Informal workers hit hard by new Covid outbreak

By Long Nguyen   May 30, 2021 | 08:24 pm PT
People working in the informal economy, many of them urban migrants, hoping to rebuild lives shattered by three waves of Covid-19, now face a fourth.

One Friday evening in May Nguyen Thi Kim of Saigon’s Binh Tan District reached home and burst into tears knowing she would have to stop working as a cleaner in several buildings due to the rising number of Covid cases.

In their rented studio her two children and husband had gone to sleep, leaving a bowl of rice and some pieces of tofu for her on the table, her daily meal the last few weeks.

As an hourly-wage cleaner for families and offices in downtown Saigon, she used to earn VND8 million ($347.81) a month before the pandemic began.

This year, after the four-day national holidays in late April and early May, three of her employers, worried about an outbreak that had just begun, stopped hiring her.

Last week, after HCMC recorded a surge in infections related to the Revival Ekklesia Mission Christian congregation, two other employers told her they would hire her again in July if Covid is controlled by then.

"I thought last year was the worst, but things just keep getting worse," the 35-year-old from the southern province of Dong Nai said.

Her plight is not uncommon among workers in the informal economy, who have been hit hard by the fourth and latest Covid outbreak, which has spread quickly to 34 localities and cities with 4,096 patients.

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

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

Without unemployment benefits and desperately yearning for an economic revival after the third outbreak early this year was contained, many of them now once again face joblessness.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen Thi Thanh, a spa worker in District 11, could not hide her disappointment at the city’s decision to shut cinemas, massage parlors, spas, and Internet cafes amid the growing outbreak.

"I do not know how long this ordeal will last; I have been exhausted by this upheaval for a year," she said with a sigh.

The mother of two who used to earn up to VND17 million ($739) a month now sells homecooked food with a friend to survive.

Across the country, 32.1 million workers aged 15 or above either lost jobs or working hours in 2020, according to the General Statistics Office.

This year, a new Covid-19 outbreak in late January affected 9.1 million workers in the first quarter, with 540,000 lost their jobs during the period.

Informal workers are among the most vulnerable to the pandemic, according to the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

The year-long pandemic with multiple outbreaks has exhausted many of them, who did not have much savings to start with and have used up all to survive.

Hanoi Grab driver Nguyen Thanh Tuyen, 41, remained in his hometown in the northern Hai Duong Province after Tet and only returned to work in early April.

But it was just one month before the new outbreak began in the capital, causing his income to shrink again.

"Passengers are worried that people like me, traveling to many places and meeting a lot of people, would be infected," he said, adding he has thought about returning to Hai Duong to help his wife with farm work.

Many people, losing jobs in the cities, want to return to their hometowns to find a new job or at least spend less, but are anxious they would accidentally take the virus home or face discrimination.

Nguyen Tuan Anh, 27, has been penniless after his employer, a glue manufacturing facility in Hanoi’s Dong Anh District, laid off workers in early May.

But he does not dare to return home to the northern Ha Nam Province since he is worried he could get infected on the bus and spread it to his family.

"I feel bad because I have no money to give my parents in Ha Nam, and I cannot even go there to help them because of this outbreak," he said, adding he has sought work as a motorbike taxi driver.

Workers at Long Bien Market in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Workers at Long Bien Market in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Go on or go home?

After becoming unemployed, many informal workers grab whatever opportunity they get.

While Tuan Anh is waiting to start working as a Grab driver, hoping to earn VND4 million ($174) a month, Kim in Saigon will collect trash and recycle it to earn a little bit of money.

"Until the deadly outbreak is under control, I have no choice but do anything I can do to make money."

But both know these temporary jobs are not a long-term solution that can help pay their bills in future.

"If this ordeal lasts much longer, I might quit and return to my hometown, regardless of the Covid risks," Anh lamented.

Some returning people have faced discrimination in their hometowns because of people’s fear they could be carrying the virus.

When Nguyen Dinh Tu, 32, a carpenter in Hanoi, returned to his hometown in the central Nghe An Province earlier this month, his neighbors complained to the police that he had carried the novel coronavirus back.

Tu said: "I did not travel to any Covid hotspots and had filled the medical declaration form, but they were scared. I now have to stay at home for a month to start a new life in my own hometown."

Losing jobs or having incomes reduced for months has taught many migrant workers to be patient and cling on to urban dreams for themselves and their children.

Kim has applied for many jobs since last year but received no response.

But she is defiant: "I want to stay here so my children can have a better education and future no matter how many times this pandemic returns."

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