With shattered dreams, migrant workers risk it all

By Phan Duong   September 26, 2021 | 04:39 pm PT
Luan and seven others from Ha Tinh got into two cars one night to leave Dong Nai, the fourth time they were trying to flee the coronavirus hotspot.

Luan passed a Covid-19 checkpoint, but his friends were stopped and told to go back.

His group then headed to the coastal Binh Thuan Province, but was stopped at another checkpoint and told to return to Dong Nai.

Not giving up, on Sept. 12, the group gathered at Big C Supermarket in Dong Nai to travel to Dau Giay Bus Station, where they met seven people from the central provinces of Quang Tri and Nghe An, and decided to hire a refrigerated truck to take them home.

That night, when the Binh Thuan police found them on the truck, many were struggling to breathe.

Two women in Luans group sit in their quarantine facity in Ha Tinh. Photo by VnExpress/Luan Nguyen

Two women in Luan's group sit in their quarantine facity in Ha Tinh. Photo by VnExpress/Luan Nguyen

In a report in April 2020 titled ‘Contagion or starvation, the dilemma facing informal workers during the Covi-19 pandemic’, the International Labor Organization said around 1.6 billion of the world's two billion informal economy workers were affected by lockdown and containment measures.

"Most are working in the hardest-hit sectors or in small units more vulnerable to shocks."

According to Nguyen Duc Loc, director of the Social Life Research Institute, the fact that migrant workers got on a refrigerated truck to go home showed they had been perilously stranded.

Their resistance to the prolonged outbreak has been shrinking, while their families are worried, Loc said.

A survey in June by the institute showed that nearly 60 percent of migrant workers had to cut their expenses to survive the pandemic, nearly 30 percent used their savings and 13 percent had to borrow money.

The outbreak has deprived Luan of his construction worker’s job since July. Despite their loss of livelihood, each member of his group still had to spend more than VND1 million ($44) a month on accommodation and food. Without an income, they ate instant noodles before receiving their July salaries.

Since early July thousands of migrant workers have left southern provinces and cities by motorbikes and bicycles and even on foot. Returning home meant lower expenses and support from family and friends.

When Luan's group received their salaries in July, returning home had become difficult because many localities have imposed stringent lockdowns to contain the spreading virus.

On Jul. 30, they moved to an acquaintance's house in Binh Duong's Thu Dau Mot Town, where they could ask for some food.

"We moved also because it closer to National Road 1A, improving our chances of going home," Luan said.

On the night of Aug. 15 they hired a car to take them to National Road 1A, but within 20 km they were stopped and told to return.

They desperately contacted many charitable organizations to ask for bus tickets to go home.

But the process was complicated, requiring them and their family members to register with local authorities.

The fourth time they decided to take a risk. They asked their families to send VND5.5 million each to rent a car and a few more millions to quarantine if they managed to reach home.

Luan was among 230,000 migrant workers in HCMC. Typically, employers find cheap labor like him alluring, but they were deemed a social 'burden' when the pandemic broke out.

When they were forced to leave, some criticized them for "not following preventive measures and taking the virus home.

When Luan and his friend stepped foot in their hometown, someone said, "you guys make us miserable."

"My heart ached," Luan said.

A large crowd of migrants gathers at a checkpoint near HCMCs Suoi Tien Park on the Hanoi Highway to return to their hometowns, Aug. 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An

A large crowd of migrants gathers at a checkpoint near HCMC's Suoi Tien Park on the Hanoi Highway to return to their hometowns, Aug. 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An

Many people who could not get support from their families unlike Luan and his friends opted to stay back and survive the hardship in impoverished conditions.

In a neighborhood in Binh Tri Dong B Ward in Saigon's Binh Tan District, 18 people rented hammocks at a so-called "hammock motel", but only 10 could pay the daily rent of VND20,000.

More than 60 others, having no money to pay for a hammock, were shooed away. Many had to sleep under the bridge or on the street.

"Most pawned their motorbikes, ID cards and phones," Nguyen Van Hoa, owner of the hammock place said.

"Only a few had family members in their hometowns sending them money to pay the rent".

Having no money while being stranded in HCMC, many have ventured out to find food.

On the evening of Sept. 18 Nguyen Thi Ha returned to the motel after a day of sneaking out to scavenge waste.

People were sympathetic and gave her a lot of trash, which fetched VND120,000, enough to pay for six days at the hotel, she said.

The woman from the central Ha Tinh Province has raised two children after her husband died 18 years ago.

Three years ago she arrived in HCMC to work as a ragpicker and hawk goods on the streets, and has not been home for more than two years now.

The woman who suffers from heart and stomach diseases has earned next to nothing in the past three months as HCMC authorities tightened the lockdown, preventing people like her from going out to earn a living.

With no income and having to routinely ask her landlord to defer the rent, she has thought about going back to Ha Tinh but cannot afford the trip.

Ha and food she receives. In the last four months, she always shares the food she gets from Samaritans with those in need in the neighborhood. Photo by VnExpress/Hoa Nguyen

In the last four months, Ha always shares the food she gets from Samaritans with those in need in her neighborhood. Photo by VnExpress/Hoa Nguyen

Nguyen Van Son, 59, who used to work as a security guard at a clinic in Saigon's District 3, is eager to return to his hometown in the southernmost province of Ca Mau.

He said: "Since my lung disease recurred in June, I have wanted to go back. I have registered but there has not been any trip".

He could not go out to get food like some healthy people and so has relied on money sent by his family in Ca Mau.

Every day he and his friends, who are also sick, stand behind an iron fence and look out, tirelessly yearning for charitable groups to pass by.

When he sees them approaching, he rushes outside to ask for rice, bread, and vegetables.

Having food, the man, holding his chest, is out of breath.

Van, 54, who makes a living by selling lottery tickets, could not afford hammock rental before the pandemic. To Hung, from Tay Ninh, is suffering from a brain hemorrhage and herniated disc. His motorbike, his only asset, was sold to cover his treatment. The motel owner has not taken any money from them for months.

Earlier last week, HCMC had approved a VND7.3 trillion relief package, prioritizing informal workers and the disadvantaged. The city had previously distributed two relief packages and a lot of essentials to its people amid the persistent outbreak.

The city has improved procedures to make it easier and faster for workers to receive support. However, according to Loc, relief packages are not sufficient nor timely distributed, forcing migrant workers to find their way back home or face starvation.

"Supporting migrants not serves humanitarian purposes and social stability, but also ensures a labor source for the city after the pandemic," Loc said.

The expert added local governments need to show the social responsibility of hometowns to their citizens, who contribute to the development of cities and also their homes.

After a long day on Sept. 18, Ha brought back four boxes of lunch provided by soldiers. She shared them with her neighbors. In the past four months, they would have starved to death without support from each other.

In a quarantine facility in Ha Tinh, Luan and seven friends said they did not feel insecure anymore, but remained worried about those getting stranded.

When asked if he would return to the place he had risked his life to escape, Luan hesitantly replied: "It is hard to say."

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