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

Friday, January 13, 2017

Factory Visit

January 10, 2017

Today was the day of a factory tour! We visited a garment factory called Fashion Garments Limited, Inc. FGL is a subsidiary of the Hirdaramani Group from Sri Lanka and LT apparel from the United States. FGL began operating in Vietnam in 1994 and now has four factories in Dong Nai Province. Mr. Channa, the General Manager, shared with us their plan to build five additional factories in central Vietnam, near Da Nang.

Mr. Channa delivers his presentation
I was able to learn about the company’s vertically integrated model which included the initial stages of garment development and the production of a finished garment. FGL Factory is capable of doing in-house embroidery, printing, dyeing, and bonding. The factory has five manufacturing facilities in Vietnam and caters to multiple customers, including Victoria’s Secret Pink, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Nike, Levi’s, and Columbia.

Samples from the meeting room and lobby
I was surprised to learn that the company was platinum LEED certified for its green initiatives and that they provided benefits to their employees like healthcare insurance and meals, prenatal and postnatal care, and a large training budget. The company puts great emphasis on corporate social responsibility and showcased its efforts to engage with their workers and give back to both the community and the environment through charity work and blood donations.

CSR board (plus Hunter)
After the meeting, we started the factory tour. Unfortunately for this portion of the trip, photography was no longer. We began with the design center which showcased new pieces of lingerie set to be marketed in 2018. We got a close hand look at the design process including fabric documentation to be sent out to customers and cost sheets.

Later, we explored the production floor where workers were sewing and cutting fabric for the garments they were producing. The production floor was organized into teams, identifiable by brand name. The workers were working in clean, regulated conditions and had scheduled lunch breaks, bathroom breaks, and water nearby.

After viewing the ground floor, we were able to view another design room this time equipped with multiple computers. Many of the workers were doing graphic design, playing around with various new styles and potential clothing items. It was very exciting to see the clothing we wear being made from first inception in design rooms. After this, we visited the sample room and were able to view and touch the finished garments that would be sent to the brands for final review and appraisal.

The final portion of our factory tour included conversations with workers on the ground floor. After conversation with one of the workers, I learned about the benefits that the company provided such as a “supermarket” for essential products at the plant and the 10 days off for Tet holiday. I was also able to learn about the approximate education level of a worker. One employee I spoke to had only completed the eighth grade. She also shared with us the demographic of the workforce which was 90% female and 10% male. Men work primarily in cutting whereas women are in sewing. Overall, the interview was educational and helpful in understanding the worker’s perspective of the factory.

With the HR staff

In front of the factory
The factory visit was one of the most fulfilling experiences I have had in Vietnam so far and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to view the design, production, manufacturing of garments and speak to workers at the source. I look forward to many more educational activities to come! -Clara

Monday of Many Meaningful Meetings

January 9, 2017

To start the day, we had a group meeting with Professor Fincher to discuss the history of the Viet Nam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), the sole trade union in Viet Nam. We learned about the structure of the union, how it is funded and what it does for workers. Many characteristics of the VGCL are different from unions in the US. While the union in Viet Nam does try to raise the minimum wage of workers and carry out administrative processes, some of its funds go towards funding factory trips and giving money to its workers for weddings, or a death in the family. Additionally, union leaders can also be human resource managers. 

Following the morning discussion with Professor Fincher, we were joined by Ms. La, one of the Labor Relations professors at TDTU. Ms. La gave us a further understanding of the VGCL and enlightened us as to the three functions of the VGCL. The first function is to represent and protect the worker. She stressed that this is the main and most important function of the union. The union, under this idea, manages social dialogue (a tool to hear the worker’s voice in workplace issues), negotiates and judges the quality of collective bargaining agreements, and holds the employer accountable to all the provisions of the law. The second function of the union is to work with management to promote the efficiency of the enterprise. This differs from the American idea of the union’s function in which a union works primarily for the worker. The third and last function of the union is to mobilize and educate the worker.

With Ms. La (center)
After our meeting with Ms. La, we had the privilege to meet with the International Labor Organization (ILO) Country Director of Viet Nam, Mr. Chang Hee Lee. During this meeting, we each had the chance to ask Mr. Lee a couple questions. Among the many topics we discussed was the ILO’s Better Work program. Better Work is a monitoring, evaluation, and consultation program meant to raise labor standards in factories. Mr. Lee explained that once the factories under the scope of Better Work Viet Nam comply with the standards, the factories around them will begin to comply and this will slowly create a network of factories that will eventually extend to all the factories across Viet Nam. Mr. Lee ended the meeting by explaining the ILO’s unique position in that it is an outside organization that is trusted by the Vietnamese government and can suggest policy changes. Mr. Lee was very candid when answering our questions which made this meeting the highlight of the day.

