Da Nang ethnic minority workers caught between a rock and a hard place

By Hoang Phuong   August 11, 2020 | 11:17 pm PT
Many ethnic Co Tu workers in pandemic-hit Da Nang are in a quandary: should they quit their jobs and return home where they will earn little?

Alang Den, a 19-year-old Co Tu, said the question whether he should give up his job as a manual worker in the central city and head back to his hometown in the neighboring province of Quang Nam has been stuck in his head for many days now.

Nearly 500 workers from Quang Nam's Tay Giang District returned home before Da Nang began a semi-lockdown on July 28 after finding 15 people with Covid-19 within three days.

Many of Alang Den's friends rode their motorbikes overnight to the countryside and later texted him, urging him to "come home."

He works as a laborer at a plastic factory in Hoa Khanh Industrial Park in Da Nang's Lien Chieu District for a salary of VND19,000 ($0.82) per hour. He came to Da Nang earlier this year after quitting school nearly a year ago.

Alang Den sits in front of his shared room after work. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

Alang Den sits in front of his shared room after work. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

Alang Den lives with two more friends from Tay Giang District on the Laos border. Nearly 40 percent of the people here are poor, which is 10 times the national average.

Their village, situated next to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, can only cultivate one rice crop once a year and mainly grows rubber trees.

The place is surrounded by forests and the closest city is 110 km away. Half the young people here who finish high school work on the fields while the rest go to Da Nang to work as laborers or in restaurants.

People coming to work in the city earn more money than they would get from rubber tapping, which is VND4,000 ($0.17) per kilogram of harvested latex, Alang Den said.

In recent years many Tay Giang rubber plantations have been unable to find workers since Co Tu youths go to Da Nang to find jobs.

Alang Den said he sent home VND2 million ($86.40) after receiving his first salary of VND4 million. His wage is more than double the average monthly income of VND1.8 million of the Tay Giang people in 2019, he said.

His parents remain in Quang Nam and go to the field "to make ends meet since they do not know what else to do make more money."

Since his brother got married and has to take care of his own family, Alang Den has been sending money home for his younger brother to study in high school in Hoi An Town.

For his family's main income earner, returning home means losing the income and potentially "taking the virus back to the village."

Before Da Nang began its semi-lockdown, he decided not to return home.

But staying there entails an increasing risk of getting infected with the number of Covid-19 cases rising day after day.

Before July 24 he had never thought "the pandemic was still lingering in Vietnam and would spread at this rapid rate."

Vietnam has had 405 Covid-19 cases in 14 cities and provinces since local transmission resurfaced late last month, all of them linked to Da Nang. There have been 17 deaths as of Wednesday morning.

On the road behind his company is a row of foreign-owned factories. One of them was shut on July 31 after a woman worker tested positive for the coronavirus. As a result, he was among 300 workers in his company who had to stop working and be quarantined.

Many industrial zones have gone back to preventive measures while keeping production going.

There is a proposal to keep 77,000 workers who had come into contact with infected people off work and in home quarantine for 14 days.

But Dinh Thi Thu Ha, vice president of the Da Nang Confederation of Labor, said that would be impossible since it would "bankrupt many businesses" while the workers would have "no salary to live on and many might lose long-term jobs."

Within a period of 16 days 15 workers and managers in four Da Nang industrial zones were infected with Covid-19.

Alang Den feared he "could become the next victim." He went back to his habit of wearing a mask at work, and feels a bit safer by wearing two though that makes it hard for him to breathe while loading goods from the warehouse on trucks.

"I can't breathe, but I must try to breathe."

After every shipment, he sits in the warehouse waiting for the next one, barely talking to his 20 colleagues.

Alang Dens roomate using his smartphone. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

A roommate of Alang Den. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

He has stopped going to the market since July 31, the day when Da Nang announced 45 more infections. That night all three young men ate instant noodles and went to bed.

The six people in his department would always sit and eat together when the company was still providing lunch. Now they sit by themselves, at least two meters apart. Some eat noodles while some eat leftover rice to have the energy for the evening shift.

Their only defenses now are masks, sanitizers and not interacting with each other. But Alang Thuoc believes this may not be enough if a possible patient still in the coronavirus’ incubation period sits in a room with hundreds of workers less than a meter apart to paint iron bars.

Alang Thuoc has been in this factory since February, and earns more than Alang Den since he gets paid an additional VND100,000 ($4.33) for working an extra hour after each shift.

He too sends half his salary home.

The world of Co Tu blue-collar workers during the pandemic centers around their companies and shared rooms. After dinner everyone would fiddle with their phones, sit outside the house to catch some breeze and then go to bed.

Everyday they go online to read the latest news about the pandemic.

Alang Den continues to take two packs of instant noodles to work or buys sticky rice near his workplace for VND10,000 to eat for both breakfast and lunch until the pandemic is under control and his company provides lunch again.

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