Migrants tell of life inside shoebox apartments

By Le Tuyet   October 23, 2021 | 08:55 pm PT
Low-income workers squeezed between high rents and subpar housing are forced to make do with their tiny flats in HCMC.

After bringing two motorbikes into their room, Mong Thuong's family of three only have three square meters left to sleep. They would hit the kitchen if stretching out their legs or the bikes and walls if rolling left or right.

Thuong, 27, works at Linh Trung I Export Processing Zone, Thu Duc City, and her husband, Duc Phu, as a motorbike taxi driver. They rent a room of less than nine-square-meters in an alley on 9th Street in Thu Duc's Linh Xuan Ward.

Their room is made with corrugated roofing and has a loft, toilet and shower area. The floor is a few centimeters higher than the outside path.

"The room is 2.4 meters wide and 3.6 meters long. The total floor area is 8.64 square meters including the toilet," Phu said after pulling out measuring tape.

Duc Phu takes care for his three-year-old daughter at home when his wife returns working in the factory. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tuyet

Duc Phu takes care of his three-year-old daughter while waiting for his wife to return from the factory. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tuyet

At the end of the room is the cooking area. On the small table, there is a mini gas stove, a bottle of fish sauce and a pack of salt. Underneath is a plastic bucket containing rice and a bag with instant noodles and vegetables hung up to save space.

The couple have repeatedly discussed buying a refrigerator, a washing machine or a wardrobe. But they stopped because there is no space.

In February, their three-year-old daughter was crying because the room was too hot, forcing them to install an air conditioner since "it doesn't take up space when hanging on the wall."

After leaving Mekong Delta ten years ago to settle in the city, the couple's total monthly income is about VND13 million (around $572). But they only have around VND4 million left after paying VND2 million for child care, VND150,000 per day for food and drink, and VND2.4 million in vehicle loans.

With such little savings, the family cannot afford anything bigger than their current room, which costs nearly VND1.3 million per month, including electricity and water.

"The room is small, but does not flood during high tide. The landlord is kind enough to let us delay our rent when we can't pay on time," Phu said.

Compared to Thuong's house, the room rented by Kim Chi on Bo Song Street, Tan Tao A Ward, Binh Tan District, is only a bit over three square meters, costing around VND500,000 in rent.

To save money, she shares a room with a colleague. In nearly six years of working at Taiwanese footwear maker Pouyuen Vietnam, including overtime, her monthly income is around VND8 million.

"I want to save money, so I spend it sparingly. I make sure rent does not exceed 15 percent of my salary," the 29-year-old said.

Chi lives in a boarding house that has about 80 rooms with nearly 200 people.

During the four-month long social distancing period, there were many Covid cross infections in her neighborhood, so Chi remained inside her room. Whenever she craved outdoor air, she has to wait for the surrounding rooms to close their doors and windows before she dares go out.

"At the time, I just wanted to get on a motorbike and go straight to my hometown in the Mekong Delta City of Can Tho," she said. "The feeling of being trapped was very scary."

Kim Chi watches TV in her rented room in Binh Tan District. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tuyet

Kim Chi watches TV in her rented room in Binh Tan District. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tuyet

Thu and Chi are two of over 1.7 million workers in Vietnam living in boarding houses in an average space per capita of less than three square meters.

According to a survey by the Ho Chi Minh City Federation of Labor on workers' housing needs conducted at the end of last year, 70 percent of the workforce in the city are migrants, of which 50 percent need accommodation, corresponding to 1.3 million people.

Of these, nearly 40,000 workers (accounting for 3 percent) live in accommodation and dormitories built in industrial zones. Most laborers live in boarding houses built and leased by households and individuals.

The average area of each room is about 14 square meters with an average rent of VND1.6 million per month, with each room containing four people. Others renting rooms each month must pay between VND2-3 million. Workers spend 10-15 percent of their income to pay for accommodation.

According to Vice Chairman of the Federation of Labor Pham Chi Tam, if compared with the provisions of the Law on Residence, the minimum housing area as a condition for permanent residence registration must not be lower than an eight-square-meter floor area per person. Many enterprise facilities don't meet that requirement.

Workers live in cramped rooms, while many places do not ensure the minimum conditions of hygiene, electricity, water and labor productivity.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the city's 17 export processing zones, industrial parks and high-tech zones had more than 320,000 workers, more than half of whom were migrants in need of accommodation.

Huynh Van Tuan, chairman of the trade union affiliated to HCMC Export Processing Zone and Industrial Park Authority (HEPZA), said with an average monthly income of about VND7 million, many workers struggle to save, which makes it difficult for them to buy houses or rent spacious rooms. Housing projects for workers are also quite meager.

According to data from the HCMC Department of Construction, in the 2016-2020 period, the city had developed more than 1.2 million square meters of social housing, serving more than 66,000 people. Among 19 projects with nearly 15,000 apartments, the highest appraised construction investment value was 15.5 million per square meter; with each project featuring more than 750 rooms.

"When there is no stable place to live, workers are willing to move if they find a cheaper place or even leave the city to return to their hometown, negatively affecting the labor force," Tuan said.

A dormitory of workers on the 9th street, Linh Xuan Ward, Thu Duc City. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tuyet

A dormitory of workers on the 9th street, Linh Xuan Ward, Thu Duc City. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tuyet

Tran Viet Anh, vice chairman of HCMC Union of Business Association, said at the beginning of September, 300 enterprises surveyed the labor situation to prepare for production when the city reopened.

Accordingly, only 40 percent of workers who had relocated to their hometown want to return, with others waiting for the Lunar New Year to pass before heading back to the city.

One reason that affects worker psychology is accommodation. Many boarding rooms are only 10 square meter but 10 people squeeze together to live inside.

According to Viet Anh, workers were divided into day and night shifts before the pandemic. But then during the four months of social distancing, all had to stay at home full time, so living space was narrow, and many problems occurred. They also saw many Covid patients living in the same boarding house leave and never return.

Living in that cramped environment, many workers are tired and worried and just want to return to their hometown for safety.

After the fourth Covid wave hit Vietnam in late April, nearly 600,000 people left HCMC for their hometown, in many cases due to long-term job loss and no money for rent.

Recently, Chairman of Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Phan Van Mai said it would build one million affordable houses to replace old apartments, houses on canals and boarding houses for workers and low-income residents.

Mai encouraged workers to return to contribute to the construction and development of the city and admits that investment in their care could be better.

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