Monday, June 7, 2010


The second day of seminars: We are at the labor university and she introduces herself as a Professor Do Ngan Binh, a labor law professor at the Hanoi Law University (where USF has conducted judicial training workshops in the past.) She is firing off comments and questions at a rapid pace. Why is the number of unionized employees so low in the United States? What should the model of labor and industrial relations be in Vietnam? How can Vietnam best resolve disputes, particularly when many labor issues never make it to the courts? How can Hanoi Law University cooperate with the University of San Francisco? Isn’t this the laundry list of must-dos to resolve problems of legal labor education, she asks, rattling off financial resources, skills training, knowledge of the substantive law and clinical experiences for students?

I try to take notes, scribbling down her staccato verbal bursts. Staring at the pages of my recently purchased Vietnamese notepad, I patiently try to respond, emphasizing that surely I could not suggest the best model for labor relations for Vietnam and, moreover, there is likely no one model that fits all given our different problems, stages of development and historical, cultural and political differences. With all of this she takes no issue but she seems edgy and frustrated as I conclude my answer, expressing a hope for future extensive cooperation between USF and HLU.

After the session, Professor Binh approaches me and firmly grips my hand, asking whether we can meet later that afternoon to finish our conversation. I agree and five hours later we are sitting in the offices of the USAID funded labor project – SIIR – that has put the seminars together. Seated around a small circular table with black glasses perched on her face and her black hair pulled back, Professor Binh pulls out her notepad and begins to write furiously, attacking the page, words pouring forth in Vietnamese connected by arrows and lines as if she were solving an organic chemistry problem. I look at the translator – a young, very bright lawyer named Ha who has helped me so much during the trip – with confusion and a smile. Ha returns my smile as if to say, I’m not sure what Professor Binh is saying either, but I’ll do my best to explain it.

Ha indeed does try to explain, but it takes some time to really understand what is on Professor Binh’s very quick and very organized mind, even if it is not apparent to this Western Dean. At bottom, Professor Binh is explaining that the desire for a harmonious and peaceful workplace concerned with the interests of both employees and workers – a concept we discussed at length at the seminar – cannot be realized without principles and processes in labor law that are not part of Vietnam’s current framework. She is not sure what they are or how to articulate them, but she knows they are there and accessible if only she can get advice from others, study, and have access to those drafting the law, the latter apparently a particularly sore point because she is consulting on the new labor code but having difficulty with the person at the Ministry with ultimate authority who she says “just does what he wants”.

Her passion is evident. So is her desire to get it right for Vietnam. As I listen to her, I hear a tone that comes from many here – frustration coupled with excitement about what might be accomplished in the future; and, a hope that the future will bring change that really addresses Vietnam’s workplace issues. I listen patiently knowing that I surely don’t have the answers. I do promise resource materials, continuing email dialogue, and more exchanges with Hanoi Law University. Professor Binh seems momentarily satisfied, and, as fast as she was writing, she again firmly grips my hand, thanks me for my time and leaves, promising to stay in touch – and I have no doubt that she will!

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