Thursday, February 2, 2017

Our Final Day

January 17, 2017

Today marks our final day in Vietnam. We began with Julissa's final presentation on Labor Law and Reform in Vietnam. She first described Vietnam's current labor law in comparison with US labor law and international labor standards. From this, she discussed areas of reform, specifically in regards to freedom of association. A particular area of concern with FOA pertains to reforming the VGCL while at the same time allowing for independent trade unions. An unregulated wave of labor organizing could lead to fragmentation and even weaker labor representation while too much centralization in the VGCL could stifle independent unions and constrict worker voice.

Julissa leading a discussion of Labor Law

After Julissa's presentation, we met with Lan Anh from the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI). She shared with us VCCI's work in representing employer's interests and promoting business friendly regulation. After meeting with Lan Anh, we met with Ha Dang from RESPECT Vietnam. She shared with us her program on integrated conflict management. She also spoke about anti-Chinese riots that had taken place two years ago.

Meeting with Lan Anh

Meeting with Ha Dang

After our meetings, we left TDTU to head to the marina for a dinner cruise with another Cornell program investigating climate change in the Mekong Delta. The cruise was a wonderful opportunity to see the Saigon skyline while enjoying our last meal with the TDTU students. The general feeling was bittersweet - happy about learning so much and meeting so many new people yet sad at having to leave our new friends. Vietnam has a special place in all our hearts and we look forward to staying in touch and hopefully coming back in the future.

The Saigon Skyline

Better Work, Final Presentations, and Farewell Ceremony

January 16, 2017

Our program is coming to an end all too soon, and today was tinged with the bittersweet sense of goodbyes. We enjoyed a great meeting with Ha Nguyen from Betterwork Vietnam, which was a fantastic chance to really get an in-depth perspective on the scope and methodology Betterwork uses. We’ve been discussing this ILO project throughout our time here, so speaking to a representative and getting to ask questions about our topics served as a nice capstone to those discussions. 

Meeting with Ha Nguyen (Right)
Ha was able to stay for most of the first student presentation of the day, presented by Clara and Samir. They engaged us in a great discussion of CSR, focusing especially on how different stakeholders view it, and exposing the lack of mutual understanding about what it should be amongst workers, unions, companies, and brands. They applied their research about CSR to what we saw at the factory visit, and we debated the potential of CSR as a mechanism to improve labor relations, and what role consumers play in this debate.

We breaked for lunch, with several students heading to the local Korean grocery store to pick up last minute snacks and gifts. In the afternoon, Hunter and I presented on strikes in Vietnam, and were really happy to be joined by our team members as well as an alumni of the program. We presented statistics and trends we’ve seen thus far, and put forth policy recommendations as well as areas for future research.

Hunter and Allison present
While the presentations were enjoyable, the real fun of the day started as Samir taught us a short bhangra routine to perform at the closing ceremony that evening. We also practiced our acapella rendition of the Alma Mater, and then headed to one of the canteens for our closing party. Most of our partner students had organized a beautiful party, with dinner, gifts, singing, dancing, and lots of laughter. 

We are very sad to be leaving our new friends- we’ve learned so much from each other, and never fail to find something to laugh and talk about. For such a short time together, we’ve forged very real bonds of friendship and I know we will keep in touch (and hopefully return to Vietnam before long). The ceremony gave us a nice sense of closure, and allowed us all to reflect on what we’ve taken away from this- not just academic learning, but cultural immersion and unique relationships, and a deep gratitude for this opportunity. Signing off for the last time, Allison

Visiting the War Remnants Museum

January 15, 2017

We began the day with brunch at a vegetarian restaurant in District 1. The vegetarian food was delicious and definitely livened up Samir. From there, we walked across a park. It rained for the first time during our stay in Vietnam, which made for a nice contrast with our usual sunny and dry days. You can see our group enjoying the rain and the beauty of the park in the photos below.

Walking through the park
We then visited the War Remnants Museum. Upon entering the museum, we saw aircraft, tanks, and helicopters used by the Americans during the war. Tourists wandered around and took photos in front of these remnant instruments of war.

