With jobs lost to Covid-19, Vietnamese struggle to make ends meet

By Dat Nguyen, Hoang Phuong   June 16, 2020 | 06:13 pm PT
With jobs lost to Covid-19, Vietnamese struggle to make ends meet
People fill in forms to receive unemployment benefits at the Hanoi Center for Employment Services in Cau Giay District, Hanoi on June 11, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.
Hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic are struggling to pay their bills.

The Hanoi Center for Employment Services sees hundreds of people queue up from six a.m. every day to file for unemployment benefits.

Young and middle-aged people who had been in a range of jobs line up for 100 meters into the street.

Nguyen Thu Ha, 28, has come for a fourth time after queue tokens were exhausted before her turn came the previous three times.

"I was here first, why did she get the token?" Ha almost shouts at a center employee after a woman jumps the queue and grabs the last token of the day that she should have rightfully got.

She was an office worker at a design company in Hanoi that got no new contracts for two months as most businesses cut down on advertising. Ha and half the others had no choice but to quit since the company could no longer pay them.

She has been staying at home for two months now, and her family lives on her husband’s VND8 million ($348) income.

In the second largest city in the country with a 16-month old baby to feed, Ha and her husband are considering moving to a smaller apartment as they struggle to pay the VND3 million ($130) monthly rent, which has now become a burden.

Ha is among five million people who have seen their work hours reduce or lost their jobs outright because of the pandemic.

Though Vietnam has been among the earliest countries in the world to contain the virus and revive its economy, people are struggling to find jobs and are relying mostly on unemployment benefits to survive.

The number of people filing for unemployment in May surged 44 percent year-on-year to 157,900, according to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs. In the first five months 26,000 companies suspended their business, a 36 percent increase.Vietnam ended its social distancing campaign in April.

In the worst case scenario, the number of workers affected by the pandemic could rise to 7.2 million in the second quarter, the ministry estimated.

A fruit seller, on Bui Vien Street on May 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

A fruit seller, on Bui Vien Street on May 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

The figures reflect the major disruption in the labor market and in the lives of people such as Le Dinh Van.

Van had been a taxi driver in Hanoi for over 10 years before quitting in April when the company cut his salary by 80 percent due to plummeting demand.

His last pay check was for VND2 million ($87), not enough for him to feed his family of three for a month.

So, after quitting, he signed up for a motorbike ride-hailing company, and earns around VND200,000 ($8.7) a day. As the summer heat scorched Hanoi during the first two weeks of June, there were days when he went home with nothing.

"I am lucky to be able to file for unemployment," he said after his application was accepted after he queued up for four hours. Unemployment benefits are, for the next several months, likely to be the main source of income for his family.

Some others are not so lucky. The Hanoi Center for Employment Services received nearly 11,700 unemployment applications in May, up 41 percent year-on-year. Even with dozens of staff working at full capacity, many people need to visit again and again to apply due to the large numbers.

The applicants had been salespeople, technicians, accountants, garment workers, tour guides, and construction workers.

Mothers bring babies to the center. Even when temperatures hit 40 degrees Celsius, people show up and queue for hours, some nearly passing out.

Ta Van Thao, director of the center, said the number of applications is set to surge in the next two months since many workers’ contracts were terminated in April and May.

A person needs to be jobless for 15 days to draw the unemployment allowance and gets 60 percent of their average salary during the latest six-month period.

Official data shows the average amount a person gets is VND4.1 million ($178) per month for five months.

Although the government has announced a VND62 trillion ($2.7 billion) support package to benefit 20 million people affected by the pandemic, workers said they have trouble accessing it due to the large volume of paperwork needed to prove they lost their income due to the pandemic.

Local authorities are confused due to the lack of guidelines on who are eligible to get the money.

Thus, for people like Ha, the only resort is to file for unemployment benefits. After she complained about the unfairness in the queue, Ha was allowed to submit her application.

While waiting for her turn, she calculated how to make do with the VND300,000 ($13) left in her purse, the 10 percent discount her landlord gave on the rent to help the family during the difficult time.

She has to buy food for herself and her husband and diapers and milk for the baby for the next several days with the money.

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