Urbanites go through dark days amid job losses

By Minh Trang   September 26, 2021 | 08:26 pm PT
It has been three months since Le Phuong Anh touched her flight attendant’s uniform since Covid-19 has grounded all flights.

The 27-year-old had never thought she would be unemployed. In previous years she worked 80-100 hours a month. In 2020 it was 20 hours. Now things have screeched to a complete halt.

Three months without flying means three months without a salary which is calculated based on her actual working hours. Since last year the wage per flight hour has also decreased.

To remain in Hanoi, she had to ask her landlord to reduce the rent by 30 percent. From "spending without thinking", she now only dares to buy discount items, even essentials.

During the hot summer in the capital city, instead of turning on the air conditioner all day, she only turns it on for 30 minutes, worried about the electricity bill.

"Fortunately, my family recently told me there is no need to send money home; so the financial pressure has eased a bit," she says.

"During this epidemic, millions of people are facing difficulties like me."

Pham Huy Anh, waiter at a restaurant in Hanoi, lost his job after his restaurant was only allowed to sell takeout and delivery. Photo courtesy of Pham Huy Anh

Pham Huy Anh, waiter at a restaurant in Hanoi, lost his job after his restaurant was only allowed to sell takeout and delivery. Photo courtesy of Pham Huy Anh

Across the country, nearly 13 million workers were affected by the pandemic in the second quarter of this year, up 41 percent from the first, the General Statistics Office estimated.

Globally too the labor and employment picture is grim. In January the International Labor Organization reported that the number of people losing their jobs was 114 million, an "unprecedented" high.

Some 8.8 percent of working hours were lost in 2020 relative to the fourth quarter of 2019, the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs, it said.

In Vietnam, urban workers seem to have been hit harder than their rural counterparts, with 21.9 percent in cities reporting negative impacts against 14.3 percent in rural areas.

The services sector is the hardest hit, including sectors requiring unique skill sets like Phuong’s.

In Ho Chi Minh City’s Nha Be District, Tran Huy and his wife Le Thu Huyen, members of the urban middle class, had thought they would get through the pandemic easily until they lost their jobs.

Huy, 40, head of human resources at a garment company, has been jobless since June, and his income has been next to zero.

Huyen with her teaching job became the family’s breadwinner, but her incomes are also "shrinking severely."

She used to be a Chinese teacher in northern Hai Phong City and has been teaching remotely since moving to HCMC two years ago.

With incomes shrinking, many people are no longer able to pay for language courses. Besides many teachers are offering classes at lower fees.

Huyen estimates their income has decreased by 70 percent compared to before the pandemic.

If the situation continues for much longer, they will have to spend the money they have kept aside for their infertility treatment, she fears.

A quick survey done by the Private Economic Development Research Board (IV Board) and VnExpress in early August of nearly 70,000 people found only 45 percent fully retained their incomes, while nearly 19 percent had lost half and 4.5 percent had lost 80 percent.

The dwindling incomes are also affecting 15-24-year-olds’ opportunity to improve their skills and knowledge.

"This is a very vulnerable group, which would find it difficult to recover from Covid-19," Bach Ngoc Thang, economics lecturer at the Institute of Sustainable Development, National Economics University, Hanoi, says.

Phan Huy Anh, 22, used to be a waiter at a restaurant in Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan District. He had intended to work for a few years before saving enough money to go to college. But since April restaurants were only allowed to sell takeout and delivery.

"They did not need waiters any more, and I had to quit."

Anh says his plan to study hotel and restaurant management has been "shattered."

Young people need up to five years after graduating to settle down, but Covid is going to make be longer and this could easily discourage them, Thang says.

Many erstwhile employees have to rely on support from their families, companies, charity organizations, and the government.

Duy Anh makes baguettes at home. Photo courtesy of Duy Anh

Duy Anh makes baguettes at home. Photo courtesy of Duy Anh

Phuong Anh's airline pays its employees VND800,000 ($35) every three months. For those who do not have families like Huy Anh or get no support from employers like Huyen and her husband, the government’s relief package could be a lifeline.

Since last year, even though they have registered many times, they have not received any money from the government’s two relief packages.

Their wish is "to go back to work", but they have no idea when that is going to be.

Thang says the labor market recovery will depend on several factors such as the pandemic situation, vaccination and how the country adapts to the new normal.

It is worth noting that the job market will change, he says.

"The market may shift to technology-based employment. Besides, trends like self-employment and working from home will also emerge."

In his book, ‘The Future After COVID’, Jason Schenker, chairman of The Futurist Institute in the U.S, says people will prefer jobs in essential sectors such as healthcare and supply chains and remote jobs.

Huy Anh and Phuong Anh have been exploring new opportunities to survive.

A month ago Huy Anh turned his hobby of reading tarot cards into a job with online clients, earning around VND2 million a month.

Phuong Anh has just applied for a part-time job at a mini supermarket near her apartment. She says, "the income is not high, but I am okay with it".

Occasional silver lining

The pandemic has also brought sudden new opportunities for some people like Pham Duc Duy and his wife Au Thuy Duong of Hanoi’s Long Bien District.

They had been running a wedding dress store, but had to shut it down in late 2020 since they had little business. Duy then helped a friend at his bakery and learned how to make bread.

In early 2021 the couple opened an online bakery, but within two weeks the pandemic resurged. For the next four months they earned "just enough to pay electricity bills".

The turning point came in August when they came up with the idea of making frozen baguettes. Customers only needed to bake them for 5-10 minutes at home, and five pieces of bread cost VND20,000.

"On the first day we sold 400 breads, many could not be delivered due to a shortage of delivery workers," Duong says.

During recent months, they sold 700 pieces a day and earned millions of dong. The couple stand in the kitchen 15 hours a day, but even that is not enough to meet the huge demand.

Now hopeful, Duong and Duy plan to make more types of breads and supply supermarkets.

"We are still learning, but we will move forward anyway," Duong says.

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