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Bill Snyder - Review on Workers Derams

Flash Forward 75 years to Vietnam:A Review of Tran Phuong Thao Film “Workers Dreams”

By Bill Snyder


In 1934 the life of a San Francisco longshoreman was dangerous, poorly paid and insecure. Getting a day’s work often meant paying a bribe; and if a man was hurt, that was his problem. Unemployment insurance? Never heard of it. 

Flash forward 75 years to Vietnam: Early every morning, lines of men and women trudge into the heavily guarded free-trade zone on the outskirts of Hanoi to work at foreign-owned electronics factories. Their pay? About $60 a month. And like the workers in 1934 San Francisco, getting that job generally means paying a bribe.

It’s not called a bribe, of course. Factory recruiters scour the still-impoverished countryside for workers willing to pay as much as a full-month’s wages to the equivalent of a temp agency in exchange for a job. What’s more, many of the jobs last for just a few months, and come with few benefits and an unresponsive, government-controlled union. 

Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Phuong Thao spent months documenting the lives of three young women who worked at the Canon plant in Hanoi. Her 50-minute film, “Workers Dreams,” is not a polemic. The young women speak for themselves. We get to know them as they prepare for work, cook meager meals, and search for edibles in the rice paddy just outside the factory gate.

There’s a lot of anger in this movie, but for me, the most poignant moment takes place in a Hanoi mall. Two of the women have gone there to shop a bit  -- they can’t afford much -- and splurge on the treat of the week: A single can of Coca Cola.   

There is, of course, a terrible irony in their situation. Few people on earth have fought longer and shed more blood for freedom and independence than the Vietnamese. But Vietnam is not a country where wealth is shared or dissent permitted.

One unusually outspoken and politically aware woman in the film put it this way: “We went from working class heroes to cogs in the machine.” She was later fired and was living on the street late in 2008.


Tran Phuong Thao graduated from Ha Noi’s College of Foreign Trade. She received a Bachelor’s degree from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and a Master’s degree in Documentary filmmaking in Poitier, France. Ms. Thao has directed 3 other documentaries: Women’s Affairs for the Women’s Associate of Poitier; A Hazard, submitted to the 5-Continent Film Festival 5/5, produced by the Belgian production company, Dragon Film Co.; and A Letter to Dad, her senior’s thesis film for the DESS in Poitier.