Bad memories, fear of Covid mean migrant workers shun cities, cause labor shortage

By Dang Khoa, Linh DoFebruary 17, 2022 | 09:09 pm PT
Still reeling from the trauma of Covid-19 lockdowns, many people have decided to remain in their hometowns rather than return to the urban centers they fled, causing a labor shortage.

For Truong Thi Ngoc Bich, who used to work at a metal tools factory in HCMC's Binh Tan District, the psychological and economic trauma caused by the last lockdown was so severe that it still haunts her and makes her unwilling to return to the city after the Lunar New Year holidays.

"I do not intend to go back," the 32-year-old says and plans to remain in her native Ca Mau Province though many of her colleagues have gone back to look for new job opportunities.

Now that the economy is steadily recovering, what is now in great demand is not jobs but workers though a vast majority have returned to work.

Workers seen in Samho Vietnams factory in Cu Chi District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/An Phuong

Workers seen in Samho Vietnam's factory in Cu Chi District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/An Phuong

But, like Bich, some have decided not to return, causing a considerable shortage of labor, especially for skilled jobs in rapidly growing industries such as electronics, textile, footwear and leather, and food processing.

According to the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, businesses nationwide are facing an estimated 10-15 percent shortage of workers.

Though the shortage, caused also by the typical surge in production after Tet, is likely to be temporary and in fact lower than the average 15-20 percent rate in past years, it is still causing a headache to many managers, especially at companies in southeastern economic hubs like HCMC and Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Long An provinces.

For instance, in Binh Duong Province, many manufacturing companies in industrial zones are dispatching HR staff to sidewalks to set up tables with job vacancies notices, accost passers-by, providing consultation to interested ones, and take them on factory tours.

Many are offering salaries of up to VND12 million ($526) a month, or twice the typical rate, for unskilled jobs, but still do not get too many applications.

In HCMC, factories such as Vietnam Samho Limited Company in Cu Chi District and Cholimex Food Joint Stock Company in Binh Chanh District do not just rely on job agencies, which have their hands full now, and instead go to rural areas themselves to sit with local labor officials, knock on every potential worker’s doors, and offer competitive salaries and benefits to find workers.

Samho needs 1,500 people but gets fewer than 10 applications a day, and Cholimex has 500 vacancies it needs to fill.

Recruiters of Vietnam Samho (in blue) speaking to job candidates in the southern province of An Giang. Photo by VnExpress/An Phuong

Recruiters of Vietnam Samho (in blue) speaking to job candidates in the southern province of An Giang. Photo by VnExpress/An Phuong

However, it is difficult to woo former workers like Bich and her husband, Phan Hoang Minh, a motorbike mechanic, back to HCMC.

Last November, when the couple left their rented room in Binh Tan District and joined an exodus of 1.3 million migrant workers from HCMC and other southern industrial centers to their hometown, they realized money was no longer their top priority.

The fragility of life brought into stark relief by the pandemic made them want to spend more quality time with their families back home, especially their four-year-old daughter.

"Though I can’t earn a stable income like I used to, I’m happy with my life in the countryside," Bich, now a farmer, says.

Many others who have decided to stay put in their hometown are also traumatized by their experience during the fourth wave of the pandemic that began last April.

"I’m still frightened thinking about the last lockdown in Saigon," Le Thi Ngoc, a former worker at a textile firm in Binh Tan District, says.

She recalls how she struggled to afford a "decent meal" while the meager VND3 million (US$131) aid from local authorities was not even enough for her rent during the lockdown.

Last October she drove her motorbike along with many other migrant workers from HCMC to the southern Bac Lieu Province.

Her husband, Nguyen Van Chung, says they do not plan to go back to the city because they fear there might be another outbreak.

Though both are fully vaccinated, he is still worried about the possibility of contracting Covid from other workers if an outbreak occurs and workers are forced to stay in their factory.

During the recent lockdown, to keep production going, many companies adopted the "three-on-site" initiative, a Covid containment arrangement that required workers to work, eat and sleep in one place to preclude cross-infection.

Many people, sleeping on mats and cardboard strips or in tents, could not see their families for weeks.

"Thinking about the time I had to sleep in tents and did not have enough water to shower every day, I have no idea how I coped with it," Chung recalls with a sigh.

Though job opportunities are not as plenty in rural areas as in urban centers and an oversupply of labor in the former as people stay back, it is not too difficult to find livelihoods.

Ngoc is looking for a job in a food production or fertilizer factory in the Mekong Delta, which is nearer to her home in Bac Lieu than HCMC.

She says salaries are undoubtedly lower, but not by much. "I can handle a VND1 million ($44) pay difference".

For many, life in the countryside is actually more stable financially because they do not have to spend money on housing, expensive utilities or daycare services for their children. In ordinary circumstances, and especially in times of crisis, they can rely on their families for those.

Nguyen Thu Trang in the northern Ha Nam Province says, "My son can stay at home with his grandparents which helps me save money on daycare.

"I feel relieved when I’m with my family, especially when the pandemic is still here."

Bich is satisfied with her farming job. "We’ll make do with what we can grow," she says, quoting an ancient expression about farmers’ contentment with their "vegetables" and "porridge".

She and her husband Minh are saving money so that one day he can set up a motorbike repair shop in Ca Mau.

She says: "A person has only one homeland. Now that we have returned, we won’t leave again.

"Here, living standards are lower and prices are cheaper and our mind is at peace."

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