Tuyen, who works for the SIIR USAID labor project, and I are in the back of a Hanoi taxi headed for the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry, VCCI, the agency that represents employers in Vietnam. At least we think we are headed for VCCI. Traffic is at a complete standstill on a five lane road (if there is such a thing as a ‘lane’ in Hanoi) that is quickly narrowing to one to accommodate construction. We are trapped in a blizzard of cars, motorbikes, and bicycles trying to make it past a construction site that is shielded from view by corrugated steel. At one point, the ladder on the back of a motorbike nearly makes it through the rear window of the taxi. My camera is pointed out the window, taking pictures of the congestion, road side stores, and masked-women avoiding pollution sitting side saddle on motorbikes.
We pull up to VCCI which is housed in a multi-story modern building about fifteen minutes from the center of Hanoi. On the sixth floor is the office of Phung Quang Huy whose Spartan digs, a metal table, four metal chairs and the usual picture of Ho Chi Minh on the wall, match perfectly his simple dress – grey shirt and black pants befitting a party official.
But Mr. Phung is anything but a party official. Rather, he is spending his time trying to establish dispute resolution procedures to handle cases that he claims are arbitrarily decided by the Department of Labor without input from employers or workers. He is looking to create, he says, a “ten year plan” to develop and train an infrastructure – one that can handle both collective and individual disputes.
His hope is to establish an independent arbitration center, as he calls it, to work without government interference to resolve equitably labor disputes. In his vision, there would be centers at both the national and local level, each with clear goals and tasks. To create such a center he is looking for support for a pilot project which no doubt he hopes I could help facilitate in light of my connection to SIIR. I suspect that also explains his desire to see me, changing his schedule when I had informed his assistant that I could not make the Friday date that Mr. Phung originally offered.
The meeting does not last long, Mr. Phung’s points having been made, a follow-up meeting with the SIIR project, a possible supporter, is suggested by Tuyen and tentatively planned for the following week. During the meeting, Mr. Phung’s passion, like Professor Binh’s, to “get it right” seems clear. Through their eyes Vietnam’s labor laws are ill equipped to resolve disputes with the interests of workers and employers in mind. Each in their own way is searching for a new way, for new models that are yet to be defined and whose relationship to the state remains unclear.