Livelihoods gone, Hanoi’s migrant workers bear the brunt of lockdown woes

By Hong Chieu   August 11, 2021 | 01:59 am PT
When Do Thi Tho was about to go out of her house, her neighbors asked her to keep an eye out for people giving out free meals.

The most courageous woman in the neighborhood, which has a large number of rooms with people from the countryside who moved to Hanoi to work as restaurant helpers or scrap collectors and do other menial jobs, is trusted by everyone to find free food these days.

She stood at the entrance to Alley 79, Duong Quang Ham, in Cau Giay District to see if there were any benefactors handing out food to ask for five servings.

Do Thi Tho, a migrant worker, says she hasnt been able to earn any income for half a month now. Photo by VnExpress/Hong Chieu.

Do Thi Tho, a migrant worker, says she has not been able to earn an income for half a month now. Photo by VnExpress/Hong Chieu.

Under a banyan tree is a wooden table where donors often place free food for people to take. But on that day there were none, and she went back empty-handed.

Neighborhoods were migrant workers like Tho and others live are often hidden deep inside labyrinthine alleys under the shadows of tall buildings across Cau Giay, Dong Da and other districts.

No authoritative statistics are available, but according to the 2015 National Internal Migration Survey, migrants account for 16.3 percent of the population aged 15 to 59 in Hanoi.

Most of them do manual work with many having almost no savings or social insurance. Now, with the capital enforcing stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of Covid-19, their incomes have evaporated.

The woman from the northern Thanh Hoa Province has been in Hanoi for nearly 10 years. Before the pandemic, Tho washed dishes and cleaned tables for restaurants around Cau Giay District by the hour, earning around VND4 million ($174.3) a month. After work, she would head off to rubbish dumps to collect scrap to earn a little bit more.

She rents a room less than 10 square meters in size, enough for a bed, a table and toilet, and shares a washing machine with others.

She pays around VND1.3 million a month for this, and used to send money back home for her husband to treat a herniated disc and take care of their two children. She only visited home a few times a year.

At the beginning of May, the restaurant owner told her she no longer needed to come for work. This was when Hanoi closed down restaurants after recording three Covid cases.

Two months later, with a raging outbreak, the city ordered people to shelter in place for 15 days starting July 24. Many businesses closed, people could only go out for things like buying food or medicines, and Tho has had no way to earn any money.

In the next room, On Thi Hong Tham of Tuyen Quang Province was cooking lunch of amaranth soup and rice. She had bought the vegetable for VND5,000, and kept it for the entire day.

She is not worried about going hungry yet since she still has a few kilograms of rice left, but nevertheless has to eat sparingly.

Sometimes she would go to the market to buy a baguette for VND8,000 and eat it little by little to keep hunger pangs at bay through the day.

"Even though I am not able to earn any money, I still have to eat," Tham said.

Over 18 years in the capital, she has worked as a maid by the hour, moving from one house to another from morning to night.

She did not talk about her income, but merely said "she is raising a child whom she has sent to his grandparents in the countryside." Sometimes when she misses him, she takes a bus to Tuyen Quang to visit him.

In April, when Hanoi was under a semi-lockdown, people like Tho and Tham went to get free rice and instant noodles from charity food ‘ATMs’. But now they are afraid to go out since the new strain is said to be highly contagious and they fear they might be fined by authorities.

Hanoi has recorded 2,180 local Covid-19 cases so far, including those contained within locked down locations, in the fourth coronavirus wave that struck Vietnam in late April.

In her boarding room, On Thi Hong Tham prepares lunch with amaranth, August 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Hong Chieu.

In her small home, On Thi Hong Tham prepares lunch of amaranth and rice in early August. Photo by VnExpress/Hong Chieu.

They just hope Hanoi will soon end the lockdown so they can get back to work, saying they would rather stay in the capital than move back since it is easier to make a living in the big city.

Last week, Tho learned that the government would provide VND1.5 million for informal workers.

She told the entire neighborhood to put the information on a piece of paper, sign it and send it to the chief of the area. After waiting for four days she asked the person about it and was told she had sent it in the wrong form.

Self-employed workers who want to receive the government assistance money must fill in a form to confirm they will not get it at the place of their permanent residence. They must submit the paperwork to the ward and wait for around 10 days.

But Tho could not print out the application form since all photocopy shops were closed, nor could she return to her hometown to get confirmation from authorities there since train services are suspended.

So she gave up.

About 10 kilometers away in Ha Dong District, which is rapidly urbanizing and dozens of high-rise apartment buildings are springing up, construction workers are stuck in their shacks right at the sites, with the work grinding to a halt.

Behind a closed iron gate in Ha Dong's Phu La Ward, nearly 200 workers live in a row of corrugated iron shacks waiting to start construction of apartment towers.

In the afternoons women use water hoses to bathe their children, while the men sit in front of their shacks to enjoy the breeze outside.

The shack doors only open when people go to the market and every afternoon when people receive free food. They have been receiving them for half a month now thanks to Phu La Ward officials and a charity kitchen.

In each 10-square-meter shack in which three families live, Do Thi Luong divides food into bowls for dinner.

On the morning of July 24, she was wearing a face mask and sun protection cream as she and other workers were about to start work at the construction site on the opposite side of the street.

But at 6:45 a.m. the construction site managers told them to stop working, sent the workers back to their shacks, and told them to remain there.

Luong felt lucky that despite not being to earn money she and her husband have food to eat.

"The ward gives us rice and the site manager gives each shack [some] meat. There are some benefactors who give us some rice, fish sauce and salt to help us get by."

She is bored to sit in one place. Earlier she would clean up mortar and other construction materials after the construction workers finished their work, earning VND6 million a month for it.

"In the countryside you will not be able to earn so much money," she said.

She had urged her husband, Nguyen Xuan Loc, to move from Nghe An to the capital to work with her here. They leased out their farmlands, keeping only two plots to grow rice, and sent their two children to their grandparents.

Laborers bring free meals back to their rooms, August 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Hong Chieu.

Construction workers bring free meals back to their rooms in early August. Photo by VnExpress/Hong Chieu.

Sitting cross-legged, Dao Van Vuong waits for the day Hanoi will lift the semi-lockdown so that he can resume working. He wants to earn money to repay the salary advance he had taken. At the end of July the 29-year-old had asked his boss for nearly VND10 million to give his wife and two daughters living in Vinh Phuc Province.

On May 28, when the epidemic was controlled in his hometown, Vuong left for Hanoi to work as a construction worker. But he did not expect the epidemic to become even more virulent. He now has to remain idle for 15 days and is afraid his boss would be annoyed if he asks for another advance.

The lives of hundreds of young men roaming around the construction sites like Vuong are now centered on killing time by drinking tea, smoking tobacco or surfing social media.

Nguyen Viet Dung, head of the project construction safety committee, has been helping out nearly 200 workers during the past half month. He said local officials distribute coupons to go to the market every three days, and so someone goes to the market to buy groceries and others cook for the dozens of people living here.

"I just hope the social distancing measure will end soon. Sitting in one place makes us feel uneasy since people here want to work and earn money, and not just rely on other people to help out."

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