With Mr. Cheng Hee Lee (center)
After eating lunch at the canteen, we came back to the office to meet with J.R. Larsen, an economic officer at the U.S. Consulate in Viet Nam and Ms. Giang from USAID. Unfortunately, Mr. Larsen had to leave early, but Ms. Giang stayed and gave us perspective into the Governance for Inclusive Growth (GIG) program. GIG is a USAID funded program aimed to improve public administration and the Vietnamese regulatory environment. Ms. Giang works with national and local government officials on matters related to social dialogue and strikes. As a side note, we learned that additional USAID staff recently joined to build capacity in anticipation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, with the new administration’s opposition to the deal, many practitioners in Viet Nam are looking for new ways to guide reform. In addition to this, Ms. Giang had visited a handful of factories and interviewed many workers. She provided us with insight into navigating a factory visit.

With Ms. Giang (center)
After a jam-packed day of guest lectures, Hunter and I decided to decompress by exploring the campus. After wondering the sports complex, some students invited us to play badminton. We had a fantastic time even though our opponents were definitely easy on us.

The day was capped off by having dinner at the VivoCity mall in Phu My Hung. Phu My Hung is an area with a large expatriate population. Exploring this part of the city was a great way to finish off such a busy day! - Samir

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Sunday in Saigon

January 8, 2017

We started out the morning well by going into the city with a few TDTU students - Nhi, Vy, and Vy Tran - for a delicious dim sum breakfast and Vietnamese iced coffee. After eating our meal, we went to An Dong market to wander through and purchase souvenirs. It was overwhelming to walk through the hectic market with so many different things to look at. We learned from the TDTU students about the process of bargaining over prices, and the best places to shop around town.

Dim Sum Breakfast
Next, we went to Independence Palace, which is an important landmark in Ho Chi Minh City. Together, we explored the different rooms within the building which were ornate and captivating. Every room had descriptions about the events that occurred inside. We went all the way to the top of the building and took in a beautiful view of the city. From the roof we ventured down to the bunker. Within the bunker was a maze of communications, mapping, and intelligence offices. Walking through the halls of a historic place made us ponder and discuss pointed history of this building. What sort of plans were deliberated in these rooms? After our palace visit, we walked and explored the streets for a while to get a better sense of the city. I felt like we were finally learning how to navigate the city's terrain.
At the Independence Palace
Later on in the day, we went to a water puppet show at a theater. Water puppets are a traditional way of storytelling. We watched the puppets dance across the water. Singing, dialogue, musical instruments and puppetry all came together to communicate a narrative. At one point, one of the dragon puppets spewed fire and wowed the crowd. After the show, we talked about our opinions and interpretations of the stories and wandered through some nearby markets. 

Water Puppet Show
Later that night, we went to a cafĂ© to meet with Katelin from USAID to discuss projects in Vietnam. Their current project centers on promoting social dialogue. It turns out that Katelin is an alumna of ILR! In addition to discussing USAID's projects, she shared her journey from ILR to the Peace Corps and eventually the USAID foreign service. 
After this meeting, we ended the day with dinner at a rooftop restaurant called “Secret Garden.” 
Until next time - Julissa

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Visiting the Mekong Delta

January 7, 2017

Our adventure to the Mekong delta began early on Saturday, but even that early, the sun shone pretty strong and the air was humid and hot. We loaded up a van with our group and five TDTU students and set out from Ho Chi Minh city. Along the way, we talked, played games, and stared out into the towns and scenery that passed by. We caught glimpses of stores selling big statutes ands sculptures and a great deal of farmland, where some farmers were clearing fields destined for planting of rice and other crops. 

We arrived at the delta and began the next leg of our visit on a boat. As we passed over the water, barges floated stacked high with bags of goods and piles of wood. Small clusters of vegetation with round green leaves drifted in between the boats navigating the river. We arrived at the first island and disembarked at an area where the "coconut monk" had resided. The monk was nicknamed for only consuming coconut and gained a rather large following, creating a belief system that incorporated Buddhism, Daoism, and other philosophies and spiritual systems. In 1975, he fled the island after the taking of the south by the northern Vietnamese. 