Outside, near the military vehicles, was an exhibition of the island prison camps first built by the French but then used by the South Vietnamese government and then the United States. The exhibit displayed the inhumane treatment and torture of prisoners who were arrested for allegations of subversion. The museum certainly did not hold back on showing the macabre and repugnant conduct that took place in these prisons.

After seeing the outdoor exhibits, our group then entered the museum. On the ground floor were hundreds of photos and posters expressing international condemnation of the US-Vietnam war. There were pictures of mass protests, letters from world leaders, and various newspaper articles. In addition to these was a small section showing US-Vietnam relations today – included were several pictures from President Obama’s visit last year.  
An Anti-War banner
Our group then visited the second and third floors. There was an exhibit dedicated to photographers who risked their lives or even perished to capture images of the war. Over a hundred photographers were injured, killed, or considered missing as a result of their mission. However, their work lives in the photo gallery exhibition of famous, unflinchingly honest portrayals of the war. One image that particularly struck me was the image of a mother and her children fleeing through a lake to get to a place of safety. There was another image of an older brother laying atop his younger brother in a desperate attempt to protect him. There were many images of Vietnamese civilians taken right before they were killed.

Another exhibit was dedicated to the disastrous effects of Agent Orange, a form of herbicidal warfare that was hugely destructive and an undeniable egregious war crime. Photographs and videos showed airplanes spraying the aerial herbicide across the country. There were photographs of forests destroyed by the chemical however even worse yet, the effects on the civilians were even worse. Photographs displayed soldiers exposed to Agent Orange who suffered from many diseases as a result of the exposure. There was a gallery dedicated to showing the children born of those affected. In addition, Agent Orange resulted in many genetic mutations, some of them too severe that they considerably limited the capability of children to take care of themselves, inhibiting growth and even leading to death.

Spraying Agent Orange

Victims of Agent Orange
Overall, visiting the War Remnants Museum left us somber but also provided us with a deeper understanding of the tragedy of war. Its honest portrayal of the war’s destruction and its lasting effects gave us insight into the complicated history we share with Vietnam. The visit also offered the poignant reminder that many wounds from this war have yet to heal. Despite the horrors within however, a banner outside the museum expressed the importance of peace and hope for the future. I think this museum visit reinforced in me the need for understanding history so that we do not duplicate the mistakes and tragedy of the past.

After the War Remnants Museum, our group paid a visit to Bui Vien Street, a backpacker area with many pop-up shops. There were many tourists in this area and many of the storefronts catered towards a more international audience. We then had dinner at an indoor market before going to a café to finish our final presentations. Overall, today was very memorable and a day that will always remain with me and the other Cornellians. -Clara

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels

January 14, 2017

Starting at 6:30 AM, we took the public bus to get to the Cu Chi Tunnels. 2 bus transfers, and 3 hours later we finally made it to the tunnels. When we reached, I didn’t know what to expect, so I was surprised when we found that Cu Chi used to be a small village. There were small huts and as we toured around we saw the agrarian lifestyle that these villagers lived before it was disrupted by the war.

Entering the old village 
After lunch, we began touring the actual tunnel complex. Before entering the tunnels however, there was an informational video that talked about the war. As an American, I felt somewhat awkward watching the film talk about how Vietnamese soldiers were given awards for killing American soldiers and how wrong it was for America to start this war of aggression. It is curious to see this depiction of Americans (which is not undeserved) while in Vietnam, but at the same time be treated so warmly and kindly by the by our Vietnamese friends—I guess this shows how far U.S.-Vietnamese relations have come since the war.

Samir exiting a tunnel
After the video we had a chance to experience the tunnels and see how they were inter-connected. Underground, there was a top layer about 2 meters deep that had storage rooms, the hospital, sleeping rooms, and other functional spaces. Deeper underground were tunnels that the Vietnamese had to hide in during bombings. This tunnel was so deep that they had to install bamboo stalks to provide breathable air. This bamboo was camouflaged perfectly as a rock on the surface so the tunnels remained undiscovered.

