Laid off workers leave behind desolate neighborhoods

By Ngoc Ngan   August 10, 2023 | 03:34 pm PT
Laid off workers leave behind desolate neighborhoods
Do Thi My nailing a "Room for Rent" sign in front of her house in Tan Tao A Ward, HCMC's Binh Tan District, July 28, 2023. Photo by Ngoc Ngan
Do Thi My nails her fourth “Room for rent” sign onto the tree in front of her house in the hopes of renting out five of her vacant rooms on the second floor.

Once done, the 64-year-old woman quickly strides through the now empty parking space to escape the sweltering July heat. As she passes through the first floor, she opens the doors of empty rooms to filter out the smell of mold.

The silence is only occasionally broken by the sounds of vehicles carrying the possessions of departing workers.

Alley 58 on Fifth Street, Tan Tao A Ward, Binh Tan District, HCMC was once known as a hub of worker’s boarding houses, but the place has never been more desolate.

With its convenient location near industrial areas, the 150-200 rooms for rent in the alley were once all filled by factory workers, but now, according to My, "Room-for-rent signs are more abundant than renters."

Once the signs become faded by sun exposure, landlords take them down, repair them, and then hang them back up again.

"Nowadays, workers don’t even have enough money for food, let alone rent," My says as she points to two workers hunching down to prepare vegetables and boil pigskin for lunch after their working hours were slashed.

My’s house is 1.6 km away from Pouyen LLC, Ho Chi Minh City’s largest employer. In 2013, My built 15 rooms with kitchens, separate bathrooms, and a loft, all for factory workers to rent.

Unfortunately, the massive layoffs in February of 2023 made it difficult for workers to remain in the city, inciting droves of them to say goodbye to My and return to their hometowns.

"They say that at least back home, they’ll be able to fish or grow vegetables for a living. There’s no work for them in the city," she says.

Previously, every room was occupied by two to three people. But now each of the few occupied rooms has only one person living in it. Their hours having been cut, they are just barely hanging on, scrambling to find new jobs.

Since May, My has reduced her rent by VND100.000 (US$4.2) for new renters, but the situation has not improved. Almost half of her rooms remain vacant.

Despite this, My’s situation is still not as tense as other landlords.

Le Thi Tung, 44, feels like she is sitting on a bed of fire as 12 of her 20 rooms for rent are unoccupied, while the rent she has to pay for the land (VND17 million) has not decreased a cent.

"Empty like I’ve never seen it before," she says.

Tung was once confident that her rent was the cheapest around. She charged VND800,000-850,000 a month, which encouraged Pouyen workers to fill all her rooms for the entire 15 years she has been in business.

Every month, she used to profit from both her rental business and her convenience store. But Tung has been badly affected by the wave of layoffs in 2022. At first, three of her rooms were vacated, then it increased to five, and current the peak of 12 began in this year’s first quarter.

According to Tung, the rows of boarding houses once resembled a "busy beehive," stuffed to the brim with workers going in and out.

With no renters taking care of the rooms, Thu Hoa, 66, has to go up and clean the two rooms on the third floor every two weeks to ensure that they are tidy enough in case new renters come in. About 80% of her renters are Pouyen workers, the rest are construction workers and security guards.

"Every time I read about workers being fired, I become more upset," she says.

Over the last two months, Hoa had to ask her relatives and acquaintances to find renters for her. If they were able to, she would give them a commission of VND100,000. But even when she decreased the rent by VND150,000-200,000, still no-one became interested.

Alley 58 on Fifth Street, Tan Tao A Ward, Binh Tan District, HCMC was once known as a hub of worker’s boarding houses, but the place is desolate, July 28, 2023. Photo by Ngoc Ngan

Alley 58 on Fifth Street, Tan Tao A Ward, Binh Tan District, HCMC was once known as a hub of worker’s boarding houses, but the place is desolate, July 28, 2023. Photo by Ngoc Ngan

Trang, a 36-year-old worker at Pouyen, is still trying her best to stay in the city. When Pouyen began dismissing employees, three of her friends returned home, while she chose to stay even though she only worked four days a week.

Trang’s coworkers are among 1.07 million unemployed Vietnamese people within the working age population, according to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam. The figure is an increase of 54.000 over the previous quarter. The jump was largely due to many companies receiving low orders, leading them to cut back on costs.

The Southeastern part of the country, the region with the highest concentration of large-scale industrial areas, has been hit the hardest. HCMC alone has an unemployment rate of 3.71%, an increase from the previous quarter. Pouyen LLC has implemented two waves of staff reduction since the beginning of 2023.

Nguyen Chi Hung, the civil head of Quarter 3, says that his area makes up a third of the population of Tan Tao A Ward, with the majority being workers from outside the city renting rooms near where they work. The decrease in population began during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the nadir hit this year as it dropped from 22,000 people to 15,000 people.

When hearing that there will be another wave of layoffs in August, My cannot do anything but sigh and make upcoming plans for her family.

"If our family all save and spend our money wisely, perhaps we can weather this storm," she says.

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