Workers struggle to secure jobs during Tet season

By Ngoc Ngan   February 3, 2024 | 03:34 pm PT
After finishing her afternoon shift at the chili factory, Le Thi Nga, 58, drove a motorbike around Binh Tan District looking for work.

All the woman from the southern province of Vinh Long received at each of the four potential employers she visited was a shake of the head.

So, she returned to her rented room on Le Dinh Can Street, Tan Tao Ward.

Nga has been working only seasonally for the past 9 months after losing her job. She’s trying to eke out a living, but the Tet season is when her family struggles the most because due to escalating prices and additional expenses. Tet (Lunar New Year),Vietnam’s biggest and most important festival, will last from Feb. 8 to 14, 2024. The traditional festival will peak on Feb. 10.

"Every week, relatives from my hometown ask when will I return for Tet, but I don't have the heart to answer," Nga said. "I [need to] try to stay here and earn whatever I can."

Le Thi Nga in her rental, Binh Tan District, HCMC, Jan. 26, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/ Ngoc Ngan

Le Thi Nga in her rental, Binh Tan District, HCMC, Jan. 26, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/ Ngoc Ngan

10 years ago, Nga, along with her husband and two sons left their Mekong Delta home for Ho Chi Minh City to work in construction. When the eldest child got married, the family rented two 12-square-meter rooms next to each other in Binh Tan for VND1.3 million ($53.39) per month.

Before losing her job, the couple’s monthly income was about VND8-10 million per person, which was enough for living expenses and "a little extra" for savings.

However, the family's savings were all spent after two years of less work during Covid-19.

Then, in early 2023, Nga's entire family suffered from the global wave of unemployment when many Vietnamese and international contractors conducted mass layoffs.

"The last time I had a long-term project was March 2023," Nga said. "Since then, we’ve been struggling to live, and we’ll do any job we can find."

Near Tet, the family owed two months’ rent, and the landlord began harassing them with the cultural belief that "debts shouldn’t last through the year." Three times a week, Nga received phone calls from relatives in her hometown encouraging her to leave the city and go back home. But all she felt was impatience and embarrassment.

"A family full of healthy people shouldn’t be struggling through Tet," Nga said. "I thought there would be more work around Tet, but it turns out that's not the case."

Still, Nga is actively looking for work.

Every afternoon, she drives all over the district, visiting construction sites, restaurants, and coffee shops, asking people for work. But all she’s gotten so far are refusals.

Being middle-aged makes it difficult to get a foot in the door. At the end of 2023, she was working sorting chili peppers at a factory 3 km from where she lives, earning VND35,000 an hour. But the job was only occasional.

Nga's daughter-in-law Lam Thi Khanh Chau, 22, was an employee at a real estate company that went bankrupt. Over the past few months, she has been looking for a job as a construction assistant for some projects in the district.

She’s been able to land a few that earned her VND200,000-300,000 a day, none of them lasted long. Some other projects in Binh Duong and Dong Nai needed workers, but the family only had one motorbike, so there was no way to travel that far. She was also rejected after applying to a series of other jobs.

When Nga was lucky enough to have work at the chili factory, Chau stayed home to help her mother-in-law because there were days she was able to take chilis home to process them there for VND2,000 per kilo.

Chau is from the southern province of Tra Vinh and did not return to her hometown last Tet because she was busy giving birth. Her parents have been looking forward to her return this year.

Over the past few days, Chau’s money for diapers and milk ran out while bus fares increased. She knew she didn't have many options so she decided to work in manufacturing. "I didn’t want to promise my family that I would be back for Tet because I'm afraid everyone will be disappointed," she said.

Nga's family belongs to the group of 906,000 people of working age who are underemployed. According to data from the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, in the fourth quarter of 2023, the underemployment rate among working-age people in urban areas was 1.61%.

Also, according to data from the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, in the first 11 months of 2023, more than one million people applied for unemployment benefits, an increase of nearly 13% over the same period last year.