As can be seen by the pictures, the tunnels were extremely narrow and this amazed me. I was exhausted and uncomfortable after 20 minutes of traveling through the tunnels and that even included walking above ground! We explored about 150 meters of the tunnels, but the full network of tunnels was over 250 kilometers. I cannot imagine how people could remain in these tunnels for weeks, or even days at a time!

In front of the Memorial
On our way back from the tunnel, we stopped to visit the Ben Duoc Temple of Martyr Memorial and appreciate its beautiful architecture. We then began the journey home and crashed in our beds after a long, but fruitful day.


HR Recruitment, Public Speaking, and Vietnamese Cuisine

January 13, 2017

This morning we woke up early to travel to Tan Binh District to have an informative meeting with a head hunter. It was my first brush with a Ho Chi Minh city traffic jam as we usually travel when the streets are clearer. We spent around an hour driving to our meeting at The Coffee Bar café. At our meeting we delved in to details about the recruitment process. For example, for a leadership position, prospective applicants will go through lengthy tests revolving around writing ability and oral skills. For factory workers, there is a more of a focus on dedication and enthusiasm to work for the company. One fact we had not come across in our research that we learned is that the union fees are used to fund company trips. Members of the company also receive contributions from the union when there are deaths or marriages. This is a contribution that I have not encountered before. Another thing we discussed was challenge of cultural differences between workers and management in foreign-owned enterprises in Vietnam. Resolving these conflicts is an area of improvement that many factories must work towards in a sustainable way.

Meeting with the HR recruiter 
We came back to campus to jump into a TDTU class on debate taught by Professor Richard Bales and Ms. Vinh. We learned about the importance of confidence in communication and introduced ourselves to the class to practice public speaking. After a busy morning, we browsed a “Black Friday Market” set up by the TDTU students. Handmade jewelry, notebooks, phone covers, and other things were on display.  

Debate Class with Richard Bales
That evening, the TDTU students took us to dinner and dessert. We ate Quang Binh noodles, which is a specialty dish from the Quang Binh province in Vietnam. We talked about our research topics and gained some insight into our areas of focus. After dinner, we went to a different district in Ho Chi Minh City to try avocado ice cream (one of my personal favorites). -Julissa

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Comparative Discussions, Initiatives for the Future

January 12, 2017

The day began with class with Professor Fincher, where we talked about TPP. While the TPP has been seen as a large source of controversy in the United States, the government of Vietnam saw it as a way forward. Further reduction of tariffs and liberalization has been seen by Vietnam as a way to boost their manufacturing and export-led economy, fueling huge gains in growth. While some still believe that TPP is possible through bilateral agreements or in another version, others may see a shift towards China as more likely. TPP has had interesting implications for labor rights as well. In agreeing to the deal, Vietnam promised to allow FOA among its workers, but even with the deal in a precarious position, some still believe that Vietnam may implement FOA even without the pressure of TPP. If this was to occur, it means major changes in the labor law of Vietnam and more legal power guaranteed to workers.

After discussing TPP, we debated an arbitration case. Members of our group took many different positions on the issue, some that favored enforcing the law strictly, and other that wanted leniency for the worker, while a couple desired a middle ground. In this way, we learned about the great powers of interpretation of an arbitrator, and how judging the validity of evidence can be a challenging part of the process.

In addition to this, we had a comparative discussion on labor arbitration in Cambodia. Professor shared a presentation about the Cambodian Labor Arbitration Council and their role in settling labor disputes there. I found it informative to learn about another system in Southeast Asia. Finally, we ended class with a presentation on the Cambodian genocide. Between 1975 and 1979, after Pol Pot’s regime came to power, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed millions of people, especially those considered educated or against their regime bet. The actions of the regime led to the death of 25% of the population of Cambodia and thousands of bodies were put into the “killing fields.” Professor Fincher showed us many photos he had taken at those sites and we discussed the current Cambodia War Crimes Tribunal and the trials of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge under direction of the government and the United Nations. We talked about how the court system has dealt with seeking justice and compensation for the victims of the genocide. We also discussed the purpose of the courts, the political context surrounding them, and ideas of punishment versus the type of amnesty practice in South Africa.While the presentation did not focus on labor relations, it certainly gave us a better idea of the events in Southeast Asia and how they terribly impacted the people to this day. In addition, our discussion about conflict resolution and legal forms of justice showed how these types of procedures could be used to mend conflicts on a larger and more traumatic scale.

