would get shipped all over (including one for Leland Stanford’s mausoleum) – they needed carvers, and the only people who really know how to do that are Italians. Italians who happen to be socialists.

labr hall

The building is now a national landmark. Down in the basement are some sculptures done by the Italians:


The meeting began at 11:30 am, followed by lunch followed by various types of discussion. This type is one of my favorites. It’s called “fishbowl” with a “tag-in” element to it. there are two concentric circles, one big and one small (about 5-7 people). The people in the smaller circle pick up a topic: a campaign issue, a problem, a proposal. They talk it over. When someone sitting in the outer circle decides they have something to contribute, they step up to the inner circle, tap someone on the shoulder, and trade places with them. Here is Lily explaining the process:


The Vermont Workers Center is a progressive political organization but it doesn’t run or support candidates for election. It organizes and mobilizes and educates. Many members are young people, in their 20s and 30s. The big issue right now is getting Act 48, which was a state of Vermont law to establish single-payer medicare-for-all inVermont, funded. It was all set to go and then in 2014 the Democratic governor pulled the plug on the process. As an organization, it is trying to re-make itself as member-driven, dues-based, and bottom-up, after having gone through a crisis when the previous Executive Director quit and set up a different organization with a different legal status so he could do direct electoral work —  and took a lot of the foundation funding with him.

Back in Jamaica: A few bright sunny days, but very cold. I took a walk down toward the river,came across a pile of debris left over from Irene, the flood in 2013.




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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