Migrants eye post-lockdown job opportunities, stay back

By Quynh Nguyen   October 12, 2021 | 09:33 pm PT
'Go home or stay back?' Nguyen Thu Thuy asked her husband when all their neighbors left for their hometowns.

The couple finally made a decision to stay in Binh Duong Province to look for new jobs.

After five years of working away from home, this was the first time Thuy had got doubts. Working as bricklayers, she and her husband, Nguyen Thanh Co, earned VND550,000 ($24.16) a day in total.

"We only work when it is sunny, when it rains we earn nothing," she says.

The Covid-19 pandemic took away their livelihoods at the beginning of June. For more than three months they have been beseeching their landlord to delay the VND1.5 million monthly rent. The family of four has been relying on charity and government support for food.

Seeing the exodus of people from HCMC and other southern localities, Thuy's mother frequently called her and urged them to return home to the southern Hau Giang Province.

Thuys studio in Binh Duong. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thu Thuy

Thuy's studio in Binh Duong. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thu Thuy

In the first seven days after HCMC lifted its lockdown 9,000 people returned to Hau Giang.

But Thuy’s family had run out of money and was afraid of taking the virus home, and so decided not to go.

"It was not safe to stay back, and staying here also meant we will be hungry," she admits.

A month ago her husband was infected.

Adults can live on porridge, dried fish, fish sauce, or instant noodles, "But children need milk," Thuy says.

Unable to borrow, she asked charity groups for milk for her children aged four and two.

Embarrassed but having no choice, she also asked for help online from strangers, and received VND350,000 along with some milk and cakes.

On Oct. 7 they cried for milk again, but she had nothing left. She posted her phone number under a Facebook post, hoping someone would contact and offer support. That night she could not stop anxiously looking at her phone, hoping for a call from some strangers.

Looking at her deserted neighborhood in Tan Uyen Town, she and her husband know they are among the few people not to leave for home.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Public Security, since southern provinces relaxed their lockdown on Oct. 1, 2.1 out of 3.5 million workers in Ho Chi Minh City, Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Long An have yearned for their hometowns.

Tran Anh Huong, 22, and her family have decided to stay back in their cramped apartment in HCMC’s Hoc Mon District instead of returning to Bac Lieu Province.

"I might lose my job if I don't come back when the company needs workers to return to work," she says.

"Besides, people in rural areas are afraid of Saigon returnees. What if I am infected [they think]?"

As of Oct. 5 in Can Tho, 30 out of 54 new Covid cases were returnees.

There were 19 in Hau Giang, 10 in Tra Vinh, eight in Ben Tre, and 60 in Dong Thap.

Quarantine facilities are overloaded and some provinces let people self-isolate at home if they test negative or have been vaccinated.

A worker in HCMC returned to Huw with his children, July 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh

A worker in HCMC returned to Hue with his children, July 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh

Huong is also afraid of the stigma of returning from a pandemic hotspot.

"Getting infected is bad. But if I accidentally spread the virus, I would have to leave my hometown forever".

Another important reason why some decided not to return is the lack of opportunities to earn money at home while the chances of recovery from the pandemic are higher in HCMC or Binh Duong.

Do Xuan Khanh, 31, of HCMC’s Binh Chanh District is not a worker; he is an employer with a small garment factory and seven workers. Though the factory was closed for more than four months, he stayed back and kept paying his workers wages of more than VND15 million a month. He ran out of funds and could not pay the rent for two months, and his wife had to ask for financial support on Facebook.

The idea of closing the factory has struck Khanh several times, but he was worried he would struggle to find skilled workers after reopening.

Le Quang Trung, former deputy director of the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs’ bureau of employment, says: "When the city reopens, workers will at least be able to work in their previous companies. And there will be opportunities to find new jobs when the economy recovers. Incomes will become better gradually".

This has already happened to Huong. The company she used to work for urged her to return and pays her the same salary it used to before the pandemic.

With many socio-economic activities resuming, Thuy thought about applying for a seasonal job at a garment factory since it will bring her a steady income and not depend on the weather unlike her bricklayer’s job.

Thuy works at a garment factory, April 2021. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thu Thuy

Thuy works at a garment factory, April 2021. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thu Thuy

A factory hired her a few days after she applied. Her husband has received news he will work at a new construction site next month.

He says: "Staying here will give us money to return home. We will go home during the Tet holiday.

"Now, even if I'm hungry, I won’t return [to my hometown]."

Tet (the Lunar New Year), which is only four months away, is yet another reason for some migrants to stay back in cities as they hope to earn some money before the traditional reunion with their families in their hometowns.

A majority of people increase spending during the Tet season.

Two days ago Khanh's garment factory received the first order after nearly six months. This was for hundreds of masks with embroidered flower patterns.

Though nothing compared to his orders before the pandemic, he is hopeful apparel demand will gradually increase. He has begun to contact fabric suppliers.

"As the city gradually reopens, there will be opportunities for those who stay."

A report by Navigos found 56.7 percent of surveyed companies saying they would hire workers as soon as they resume normal operations, with 50 percent saying would hire completely new employees.

The HCMC Center for Human Resources Forecasting and Labor Market Information (FALMI) said the city needs 44,000-57,000 workers in the fourth quarter.

Trung warns: "Skilled and experienced workers leaving for their hometowns can cause disruption in labor availability. It will take a very long time to restore production".

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