Hanoi overlooks street vendors in Covid-19 incentive

By Lan Phuong, Tat Dinh   June 23, 2020 | 03:59 am PT
Hanoi overlooks street vendors in Covid-19 incentive
Delivery men are considered a beneficiary of the government's Covid-19 aid package. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.
Many migrant workers in Hanoi have found themselves further struck by the pandemic-induced economic fallout as lack of legislation prevents access to official aid.

Last Thursday morning, Tran Thi Thu brought a stack of documents to the office of Vinh Tuy Ward authorities in Hanoi's Hai Ba Trung District to prove she is working as a street vendor alongside her brothers.

The siblings speculate they would not receive support from the ward office but from the administration in their hometown in the northern Ha Nam Province instead.

If their applications are approved, they would receive a million dong ($43) per month for three months, classified as workers with no formal contracts.

In 2003, Thu migrated to Hanoi to become a street vendor at the age of 21.

She made a living by selling snacks like coconut and barbecued skewers on a cart on different streets, at markets and near schools.

After a while, Thu and her husband rented a a room close to Vinh Tuy Preschool and set up plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk where they sell snacks to students.

On full moon days and during the first lunar month, she would buy flowers to sell for additional income as people traditionally offer these to their ancestors.

For nearly 20 years, it has become habitual for Thu, like any street vendors in the city, to quickly grab her belongings whenever authorities draw near for fear of having them confiscated as it is illegal to commercialize public sidewalks.

When Vietnam launched its social distancing campaign in order to curb the coronavirus spread on April 1, Thu and her husband put away their cart and stayed home for almost a month.

On the first week of April, she heard from other street peddlers and motorbike taxi drivers that she could benefit from a government’s support package.

In early April, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc announced a VND62 trillion ($2.6 billion) support package to succor around 20 million poor people and small businesses affected by the pandemic.

The leader of the neighborhood where the couple lives in Vinh Tuy Ward put Thu on the list.

Thu replied to whatever the official asked to facilitate the listing and did not pay attention to what was written about her case.

"It is good if I get the aid, and it’s ok if I don’t. I’m used to being miserable," Thu said.

A week ago, her mother who lives in her hometown called her to say the family was also applying for government aid.

Thu said she would prefer applying for the aid in Hanoi for convenience’s sake.

But before she could apply for the aid, Thu was informed by local authorities she was disqualified because she had encroached on the sidewalk and violated the urban civil order that prohibits peddlers from selling goods on the streets, holding no business license.

Despite the notice, the neighborhood leader told her to proceed with her application and see if ward authorities could provide her with aid after they sought approval from higher up.

Residents in Thu’s neighborhood said there is no way workers who peddle on the street could obtain business licenses, and that ward officials would be held responsible if they provide aid to applicants without the required documents.

Thu is one of thousands who have not received financial aid because Vietnam’s regulations provide no guidelines for local officials to address freelance workers.

A flower peddler bikes on a Hanoi street during Vietnams national social distancing campaign, April 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

A flower peddler bikes along Dinh Liet Street in Hanoi during Vietnam's national social distancing campaign, April 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

There are over 60,000 residents in Vinh Tuy Ward, which is the most populated area in Hai Ba Trung District. The ward, at the southern gateway of Hanoi, is undergoing urbanization and has been populated by many migrant workers like Thu and her husband.

The 58-year-old Nguyen Thi Hoan, a neighborhood leader in Vinh Tuy recalled how thrilled and appreciative residents were when they first learnt about the government’s aid package.

The first survey in Hoan’s neighborhood found 298 beneficiaries, now shrunk to only eight qualified applicants.

As of April 19, Vinh Tuy Ward identified 4,000 underprivileged workers who need aid, with only 47 proving eligible. Of these, half are motorbike taxi drivers and the rest street vendors holding business registration and food safety certification.

The package targets six categories of individuals and businesses.

Those having lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 crisis for 14 days or more would get a monthly allowance of VND1.8 million ($77). Part-time workers who are unemployed but have not received unemployment benefits would get a monthly allowance of VND1 million ($43).

Poor and near-poor households would receive VND250,000 ($11) per month while those with a record of meritorious services to the nation would get VND500,000 per month.

Household businesses with revenues below VND100 million ($4,300) a year who’ve had to suspend operations from April 1 due to the Covid-19 pandemic would also be supported with VND1 million per month.

Local officials said it has been a "headache" to determine the incomes and nature of work of applicants. The accuracy of information is entirely at the mercy of the applicants’ honesty, they noted.

It is easy for them to review the qualification of a particular applicant if he or she is a permanent resident, officials said.

However, there are motorbike drivers who reside in Vinh Tuy but work in another district so they would need verification from district police, which takes time.

The regulation stipulates ward officials must review applications and publicly inform people about approved applications within two days of receipt. They can only submit applications for aid approval at district level.

"The scariest thing is missing out those who are in need of support," Hoan said.

Residents in Hoan’s neighborhood have complained that travel expenses are costly if they have to return to their hometown to apply for aid, which is not worth the effort.

Hoan said many think ward officials make it difficult for residents to claim aid but that verification is imperative to prevent beneficiaries from claiming aid in both their places of residence and origin.

Depending on locality, one could claim aid in one’s place of origin if one has not already done so in one’s place of residence.

Ngo Van Anh, vice chairman of Nga Tu So Ward in Dong Da District, shares Hoan’s concerns.

Anh said she has disqualified applicants who sell things on the streets and sidewalks for a living because they have violated the urban civil order.

"The common problem is everyone think they are beneficiaries," Anh said.

The official said the package was rolled out timely, but guiding documents needed to enable it were issued slower than expected, causing the entire process of verification and approval to drag out.

Hanoi residents have been informed they would receive aid in April, which proved false.

"People have come to the ward office saying the aid process is easy, asking why we make it difficult for them. They do not understand we are also facing a lot of problems," Anh said.

Nguyen Dinh Tien, head of the Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs Department of Dong Da District, said he has heard residents complain about officials at different levels regarding the handling of the pandemic aid.

Only 14,970 applicants qualified for aid in Dong Da District as of June 15, down from the initial total of 35,000.

After another layer of verification, this number now stands at hundreds.

Dong Da District authorities said the shortage of personnel to handle aid distribution has caused the slow approval of applications.

As of mid-June, Hanoi, with an official population of eight million, has more than 1,000 beneficiaries.

Nguyen Hong Dan, deputy director of the Hanoi Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, said the slow progress in handing out the aid is mainly due to the difficulty of verifying workers who do not have a formal contract.

He said the ultimate goal is to support the right people and not to take advantage of the package, adding his department would report the issues to city authorities and propose solutions.

"It is embarrassing to say that support will be given on time while many people have not received the aid," he said.

Meanwhile, Thu, the street vendor in Vinh Tuy Ward, is yet to apply for aid again. She's not keen on doing it anytime soon.

She again runs her preschool food stall each morning after Vietnam eased social distancing in late April.

With customers often scarce, she and her husband often push their food cart around Hanoi to earn a living.

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