At Coconut Island
The monk dotted his island with large colorful dragons, female and male, that stuck up as pillar soaring into the sky. There was also a giant three dimensional map of Vietnam. In addition, the island had a number of interesting animals included a small area full of crocodiles. Julissa even got to feed them by dangling a stick of meat in front of their dozens of open jaws. We watched them spring up in the air, exposed jaws full of teeth reaching and snapping, lurching for the food. Next, we sat near a pond, where we fed fish by the bottle and they sucked little pellets of food. The island also posses numerous gardens with perfectly trimmed hedges and rivers running across them. 

On the Monkey Bridge
As we arrived back at the boat, we were greeted by a row of fresh young coconut filled with sweet water. The drink felt refreshing as we zipped through the delta towards unicorn island. On the island, we saw the creation of tiny coconut candies. They smashed open the coconuts onto a sharp slate, cut out the shiny white flesh, pressed it down into a liquid, mixed it, and then shaped into little squares. Rows upon rows of these squares sat in front of us, and we were able to drop peanut and chocolate mixed coconut candies into our mouth, exploding with coconutty sweetness. 

Julissa and Clara on the boat
We continued through the island towards an area where some of us got to hold a honeycomb swarming with bees. These bees make a very tantalizing honey which we was put into a tea along with lime juice. The tea was known for certain health benefits and tasted extremely sweet. We then walked through a short pathway to a road, where horse drawn carriages awaited us. We piled into the back of a bunch of these carriages and the horse trotted in front, bumping us across the road. Staring out the back of the carriage, the horse gave us a good view of the landscape around us and we saw vegetation and houses, as motorbikes zoomed past. 

Allison holding bees
We returned to the river boat, and sped toward our destination for lunch. Along the way, we passed massive fishing cages, floating on the water, that looked like small houses, but contained enclosures which could hold enormous holds of fishes. We cut under a huge bridge, with two huge arches hanging over it, and motored past a parked group of fishing vessels, sitting ready to go towards the ocean. 

At lunch, we arrived to a feast. The highlight was elephant ear fish, which cut off the bone and rolled it into lettuce and noodles. There were bowls of prawns, plates filled with different vegetables, pork to put on rice, fried dough with rice, soup full of vegetables, and longan berry for dessert. Most of our group decided to try hot peppers. While some of us believed we were up to the challenge, we quickly realized that the peppers stung our tongues and throats, and our eyes watered as tear poured out. After a long recovery, we continued on to a path that went over bridges and passed a number of jack fruit with their tiny spikes poking out. 

Yummy prawns
We headed down the path toward a small river. We all stepped into boats and were paddled down the river by people with long wooden oars who told us they fished in the water we floated upon. Trees with little long spiny leaves poking out created a canopy overhead. The trees trunks stuck out of the water in between the reeds and plants that covered the surface of the river. Mud piles formed the banks of the river with little pores in the side. We listlessly headed down the river, passing sunken boats, houses, and a green wall of vegetation that made a tunnel which we passed through. 

After the river, we sat down at a table and was served fruit included pineapple, longan berry, jackfruit, papaya, and dragon fruit. The fruit was watery and fresh, so that it made our hands sticky, and we were serenaded by some performers singing in Vietnamese playing guitar, monochrome and a bunch of other instruments. This marked the very end of our trip, and we headed back across the river and on to the van to be driven back to Ho Chi Minh. While we may have left labor relations behind for a day, the exposure to an interesting part of Vietnam was surely a meaningful experience. -Hunter

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Labor law, English Zone, Tea Time, and Pageantry 

January 6, 2017

Today began with soccer for some students, jet-lag recovery for others- I admit I was among those who skipped the 7:00 am scrimmage. We all gathered together at 9:00 am, however, for a class session covering Vietnamese labor law. We were joined by TDTU Professor Triet, and one of the wonderful students, Nghia, served as a translator. We discussed how Vietnamese labor law is just part of the common law code, as opposed to our separate system in the US, and focused on health and safety in the garment industry as well as some of the details regarding layoffs, the rights and responsibilities of the union, and wages and benefits. Mr. Triet had experience working in the steel industry and construction, and it was great to be able to engage with TDT faculty. We went to the cantine again for lunch, and managed to order on our own (a big accomplishment, at least in our eyes, given our lack of Vietnemse language skills). 

