Covid-19 turns life miserable for Hanoi workers

By Thanh Lam, Hoang Phuong   April 23, 2020 | 06:00 pm PT
Migrant workers in Hanoi, who left their hometowns with dreams of a better life, are now partially employed or laid off due to Covid-19.

Cuong opens his rice box but there is nothing inside. He cooked some instant noodles for his children, but there was nothing for him.

For the last two weeks the 37-year-old has been jobless after his company told him to take turns with other workers. His wife is in a similar situation.

Hanoi’s Bac Thang Long Industrial Zone, the biggest industrial hub in northern Vietnam, has 65,000 workers.

According to local authorities, 20 percent of firms in the industrial zone have been hit severely by the Covid-19 pandemic in April. 

Around 50 percent have laid off a small number of workers or told them to take turns to work, affecting around 30,000 workers.

Some go into the city and look for casual jobs at construction sites. Cuong and his wife are luckier, getting 70 percent of their salaries despite the partial lay-off.

Cuong and his son in their room in April, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Cuong and his son at home. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

That means a VND6 million ($254) reduction in their income. So, this month Hong, Cuong’s wife, does not buy medicines or have her regular acupuncture session. She has osteoarthritis of the knee and varicose veins.

Cuong had an accident in January and injured his left hand. They had to borrow VND32 million ($1,354) from a bank to pay for the treatment. He returned to work with an injured finger for a month before Covid-19 struck.

Seeing his children eat only vegetables, Cuong went fishing in the Red River several times before people were told not to leave home. He repairs electronic devices for neighbors to earn some extra money.

He was born in a poor family in the central Nghe An Province and left his hometown when he was in his twenties.

He first lived in the southern province of Dong Nai before moving to Hanoi in 2009 to "look for a stable life" and stay closer to his parents in Nghe An. 

He met Hong, also from Nghe An, and married her in 2011.

The couple live in a 14-meter-square house filled with broken fans and cookers belonging to his customers. Their source of pride are their daughter’s certificates hanging on the wall. Even when used to come home at 10 p.m. after a long working day, he would never forget checking his daughter’s school books.

Both children are wonderful. Bach, four years old, rarely complains or cries. Whenever his father brings home some fish, he wants to keep the big pieces for his mother, claiming, "Daddy, I like having just rice and soup."

Cuong and his daughter receive free rice. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Cuong and his daughter collect free rice from local authorities. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Manh from Yen Bai Province and Vay from Lao Cai, who live not far from Cuong’s home, are also struggling. The couple left their home in the northern mountains and started working at a printer making factory in Hanoi last year.

"You will stay at home from tomorrow and get 70 percent of your salary," their manager told them a few days ago. Half the workers come for work and the rest stay at home waiting for further notice.

Vay is upset. She likes going to work and earns VND37,000 ($1.6)  per hour for working overtime.

"I left my children and hometown to earn money in Hanoi."

She fell in love with Manh, a builder, a decade ago and they got married two years later. Manh left his hometown and lived in Vay’s stilt house in Lao Cai until their son were born. The house had become too cramped for 11 people. 

In 2017 they borrowed VND100 million ($4,232) to build a traditional Tay stilt house. One month after the house was built their daughter was born.

After Tet (Lunar New Year) in 2019 Manh left for Hanoi, got a job and started sending VND3 million ($127) home every month. Vay followed six months later, leaving their children and an unharvested cinnamon crop behind.

After working at the Bac Thang Long Industrial Zone for a year they paid off half their debt and were hoping to reunite with their children. But then Covid-19 broke out.

Vay’s brother told her: "Stay in Hanoi; you could be quarantined if you come back." The woman, who has not seen her children for three months, cannot stop crying.

Vay (R) and her niece in front of their room. Photo by VnExoress/Thanh Hue.

Vay (R) and her niece in front of their home. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Her cheap feature phone could not make video calls and so the couple decided to buy a VND3.2-million ($135) smartphone on a six-month installment plan.

That was on the fifth day of the nationwide social distancing campaign started from April 1. They happily spoke with their children at the other end until the latter fell sleep.

This month they started renting a room together with their niece to save some more money. Their share is VND1.1 million ($46.6) per month. In that small room, only big enough to hold a closet, the couple sleep in the attic and their niece sleeps on the floor.

Last weekend Vay and her niece took their ID cards to a workers’ neighborhood nearby to get some free rice. They got four kilograms, enough for next two weeks. But when they do not go to work they eat less rice and eat instant noodles instead.

"If we do not go to work, we are not hungry; eating less is okay."

Vay’s son called the other day, asking when she would return home. She wants to give up everything in Hanoi and go back to her children, but the VND50 ($2,155) million loan will not go away.

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