Delayed salary payouts have the Covid-19 unemployed in a fix

By Hoang Phuong, Thanh Lam   July 16, 2020 | 05:08 pm PT
Khon and his partner took a bus back to Bac Ninh where, after losing their jobs, they hoped to receive their promised salaries, but to no avail.

Working at a South Korean firm manufacturing lighting equipment in northern Bac Ninh Province’s Dai Dong Industrial Zone, Cam Ba Khon, 27, and partner Lu Thi Phong, 23, lost their jobs on May 5, four days after Labor Day.

At 3 p.m. the same day, Khon saw several security guards, bank representatives and police enter the giant factory, telling staff to immediately halt operations and leave, before securing all equipment.

Under the scorching sun, hundreds of workers left the facility, some crying on the shoulders of their colleagues. Khon later learned his "South Korean boss had come to collect his computer and other stuff at 11 p.m. last Sunday."

A total 300 employees had lost their jobs.

Bac Ninh hosts over 1,100 companies at 10 industrial zones, drawing 74 percent of its 300,000 workforce from 18 provinces nationwide.

Khon and Phong in front of their rental studio. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Phuong.

Khon and Phong in front of their rental studio. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Phuong.

Nearly 50,000 have been directly hit by the ongoing pandemic, with around 5,000 staying home without having received a single penny after their employers were forced to close down, or reduce their working hours and salaries, according to the provincial Labor Federation.

By late June, the national statistics were even worse: 30.8 million workers had been severely affected by the pandemic, with 900,000 having lost their jobs. The number is said to rise by the end of the year.

Low skilled workers like Khon and his partner are the most vulnerable, facing the highest unemployment rates.

After finishing his high school education, Khon, a Thai native from central Thanh Hoa Province, had few choices. Leaving his hometown, 80 percent covered by forest, he settled down in northern Bac Ninh Province in November 2016.

Two years later, the 21-year-old Phong sent their 20-month-old son to Khon’s parents to work alongside him at the factory.

The couple woke up at 7 a.m. each day and walked two kilometers across paddy fields to work, where the would spend 12 hours before returning home at 8 p.m.

Like the majority of Vietnamese, Khon and Phong chose to work over time, "the only way to earn more" and save the money they spent on meals. The rat race lasted three years til Khon was promoted to team leader in late 2019.

Several months after, they had no money for rent.

The last time they had received their salaries was on April 10, totaling VND25 million ($1,084) after an industrious month.

They spent VND1.4 million ($60.7) on their rental studio, VND1 million ($43.4) on their son’s kindergarten,VND3 million ($130) on their mother, hospitalized for an ovarian cyst, and the rest on bank debt.

Their newly-built house back home remained unfinished, costing a total VND700 million ($30,374), half of which drawn from their savings after four years of work.

Khon wears the necklace her parents had given her. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Phuong.

Khon wears the necklace her parents had given her. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Phuong.

When the company failed to reopen, the couple returned to their hometown in mid-June to cultivate a 2,880-meter-square field and clear a hill.

Instead of working overnight at the factory, they stayed awake overseeing hired hands to pump water into their dry paddy fields, paying VND200,000 ($8.68) for each 360 square meters.

"I lost almost VND3 million ($130) after working on the farm for less than a week," Khon said.

They returned to Bac Ninh Provine on the night of July 7. On their journey of hope, they brought along rice, dried fish and bamboo shoots. Already missing her son, Phong could not stop herself from crying.

Whenever she came home, she always bought him new clothes. But this time, all she could afford was candy.

"Seeing other children in new clothes made me feel sorry for him," Phong said, adding she has given up on the idea of having another child amid future uncertainties.

At their studio, Phong and her friend visited a local market where they spent VND5,000 ($0.22) on a bunch of vegetables, and VND30,000 ($1.3) on meat. Between two rental studios, four workers spend VND35,000 ($1.52) in total on lunch while awaiting new opportunities.

In the last three months, Khon and Phong have asked their landlord to defer the monthly payment. Some nights, Phong even considers selling her necklace, formerly part of her parent's dowry, but usually gives up on the idea.

Every day, the couple visits the factory, yearning for some good news.

Eight kilometers away, pregnant Nguyen Thi Hoa's phone seldomly stops ringing.

"You knew and you didn't tell me, now you have to deal with my insurance," a caller told her.

"You are a company employee, you have the responsibility to pay me," another insisted.

Hoa, six months into pregnancy, struggled to hold back her tears.

Early 2017, six months after the company was founded, Hoa was recruited as an accountant, taking responsibility for salaries, insurance and other workers’ union activities.

While most factory employees are migrants, Hoa considers herself lucky since Bac Ninh is her hometown,

"In April, after staff had worked overtime over four Sundays, I asked my boss whether it was too much. He said it was inevitable since investors were pushing," Hoa recalled, adding there were no abnormal signs at the time.

Confident, she thought she would be the first to know should something go south.

Right until the bank arrived to confiscate the property, leaving the former accountant reeling.

The last time she had received her VND10 million ($431) salary was April 4. Her husband, employed in the construction industry and earning the same, tried to be optimistic by telling Hoa she had been given early maternal leave, which is good for their baby.

Hoa’s colleague, Tran Huu Quyen, 21, a former quality manager, has followed his friends to work as an air-conditioner tech. The breadwinner has to care for two children and his pregnant wife, saying the only thing he has left is optimism.

Four days after the company shut down, the finance director sent a letter to tell employees "maybe the South Korean side would be stable, so April’s salaries could be paid."

On May 11, over 300 workers were happily waiting outside the company’s gates to receive their money.

But no employer showed up.

Four other letters were sent, confirming salaries would be postponed. The last letter arrived on May 30. Since then, company representatives have been unresponsive.

Quyen has given up on waiting, selflessly deciding instead to offer his support to other down-and-out employees unable to cope with rent, etc.

On May 28, the provincial worker federation gave each employee VND500,000 ($21.7).

Workers like Quyen, Khon and Phong know there is no way they will receive their salaries, waiting instead on insurance since the company has yet to go bankrupt.

However, also "on hold", and even if they found new jobs, their new employers could not process their insurance.

Khon and Phong have prepared their application anyway, and are "waiting for new developments".

"My name is Khon (which means smart), but why is my life so miserable," he commented.

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