Cambodian Labor Arbitration Council
In the evening, we attended the national competition of Vietnam for the Hult Prize, held at TDTU. The Hult prize is an award given to a group of students from a university who participate in social entrepreneurship and have worked to build a business or have an idea that would create positive social change while maintain profit.  The prize is sponsored by the Clinton Initiative and awards the winning school group with a million dollars worth of seed capital. This year’s theme was refugees and TDTU hosted student’s groups from other universities to present their ideas. They were judged by a panel of business people who were executives at a number of Vietnamese companies and provided honest criticism of their ideas. Some of the ideas were pretty interesting, such as how one team suggested converting old buses into shelters where refugees could stay for a small price.  Another team came up with a e-commerce app, that allowed refugees to withdraw money and pay for purchases electronically, since many think carrying cash is unsafe and banks typically will not allow refugees to set up accounts. The competition was interesting in how invested the students were in promoting their ideas and how prepared they had to be to respond to pretty harsh criticism by the judges and displayed the creativity off some of the students. In addition, the competition was another reminder of how Vietnam has changed from when the private sector had a very small role in the economy of the country.

Competitors for the Hult Prize, Vietnam National Round
Finally, after watching some of the competition, we enjoyed a very interesting and tasty meal at a local restaurant. Our food was decided by Lowell pretty much pointing randomly at items on the menu leading us to a random assortment of items. We started off with two snail dishes, and the snail were enormously hard to get out of the shells. We spent a great deal of type sticking little tiny forks into their shells, wiggling the prongs around, trying to force out bits of snail. Then a platter of pig liver arrived, which I thought was pretty tasty, and was served in a sauce full of onions and vegetables. Next came chicken feet, which did not have very much but skin to eat on the bone, but tasted delicious. While some of our group was hesitant to try it, they eventually took a bite, and immediately enjoyed a new favorite food of our group. Finally, we finished the meal with a steaming and spicy hot pot, packed to the brim with vegetables and noodles, that we finished off, and filled out stomachs. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Strikes and a Simulation

January 11, 2017

We began today with a discussion of strikes, specifically the gaps between what the law stipulates for striking (it is technically legal), and what the strikes are like (illegal or wildcat strikes) due to the difficult, bureaucratic mechanisms for legal strikes. Hundreds of strikes can happen per year and occur over issues like wages, benefits, quality of food in the canteens or holiday bonuses. Usually, they don’t last longer than a few days and are resolved by ad hoc committees of local authorities, labor representatives, and management. Overall, our discussions with speakers from the VGCL, USAID, and other groups have enhanced our understanding of strikes as compared to when we first arrived. 

During the afternoon, we joined up our TDTU student peers to do a mock grievance negotiation. We split into three teams, with a union and management side, and sought a resolution for a worker who was discharged. The worker had refused to work on his machine until it was properly inspected for safety, following another worker accident. We helped each other understand the case on our respective teams, and then came up with a list of key demands we would negotiate for. The air in the room grew tense once the negotiation started – both sides felt certain their views were correct and often would get entrenched in their position nearly to the point of impasse. With some prompting, however, all of the teams were able to reach a solution after a tough, spirited hour of negotiation, and we were surprised to learn how different many of our final negotiations were. It was a great way to bond with our students and share some of what we had learned in collective bargaining back in Ithaca.
Intense Negotiations

An agreement is reached

That evening, we decided to head down to the Bitexco tower, which rises imposingly over the skyline, a sleek, lotus-bud shaped monolith that boasts a sky deck and helipad on its upper floors. The views of the city were breathtaking, glittering lights and churning motorways spreading out below us. There’s nothing to prompt reflection quite like literally zooming out on where you are, and we mused over the possibilities of moving to places like Saigon after we graduate.

We finished the night with bun bo hue (a famous beef noodle soup from Hue) and collapsed exhausted into bed.  -Allison