Meeting with Mr. Triet
In the afternoon we went back to the English Zone. The students knew we were planning on stopping by, so after chatting for a bit with students studying English, international business, and even electrical engineering, we all played a game together. The team Julissa and I were on, “Beauty Team,” had a bit of a competitive streak as we battled with the others to correctly identify the name of a song a player would draw out, Pictionary-style, on a whiteboard- bonus points if you could sing it! Sadly, Clara’s team wasn’t quite as skilled and she received the punishment of eating a durian candy (pictures below)!
At the English Zone
Clara trying Durian Candy
We then headed downtown to meet up with some Vietnamese students who go to Cornell, who were in the city for the afternoon. We went to a really lovely teahouse in district one.

Tea with other Cornellians
We then returned to campus for the TDT Beauty Pageant. We were expecting a small affair, but this was a serious, high-production value spectacle to rival Miss America. Earlier rounds had narrowed the contestants to 10 women and 10 men, who showed off beautifully painted and beaded ao dais and performed dances and sang a mix of Vietnamese and Western songs. It was really fascinating to see a different side of the youth culture. We couldn’t really imagine a similar event happening at Cornell, so it made for an exciting evening! 
TDTU Beauty Pageant

TDTU Beauty Pageant
We ended the day at a fantastic vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant in District 3, sharing dishes like house-made tofu, spicy mushrooms, hot pot, and pineapple fried rice. Overall, it was another invigorating, fascinating day in Ho Chi Minh City, and we can’t wait to see what’s next. - Allison 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

First class and Welcome Ceremony

January 5, 2017

Professor Fincher started off the day with a class on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Vietnam. He covered a range of topics in CSR including a brief overview of its definition and the scope of employment-related CSR and non-employment-related CSR.

Dean Hoa was the guest speaker for the day and he spoke about his background in Human Resource Management and shared his expertise on the role of CSR in the supply chain. He was able to answer our questions about the role of the VGCL in promoting CSR and the effectiveness of auditing within factories. It was also fascinating to hear his description of a labor strike at Pou Yuen Vietnam footwear factories during March 2015. Workers were not striking directly against the company but in protest of a new social insurance law. I found it interesting that workers utilized a strike as a means of protest against a legislative matter. 

Meeting with Dean Hoa
We then celebrated a welcome ceremony with the TDTU students. Thi sang a beautiful song to welcome us to Vietnam. Richard Fincher and Dean Hoa then exchanged gifts. Later, the Cornell we met with our TDTU student peers and talked about collaborating on our research project. Today was Allison’s birthday so we held a celebration with cake to make her feel at home. 

Thi singing Hello Vietnam

Richard providing Dean Hoa a book to the new TDTU library

Happy Birthday Allison!
Later, the group traveled to Phu My Hung to get SIM cards as well as eat dinner together. 

Dinner with Nhi, Dean, and Thi
Thanks everyone! Until next time -Clara

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City 

January 4, 2017

Today marked the first day of the ILR in Vietnam program! After settling into the dorms we went on a campus tour led by a group of students from the TDTU labor department. We visited the campus soccer stadium, swimming pool, library and the English Zone. At the English Zone, we met many students eager to practice their English. Among the activities available at the English Zone, Hunter, Samir, and some students were deeply invested in a finishing a puzzle as fast as possible.
Samir looking at the library collection

Julissa at the English Zone

Hunter and Samir making progress on the puzzle
After getting some odds and ends at the Lotte Mart, we went to District 1 for a walking tour with the students. We saw the Opera House, City Hall, and Cathedral. Downtown Ho Chi Minh City is so colorful and vibrant! Many of the streets have glittering lights in preparation for the upcoming Tet holiday.

We then had dinner at Nha Hang Ngon. This restaurant specializes in traditional Vietnamese cuisine. We had Rau Muong, Banh Xeo, and Mam Tom. The food certainly met the promise of the restaurant’s name (ngon means delicious in Vietnamese)!
Clara and Hunter enjoying dinner

Richard, Linh, Hanh, and Julissa amazed by the food

Allison, Vy, and Samir - smile!
Today made us very excited for the rest of the program! Not only was it fascinating to explore the city but we’ve also begun making new friends! TDTU has been so welcoming – we definitely look forward to meeting more of the students and spending more time with them.