Migrant workers face challenges in returning to cities to work

October 28, 2021 | 07:33 pm PT
Nguyen Hong Ha Officer-in-Charge, ILO Vietnam
Even as major cities seek to kick-start their economy, migrant workers face challenges in returning from their hometowns for work.

In the third quarter of 2021 Vietnam saw an unprecedented occurrence when thousands of workers left cities to return to their hometowns as the places were no longer attractive to them.

During the prolonged lockdowns due to Covid-19, these workers lost their jobs, ran out of money and did not know when businesses could resume operations. Many of them, especially women, had to quit jobs to take care of their children as schools closed.

Returning home once restrictions were lifted was thus their best choice.

The images of migrant workers riding motorbikes thousands of kilometers on highways, many of them with spouses and kids, touched the heart of every single person and pushed one to ponder why it had happened.

In fact, migrants account for a majority of workers in southern economic hubs, including HCMC and Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Long An provinces.

The 2015 National Internal Migration Survey by the General Statistics Office (GSO) indicated that migrant workers took up nearly 30 percent of the total population of Vietnam's southeastern region, the highest rate anywhere in the country.

This year, according to the GSO, the fourth wave of Covid led to an abnormally high rate of unemployment in the third quarter, of 3.98 percent. In HCMC, it was 9.93 percent.

The average monthly income of the workforce fell to the lowest level in the past 10 years. The Covid-19 outbreaks severely impacted migrants' lives as most rent housing. HCMC has a lot of informal workers who are not eligible for many social protection schemes. Consequently, they had to cope with both the economic burden and fear of infection in their small, crowded rental accommodations.

Some 1.3 million workers had returned to their hometowns between July and Sept. 15, according to the GSO.

A family of a migrant worker is on the way leaving HCMC to their hometown, early October, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

A family leaves HCMC for their hometown in the Mekong Delta, October 1, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

So, now, since the government has allowed local authorities to reopen the economy with safety measures in place, do migrant workers want to return?

They will have to consider a number of issues before coming to a decision, including whether local preventive measures make labor movement difficult; what is vaccination situation at the factories, industrial zones and their local areas; and which wages and benefit policies employers will offer them.

The prolonged lockdown took its toll on migrant workers’ psychology. Many may find it difficult to overcome the effects of the distress and uncertainty they experienced for months and feel ready to get back to work.

They also face tough questions ahead.

What are the real demands of the labor market in the new normal? Will they need to learn new skills to meet new requirements and have job security in the long term?

Will they receive clear guidance on traveling from their hometown to places that are hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away? They will not want to face problems related to Covid testing and vaccination en route.

Whether schools will reopen may also have a big implication on the decision of female workers.

For these reasons, I doubt that a majority of migrant workers will return to urban areas to work before the Tet holiday.

With respect to people who are willing to return, I believe some major solutions are needed.

Businesses and the authorities could cooperate to systematically provide information about labor demand and travel for the benefit of workers. They could use technology to help workers easily access the relevant information and register for the new job opportunities. This also ensures information transparency and eliminates potential risks like human trafficking.

Besides, the government should prioritize vaccination of migrant workers to enable them to leave for other places to work.

Importantly, the local authorities need to simplify and speed up the approval process of enterprises’ Covid containment plans, which are vital for the business to reopen. Business should also be given more flexibility so that they can contribute and share the available resources, thus reducing the burden on the government budget. For instance, under such plans, companies’ healthcare teams could perform their own Covid tests.

Investing in training for migrant workers should be prioritized as part of companies' development strategy to attract and retain workers during the new normal.

At this point, it is evident that Vietnam could learn from other countries how to bring workers back to work.

Many governments have issued business reopening standard procedures and guidelines to help employers return to operations.

For instance, businesses are advised to gradually normalize but allowed to decide their level of operations with clear safety regulations in place.

The guidelines recommend adaptive work arrangement with flexible working hours, shift rotations and flexible commute times. They also put more efforts in training for skills development and productivity.

The effective responses have one thing in common: they are built on trust, which is itself nurtured through consultation and collaboration. Furthermore, several countries have been paying attention to supporting vulnerable populations, including youths who have lost jobs, women who withdrew from the labor market to take care of children, elderly people, and informal workers.

Over the long term Vietnam will be compelled to formalize the informal sector. This is a critical issue since the country has around 35 million informal workers in its workforce of 51 million.

The Covid pandemic has reminded us of the chronic diseases of the labor markets. In June this year, delegates from 181 countries including Vietnam, representing the governments, workers and employers, at the International Labor Conference adopted a Global Call to Action for a human-centered Covid recovery that prioritizes the creation of decent jobs for all and addresses the inequalities caused by the crisis. It lays the path to build forward fairer for Vietnam and other countries.

With the current positive signs such as increased vaccination rate in the south and businesses' readiness to embrace the new normal, I have faith that Vietnam could get back a large portion of its labor and continue to be a significant player in the global supply chains.

I trust that under the strong leadership of the government and in solidarity, Vietnam and its people will concur and emerge from this unprecedented crisis.

*Nguyen Hong Ha is the Officer-in-Charge, International Labor Organization (ILO) in Vietnam. The opinions expressed are her own.

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