According to a Navigos Search survey in the third quarter of 2023, nearly 70% of businesses chose to fire workers when facing difficulties, followed by temporarily suspending new recruitment.

In the third quarter, Vietnam recorded a total of 118,400 worker job losses, concentrated in two southeastern regions: 33,600 people in Binh Duong Province and 34,600 people in neighboring HCMC, according to the survey.

Data from the Ho Chi Minh City Employment Service Center shows that among those applying for unemployment benefits, unskilled workers without qualifications like Nga account for 52%. For female workers, 16% were over 40 years old, this rate in men was 14%.

Bui Thi Minh Ha, a sociology lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said that Tet is a time that puts unemployed people under a lot of pressure. Many cases of unemployment are due to companies not having enough orders and not enough money to pay holiday bonuses or even full salaries for employees during Tet.

Thus, even those who don’t lose their jobs entirely end up having their pay and/or hours cut, as well as bonuses withheld. Meanwhile, workers still need to spend for Tet while prices are increasing.

Has said that in addition to expenses for food, travel, and living, people are also facing psychological pressure around Tet. These include shame, emptiness, or a feeling of "being cut off from society" when comparing themselves to others, or themselves from the past.

Unemployed people are forced to find part-time, manufacturing, or seasonal work to get by, according to the sociologist. However, it’s not easy during the economic recession.

Le Anh Nguyet performs housekeeping duties in Binh Tan district, Ho Chi Minh City, in January 2024. Photo courtesy of Nguyet

Le Anh Nguyet performs housekeeping duties in Binh Tan district, Ho Chi Minh City, in January 2024. Photo courtesy of Nguyet

Le Anh Nguyet, 60 years old, is an example. The woman from the southern province of Dong Thap used to work at a coffee shop in Ward 16, District 8. Three months before Tet, the shop laid off its staff. Nguyet was first on the list. In the same month, her daughter discovered a tumor in her chest that required surgery.

"I feel lost," Nguyet said.

Her husband's salary as a delivery man at a printing company was only enough to pay for rent, electricity, and water. Nguyet rushed to find a new job. She went to the area around the cafe where she used to work, where she was familiar to the local residents, and took on occasional house cleaning jobs for them. A person hired her to water the plants in the morning, earning a salary of VND1.5 million per month.

For the rest of the day, she cleans houses for other people, paying VND60,000 an hour. Her service is only needed a few times a month. The woman tried taking her resume to find work at garment companies, eateries, and restaurants that were recruiting service workers, but they all refused because she was old.

"I have no choice but to ‘grind’ with seasonal work this Tet," Nguyet said. "After Tet, I will try something else."

A representative of the Ho Chi Minh City Youth Employment Service Center said that the number of people looking for jobs during the Tet holiday season is much higher than in other months of the year and about 10% higher than in the same period last year.

Seasonal jobs include selling Tet calendar stickers, sales assistants, housekeepers, supermarket staff, delivery staff, and security guards. Salary ranges from VND25,000 - 55,000 per hour or VND140,000 - 400,000 per day.

These workers are mainly aged 20-35, with a diverse range of professions. The representative said that unemployed people can look for seasonal work because there are many jobs with relatively good salaries.

"However, if they lack the skills to search for information online, they will easily be deceived," the representative said.

Sociology expert Bui Thi Minh Ha believes that the pressure of unemployment before Tet is greater than unemployment during the year.

According to her, unemployed workers need management agencies to provide practical support in terms of materials and connection support to find jobs.

"Especially for the group of middle-aged and older workers who have not had time to adapt to the changes in the job market after Covid-19 and the economic recession," Ha said.

On Jan. 25, Chau was picking through a 50kg bag of chilis in her rented room, while chatting with her sister in Tra Vinh on the phone. In years past, Chau has always saved enough money by Tet to buy her sister new clothes. But not this year.

"I love my sister, I miss home but I don't know what to do," Chau said. "I just hope Tet will pass quickly, so everything will be different."

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