Economic slump hits Vietnam rural migrants hard

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Men hold woodwork tools waiting for jobs on Duong Thanh Street, Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

The night lights came on. Not wanting to have more rain drops fall on him, Do Quang Quy left the sidewalk and went back to his rented room in the capital city.

He would search around, maybe there's still a pack of instant noodles somewhere for supper.

It had been a dull day. He got called for no jobs, and empty days like these make him feel a suffocating heat though it's the middle of monsoon.

Quy came to Hanoi from Ha Nam Province more than two decades ago, leaving behind his wife with a small paddy field that only earns VND600,000 (US$28) a year, to find work and feed his children. He joined the trivial workforce of immigrants in Hanoi, standing on the streets and offering his labor as porter, builder or whatever for anyone in need. He learned some woodwork recently so he could fix house furniture.

"Hanoi is the money pocket," Quy said.

But Quy is realizing that it is not a pocket that is wide open these days. He, and other immigrants, do not know what "economic slowdown" means, but they know their pockets are empty and they are struggling to feed themselves and their families, having to subsist more frequently these days on tofu and pickles.

Quy told Tuoi Tre newspaper that his wife has called, asking him to send money for the kids' tuition, while the kids told him their clothes were all torn out, and his parents were also asking him for support.

The 46-year-old, who will mark his 23rd year in the capital city by the end of this year, said he has never been in such turmoil.

Figures from the General Statistics Office show that 2.22 percent of the nation's 47.7 million strong workforce lost their jobs during the first nine months this year.

For Quy and around a hundred men from various northern provinces would stand along Duong Thanh Street in Hoan Kiem District, these figures do not mean much. They just wait from early morning everyday hoping to get called for work.

Nguyen Phu Binh, who comes from Quy's village, said they used to be able to earn at least VND50,000 a day, sometimes ten times that amount, or even a million dong.

"But the market slumped from early last year. Only a few people were asking for us, and they bargained for each penny," Binh said.

With no income, many workers have combined their breakfast and lunch into one ear of corn that is sold for VND5,000 on many sidewalks.

Nguyen Van Khanh, a local corn vendor, said many workers still bargain for cheaper corn and sometimes he did not have the heart to reject them.

Binh and Quy have moved several times to smaller, cheaper rental rooms. Right now, they share one of around 6 square meters with five other men, and use a common toilet with 50 others.

Such conditions have forced many workers to leave the city for home, but they are replaced by new immigrants who face the ugly truth after they arrive here.

Among the new workers are experienced construction workers whose lot went down with the real estate market collapse, according to the Tuoi Tre report.

Nguyen Gia Trung of Thanh Hoa Province said his days of being wanted by several contractors at a time are long gone.

Trung has worked in the construction industry for around ten years, earning VND200,000-300,000 (US$9.5-14.2) a day. Once he was willing to quit if he was unhappy with his boss, but now he's happy to carry or pull anything for little money.

He said he does not understand what "frozen property market" means, but he could see how bad it is, looking at his former colleagues on the street, desperate for work.

Home helpers also say they could not afford to be proud, as they would have no job if they refuse a cheap offer.

Le Thi Phi of Thanh Hoa said families are cutting their spending by using grandparents to take care of the babies.

The 20-year home helper, who once got paid VND4 million plus meals and accommodation, is now having to look around for jobs.

Her former boss's wife just lost her job and now stays home to take care of the family, and several new places that she had applied to have not called her yet.

She said she had left five families because she was not satisfied with what they were offering. She has learnt her lesson now, but it has happened too late. She returned and knocked on their doors again, but was rejected each time. 

More workers have moved to factories in the south, though many of them are already there. They are now telling each other to "behave," like staying away from strikes no matter how unfair their working conditions are, so that they can hold on to their jobs. 

But, this is not an option that works every time.

Le Van Trinh and his brother from Ha Nam just returned to the north by borrowing VND1.4 million from their fellows.

They were in the south for almost a year, but could get employed for just three months.

"Any contractors we met just shook their heads. They said there's no project for us to work on," Trinh said.

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