Notes from the Field

From Vietnam: Addressing Human Trafficking with a New Approach to Vocational Training

January 21, 2009

On a cold and gray day last December, a group of women huddled together in the Hoa Sua restaurant in Hanoi for the last lunch before they departed for the flight that would take them back to their home province of Can Tho, located in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam. This was no simple lunch; the women critically examined the food, commented on the service, and eyed the table’s setting as well as the restaurant’s décor. Gracefully and patiently answering their questions was Ms. Pham Thi Vy, the founding member cum director of the Hoa Sua School, which runs the Hoa Sua restaurant along with a number of other successful businesses in Hanoi. The amazing thing about the Hoa Sua School is that it is a vocational training school for disadvantaged youth that has successfully met the needs of the market for fifteen years.

The six women from the Can Tho Women’s Union were in Hanoi to learn about Hoa Sua’s operations in a study tour organized by The Asia Foundation. The Foundation has worked for a number of years in the Mekong Delta to address the vexing problem of human trafficking, and the sexual and labor exploitation that young women risk as they look for ways out of poverty. In recent years, marriages to men in places like Korea and Taiwan have become increasingly common in the Mekong Delta, but it is a situation rife with potential abuse, given the power and wealth disparity between these poor women and the foreign men they hope will change their lives and the lives of their families. If we hope to address the constraints in these young women’s lives that push them to look for employment elsewhere, finding economic opportunities for them where they live is a fundamental issue. The Hoa Sua School is a model of the kind of successful venture that could help such women find different opportunities.

The Vietnamese government is well aware of the need to provide skills to meet employment needs; vocational training is provided by many agencies. Rarely, however, do the programs offered in the Mekong Delta connect with market requirements. They are viewed simply as government services to disadvantaged individuals through a traditional top-down approach, rather a dynamic opportunity to link workers with the real labor needs of companies operating in the provinces. Thus, trained workers cannot find jobs because the skills they are taught are obsolete in a fast-changing economy, and ironically companies even avoid hiring these “trained” workers, finding that it is more effective if they train their new workers from the start rather than having to correct outdated training. If government agencies can reorient the way in which they think about vocational training, precious funds can be leveraged to really make a difference to people’s lives.

With an emphasis on market needs, Asia Foundation staff discussed with the Can Tho Women Union the possibility of retooling its vocational training school’s curriculum and taking a much more dynamic approach to training provision. Intrigued, the leadership and staff of Can Tho Women’s Union also shared their desire for the vocational school to have greater impact on individuals and communities. The study tour to Hanoi for the Can Tho Women’s Union to see first-hand the work of the Hoa Sua School, a model that could be adapted and replicated in Can Tho, is the concrete beginning of the effort to establish a new approach to vocational training in the Mekong Delta. The project is aided immeasurably by the enthusiastic support of Ms. Vy, the founder and director of the Hoa Sua School, who is ready to offer advice and guidance to the Can Tho Women’s Union staff based on her hard-won experiences in setting up the Hoa Sua School.

The Hoa Sua model is pioneering in Vietnam for its comprehensive approach to vocational training and business operations. Hoa Sua provides training programs and job placement through its own network of businesses, giving trainees hands-on experience and helping sustain the worthwhile work of the training center in the long term. Hoa Sua now operates three cafes, one restaurant, a bakery shop, and an embroidery shop, which are all serving as effective training grounds for its students and as successful commercial outlets for the students’ products. The distinguishing achievement is that Hoa Sua businesses compete well with other private businesses in delivering good products at good prices. For example, Hoa Sua cafes are in prime tourist locations and considered hip spots for tourists and Vietnamese alike. Hoa Sua is now able to cover tuition fees and accommodations for about 550 disadvantaged students per year, 100 of whom are disabled. The key, according to Ms. Vy, is to always strive to achieve a “complete and balanced circle”; for example, the materials purchased for use in training students to cook will be turned into meals they cook for themselves.

A rigorous selection process, comprehensive training programs (which include basic education, English language, life skills, communications skills, information on HIV/AIDS,and reproductive health), and the students’ access to practical experience in Hoa Sua’s cafes and shops has resulted in a near-perfect rate of employment for Hoa Sua students. It has taken a long time for Hoa Sua to establish its training programs and its businesses, and no doubt there will be many adaptations necessary to make such a program successful in Can Tho. But the Can Tho Women’s Union was confident enough to discuss securing an agreement with a restaurant in Can Tho City that would allow for such a beginning. Much will depend on their commitment to get the project off the ground, and to leveraging additional support from local government and the private sector to get the project up and running.

Learn more about this project and other Asia Foundation Women’s Empowerment programs.

Kim Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Vietnam. She can be reached at kninh@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Kim N. B. Ninh | Bio

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