Twenty-four-year-old Nguyen Thi Hoa lives in the slums of Kim Chung Commune in Hanoi's Dong Anh District along with many other low-income workers from nearby industrial parks.
The Hai Duong native moved to this place two years ago after getting a job with an electronics firm at the Bac Thang Long Industrial Park.
Living in a 15-square-meter room with a narrow entrance, low ceiling and leaking pipes, her four-member family turns their entrance into a space for cooking and drying clothes, and uses the same room for all domestic activities from receiving guests to eating meals and sleeping.
"It is inconvenient to have three generations share such a cramped space. However, with our low income, only VND2 million per month, we have no other choice," she said.
Hoa and thousands of other low-income workers from many industrial parks are living in cramped accommodation in nearby villages with poor sanitary conditions.
In Kim Chung, cement roofed rooms without windows stand in close proximity to one another. A row of over a dozen rooms share a bathroom and a toilet. Two to three workers share an eight to ten- square-meter room, with each paying VND250,000-700,000 a month in rent.
The squalid conditions notwithstanding, such rooms are in high demand because supply is limited.
Nguyen Thi Sen, 26, of Nam Dinh Province, is an employee of Asahi Intecc in the Bac Thang Long Industrial Park. She has lived in a similar room in Kim Chung for nearly a year, where she has had two of her bicycles stolen, but she cannot find a better place.
"It is difficult to find any room to rent, let alone a good one. And the situation is the same in other areas," she said.
The workers' difficulties are not confined to finding accommodation; a constant worry is the possibility of rents being hiked. Sen said her landlord has increased the rent twice within a year. "The prices of everything electricity, water and rent increase, but our salaries do not rise."
"˜Not our problem'
While the workers struggle with their daily lives, some employers feel they have done their job merely by providing employment.
"Workers have to arrange their accommodation by themselves," said Thai Van Quang, manager of a mechanics firm in Quang Minh Industrial Park. "We cannot focus on both generating jobs and dealing with the accommodation issue for them."
Do Huy Thanh, deputy head of the management board for industrial parks in Nam Dinh Province, said there was one industrial park in the province with more than 20,000 workers. Most of them have to rent rooms in residential areas, as the province has not yet carried out any project to build apartments for low-income workers from the industrial park.
"Maybe because of low profits, investors are not interested in the projects," he said.
The government has offered several incentives to firms that invest in building low-priced housing for industrial parks including VAT exemptions and interest rate subsidies, but these have not made a difference for most workers.
Le Van Giang, deputy general director of Phu My firm, which has invested in the Phu Nghia Industrial Park in Hanoi's Chuong My District, said: "Many firms have not yet paid due attention to accommodation for workers. Workers without stable accommodation will not feel secure at work. An industrial park can develop stably only when its workers have stable jobs and long-term accommodation."
His firm has invested over VND25 billion, or nearly US$1.2 million, in an apartment block for the industrial park's employees. Each worker has to pay VND175,000-200,000 per month to rent the apartments.
However, there are several instances where workers choose not to stay in apartments built by employers. While these apartments offer better living environments, the rents could be a factor in the workers' decision, officials say.
Nguyen Huy Dong, vice director of the Hai Duong Industrial Park management board, said the province has an apartment block for industrial park workers to rent. However, although up to 90 percent of over 40,000 workers need to rent accommodation, very few choose the apartments.
"Maybe the rents for the apartments are higher," Dong said.
For some workers, there are other reasons to avoid apartments located within industrial parks. Twenty-year-old Nguyen Thi Thuy of Hai Duong rents a room in a nearby residential area with some of her colleagues. "The apartment's rent is not higher than those in residential areas. But, we do not want to live in the apartments. It is very inconvenient.
"Regulations are very strict. Usually, we come home on time. But the apartment wardens will lock the door if we return home late. Relatives and friends coming to see us have to show their identity cards," she said. Many other hassles, including security for their vehicles, also play a part in the workers' decision, she said.
Meanwhile, Nguyen Van Thanh, 27, of Ninh Binh Province, who works for Canon, recently got married, so he cannot rent the apartments which are meant only for single workers.
"So I will continue to rent a room from a local family, although it is not the best solution."