Migrant workers stranded in HCMC fear financial ruin amid extended social distancing

By Dinh Van, Ha An   August 17, 2021 | 08:20 pm PT
Unable to return home, many migrant workers remain stuck in HCMC, fearing financial instability due to prolonged social distancing.

Two months after losing his job, with no money to pay rent and living off food aid, Huynh Van Son, 50, and his wife decided to drive nearly 700 kilometers back to their hometown in central Binh Dinh Province.

On the evening of Aug. 15, the couple ended up moving back to their musty 15-square-meter room, which costs them VND1.5 million ($65.61) a month, located in Binh Hung Hoa A Ward, Binh Tan District, after a failed return journey.

Huynh Van Son and his wife eats instant noodles back at their rented room inn in Binh Tan District, HCMC, after their failed trip to their hometown on August 15, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

Huynh Van Son and his wife eat instant noodles in their rented room in Binh Tan District, HCMC, after their failed return journey to their hometown on Aug.15, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

He and his wife were among nearly 800 motorcyclists who spontaneously returned to their hometown but were stopped by authorities in Thu Duc City, District 12 and Binh Tan, who told them to return to their residences.

Son’s first two children are already married. But due to economy hardships, he and his wife had left their hometown for HCMC to support their youngest child. Son worked in construction for a subcontractor with a daily income of VND450,000. His wife mixed slurry and carried bricks at a salary two-thirds of his own.

In early June, when HCMC imposed social distancing, all construction was suspended. The now unemployed couple’s saving had run out after only a month, forcing them to borrow cash to buy food and pay rent. But this was only enough to help them last until the end of July.

Son has since been reliant on food donations to get by. Since the couple failed to registered for temporary residence and only took on freelance work, they did not qualify for Covid relief aid.

One day before HCMC officials decided to extend social distancing measures until Sept. 15, Son learned that group of people would head back to their hometowns the following day.

That night, the couple waited until 5 a.m. before heading for the intersection of Phan Van Hon and Hanoi Highway in District 12. When the sun had finally risen, hundreds of people on motorbikes loaded with their belongings had gathered at the meeting point. However, before the crowd could embark, police ordered everyone to disperse back to their places of residence.

People living in HCMC and neighboring provinces driving motorbikes to their hometown could cause health and safety concerns amid the raging pandemic.

On Monday, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh asked provinces and cities implementing social distancing to not let people go back to their hometowns on their own.

Provinces must stop welcoming people returning to their hometowns on motorbikes, he said. They should also pick up people returning by planes, trains, or cars, he added.

"Now, I am stuck here. I don't know what to eat in the upcoming months," Son lamented.

Police at a checkpoint near Suoi Tien Park on the Hanoi Highway block people trying to rush back to their hometowns on August 15, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Police at a checkpoint near Suoi Tien Park along Hanoi Highway block people trying to rush back to their hometowns on Aug.15, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Half a year prior, facing difficult circumstances, Do Viet Sau left his hometown in south central Binh Thuan Province to work as a construction site guard in HCMC’s District 3, with a salary of VND6 million per month.

But for the past three months, his work has been suspended due to Covid resurgence. When everyone left the site, he stayed behind in a makeshift shack.

"I can only take refuge in my hometown," he said, explaining he was willing to walk the 200-kilometer distance and sleep on the street if needs be.

However, stopped by police en route, he was offered a shared room of about 12 square meters by the People's Committee of Long Binh Ward, Thu Duc City. The trio intend to eventually make their way back to northern Thanh Hoa Province.

According to Pham Ngoc Luong, chairman of Long Binh Ward, the group is in dire need and qualified for temporary accommodation, food and VND500,000 each.

In a similar plight, 20-year-old Le Thi Quynh and her husband had just been paid a month’s worth of rent by the People's Committee of Binh Hung Hoa B Ward to survive this trying time.

Two days earlier, the couple had borrowed money to fill a five-liter plastic tank with gasoline, strapped all their belongings onto their motorbike and prepared to go back to their hometown of Quang Tri, more than 1,100 kilometers from HCMC, with their three-year-old son. But they too were later stopped by police.

With no money nor jobs , the two only ate once a day to save money.

"We usually sleep until 2 p.m., then wake up to cook and have our first meal of the day. Some nights when we get too hungry, we will have some instant noodles before going to bed," she commented.

Le Thi Quynh and her husband return to their 10-square-meter rented room. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

Le Thi Quynh and her husband back in their 10-square-meter rented room. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van

Nguyen Van Duc, vice chairman of Binh Hung Hoa B Ward, said that besides Quynh and her husband, about a dozen people in the locality also returned to their hometown by motorbike. The government has urged landlords to reduce rent and helped paying for some if they do not agree.

"We will provide food to the needy for a month," Duc confirmed.

According to Le Van Bay, chairman of the Fatherland Front Committee of Binh Tan District, the locality has more than 350,000 workers living in more than 100,000 rented rooms. Since the end of July, the agency has coordinated with provinces to organize controlled return trips for workers to their hometowns.

District 12, among the localities with the most laborers in HCMC, has mobilized more than 60,000 landlords to reduce rent to keep nearly 180,000 workers.

This is not the first time people living in HCMC have driven motorbikes back to their hometowns by themselves during the fourth outbreak starting late April. More than 20 days ago, many groups had tried to reach their hometowns, straining pandemic control measures.

During the fourth outbreak, the city has implemented two support packages for people in need.

The first, worth VND886 billion, was disbursed at the end of June, with 311,000 informal workers getting VND1.5 million each.

The second was recently approved and is worth VND905 billion, which the city plans to distribute to 344,000 informal workers, handing each VND1.5 million.

HCMC, Vietnam's economic powerhouse, has become the epicenter of the fourth coronavirus wave that struck the nation in late April. It has recorded 156,186 local cases so far, the highest in the country.

The southern metropolis has imposed multiple consecutive social distancing orders, with the latest one to be extended for a month starting Aug. 15.

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