Long commutes a way of life for Mekong Delta workers

By Le Tuyet   June 2, 2021 | 06:00 pm PT
Starting well before dawn and returning home well after dark is a daily experience for tens of thousands of factory workers in HCMC and Dong Nai.

These are Mekong Delta residents who have to travel more than 100 km to and fro every day to get to work and return home, and are more afraid of losing their jobs than the pandemic.

When her alarm bell rings at 4 a.m., Huynh Truc My Kha, a 41-year-old woman in Long An Province's Tan Tru District, gets up and prepares to go to work.

Her place of work – the Pouyen Vietnam Co. Ltd., is 70 km away.

After packing a bowl of leftover rice and some fried snakehead fish to have as breakfast at the company, she puts on a face mask and walks for some time to get to where she will be picked up by the company bus. This has been a daily routine for 13 of the 20 years that she has worked for the Taiwanese shoemaker.

Huynh Truc My Kha inside the canteen of Pouyuen Vietnam Co., Ltd. at the Tan Tao Industrial Park in Binh Tan converge on Highway 1. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tuyet.

Huynh Truc My Kha at the canteen of Pouyuen Vietnam Co., Ltd., Tan Tao Industrial Park in Binh Tan District, HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tuyet.

"When I first submitted my application, I thought I will only work here for a few years to earn some money to help my parents raise my two younger siblings. Who knew I would be around until now," Kha said, adding that she used to live in a boarding house near the factory earlier.

After six years of working for the company, Kha married a fellow worker and moved to Tan Tru District in Long An. In 2007, this route did not have a shuttle bus so every day, the couple took turns driving each other to work.

About a year later, when the company started a shuttle bus service to pick up and drop workers, the couple decided to park their motorbike by the pick-up spot on Highway 1.

But four years ago, her husband passed away after a stroke. Since the daily commute is long, she considered quitting her job many times. But she has two young children and her parents-in-law in their 70s who depend on her. The five-members of her family have no other source of income than her monthly salary of VND12 million ($521.43).

"If this outbreak forces our company to stop offering the shuttle bus service, a few other female workers and I will travel in groups and take turns driving. I am afraid of losing my job even more than the ongoing outbreak or the long commute."

Kha also said that there are days she has to drive to the company by herself since "I want to sleep so badly that I don’t hear the alarm some mornings and miss the bus."

Despite everything, Kha considers herself lucky, because her parents-in-law cook dinner and take care of her children, taking them to the school and back.

Many women on the same bus, living in Dong Thap and Ben Tre provinces, have to commute more than 100 km every day to get to work. They get up at 3 a.m. and return home at 9-10 p.m., getting less than four hours of sleep at night.

Employees at Pouyuen Vietnam Co. Ltd getting on the companys shuttle bus on April 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Employees of Pouyuen Vietnam Co. Ltd get into the company's shuttle bus, April 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

The long haul

Living more than 150 km away from Kha's house, Ngo Thi Hoai My, a 31-year-old employee of Pou Sung Vietnam Co., Ltd, another footwear firm in Dong Nai Province bordering HCMC, has been using the shuttle bus service for 10 years.

Every day, the mother of three leaves the house at 4 a.m., gets home at 8 p.m. and rushes to cook and clean. On the days she has to work overtime and gets home very late, she does not even get the time to ask her children about their day and their studies.

My's house in Dong Nai's La Nga Commune, Dinh Quan District, is just a little more than 50 km from the company, but every day it takes nearly six hours to go to and from work because of traffic jams. More than a decade ago, with nothing to do in the countryside, the young mother sent her one-year-old daughter to her grandparents and followed other women in the village to Dong Nai's Trang Bom District to apply for a job. The starting salary for female workers was VND1 million ($43.45) per month. After 11 years, her salary has increased ten-fold.

My and Kha are among tens of thousands of workers who travel hundreds of kilometers daily to get to work.

Le Nhat Truong, chairman of the labor union at Pou Sung Vietnam, said that 15 years ago, the company had set up a factory in the Bau Xeo industrial zone in Trang Bom, hiring several dozen thousands of people. The company had to hire people living far away from the company to get enough workers.

So the human resources department of Pou Sung went out to recruit and took the bus along. They invited the workers to sit and test drove a few laps. Because many people in remote areas, especially ethnic minorities, have never left the village, they would only be willing to go to work if there was a shuttle bus they can take to return to their families in the evening.

Initially, there were a dozen shuttle buses or so running on short routes in the province. Now the company has 300 vehicles that transport around 10,000 workers to the factory.

Female workers riding the shuttle bus of Pou Sung Vietnam Co., Ltd. Photo by VnExpress/An Phuong.

Female workers riding the shuttle bus of Pou Sung Vietnam Co., Ltd. Photo by VnExpress/An Phuong.

Truong said many women opt for shuttle buses operated by companies regardless of the long distance, instead of staying closer to the factory, because they can see their family members and take care of them every day.

Commuting is tough, but in return, they do not have to pay for rent, relocate and their children don't have to change their schools.

Taiwanese shoemaker Pouyuen Vietnam Co. Ltd. has been running its shuttle bus services for the last 25 years. Saigon's largest employer, which sometimes has up to 90,000 employees, has always preferred to recruit workers living far from the company since it was founded.

In 1997, it had just one bus coming from Long An Province's Duc Hoa District. Today, it has more than 400 buses serving 12,000 workers from several provinces including Long An, Ben Tre, Dong Thap, Tien Giang and Tay Ninh.

Pham Van Hien, vice chairman of the Union of Export Processing and Industrial Zones in HCMC, said beside Pouyuen, several other companies pick up workers from provinces of Long An, Binh Duong and Dong Nai to work in HCMC.

Previously, getting jobs in their hometowns was difficult because there were not a lot of industrial zones. So many people were willing to travel long distances. Industrial zones have mushroomed since and it is easier to get jobs closer home.

However, many experienced workers are still willing to travel a long way to their factories since their seniority helps them earn more.

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