Hitting local business, coronavirus leaves blue-collar workers in the woods

By Long Nguyen   March 3, 2020 | 04:38 pm PT
With their wallets badly hurt, city workers struggle to cope as epidemic fears spread among employers and hit their businesses.

It is Monday, but Ly Thi Sinh is not at work as usual. In her shared studio apartment in Saigon’s District 9, she is busy phoning acquaintances in search of work.

Employed by a textile firm, she was asked to take four days off amid sluggish sales and dwindling material supply from China.

"I have to find an alternative to survive in the city," Sinh said, adding she is considering working by the hour.

A worker makes a mask at a texttile company in Hanoi on February 6, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A worker makes a mask at a texttile company in Hanoi on February 6, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

From northern Thai Nguyen Province, Sinh pays VND2 million ($86) in rent, which she hopes to postpone this month.

She is among a plethora of urbanites suffering the effects of the coronavirus, which is hitting businesses hard. The Ministry of Planning and Investment estimates almost 900 local companies have ceased operations or scaled down business because of the epidemic.

In Hanoi, some hotels are letting staff go or cutting salaries as the virus slashes both tourist and revenue numbers.

Nguyen Van Hai, a night guard at a local hostel on Hang Ma Street, is one such victim. He lost his job at the end of February after the owner decided to secure his own premises.

"They have to tighten their belt and asked me if I could come back in 2-3 months when business is better," Hai said, adding he understands the owner’s decision, though he would have preferred more time to make preparations.

The financial burden is heaviest on those existing on the margins of society with few safety nets. 

Selling banh mi on To Hien Thanh Street in Saigon's District 11, 47-year-old Nguyen Thi Cham has experienced "the worst time."

"I used to sell over one hundred sandwiches a day, but now the number dropped to less than 30," she noted.

During the past four weeks, with schools and university’s closed, Cham’s regular flow of student clients have simply dried up. To adapt, the Mekong Delta native only operates her stall 7 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. "I close in the afternoon because there are no more customers."

The working class community members face social stigma from employers and colleagues if hailing from epidemic affected areas.

Visiting his hometown in Tam Canh Commune of Binh Xuyen District, northern Vinh Phuc Province, bordering locked down Son Loi Commune, Nguyen Thanh Dung was prevented from returning to work after the Tet break (from January 23-29).

"People were so scared of me, I was asked to stay at home so everyone could relax and focus on work," Dung recalled, adding he received no compensation while in isolation.

The 39-year-old eventually returned to work in Hanoi’s Gia Lam District, having lost around VND4 million ($172.3) after two weeks at home.

"I did not send money to my mom last month and hope this month will be better," he commented.

Life goes on

Though Covid-19 is currently under control in Vietnam, it still poses a severe threat to international supply chains and domestic enterprises.

According to economist Le Dang Doanh, the epidemic has hit all of Vietnam’s three biggest businesses partners, including China, South Korea and Japan.

Having little savings and salaries, many workers try to overcome the situation by tightening their belt and finding grueling jobs.

Releasing her company’s struggles could affect her wallet, Sinh started cutting down on spending. "I buy less meat, and have leftovers for breakfast," Sinh noted, saying she usually ate lunch at work, which is provided for free.

Dung adopted a similar routine, even skipping on breakfast.

While some try their best to avoid crowds or contact with strangers, others have little choice but to hit the streets in search of work because, as Hai stated, "it is still better than earning nothing."

He is now applying to work as a motorbike taxi rider.

Meanwile, Cham checks her phone each morning to see whether any acquaintances want her to clean their house in the evening.

"I have to live ‘off the land’ until the epidemic is over. At least there are jobs in Saigon," she said with a sigh. 

Vietnam has recorded a total of 16 Covid-19 patients, all of whom have recovered and been discharged from hospital. The country has reported no new infections since February 13.

Meanwhile, the lives of millions of urban workers and migrants have been disrupted for one month due to the lack of income and security.

"This epidemic leaves a worker like me with nothing but an empty wallet, but life goes on and we have to survive and overcome," said Sinh after an old friend asked to meet her at coffee shop, which she declined due to strict budgeting.

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