Just before the fourth and most severe wave of COVID-19 in Vietnam, 25-year-old Nguyen Thi Hong left her hometown in central Nghe An province for a job at a textile factory in Hung Yen province. Her senior Dinh Thi Hanh, a 39-year-old Hoa Binh province native, has worked here for 15 years. Located at Pho Noi Industrial Park 30 kilometres north of Hanoi, their company is part of Vietnam's rapidly growing textile and garment industry. After infections were detected at the facility, they were forced to stay at home for two weeks, during which payments were cut. But luckily, the factory did not have to close nor implement the strict "three-on-site" model which required employees to eat, sleep, and work on the spot.
While their income was not heavily reduced, both female migrant workers experienced a heightened sense of isolation that had existed even before the pandemic. From Monday to Saturday, Hong and Hanh follow the same routine: after finishing their shift from 7:30 to 17:30, they would return to the adjacent shoebox apartments where they live alone. The 10 m2 flat has been Hanh's home for several years; she cooks dinner on a portable gas stove right opposite the open bathroom. Although the 8 m2 room has no toilet nor kitchen and the unpainted walls already show signs of mould, Hong has decided to move in here to be near her friend. Worn out after long hours of work, they no longer have the need nor the means to improve their living conditions. The rent is 500,000 VND per month, while food, electricity and water cost an additional 3 million, amounting to half of their salary. Savings are sent to their parents who help raise their children back home. As prolonged social distancing measures made traveling almost impossible, both single mothers resorted to video calls as a way to keep in touch with their families.
Hong and Hanh, like Vietnam's 6 million internal migrants who seek employment in big cities, serve as the main workforce in industrial parks. According to a survey by the General Statistics Office, while city jobs bring better income, substandard housing is the main cause of dissatisfaction among urban migrants. Over 50% rent rooms or live at worksites in cramped, unhygienic conditions, and 18.4% have an average living space of less than six square meters. Migrants are also less likely to participate in community activities and many have trouble accessing state-provided services such as public transport and social insurance.
For 58-year-old Doan Van Dang, the burden of work is manifold. Having lost a leg in a work accident and struggling to earn a living from farming, he took on a job at a sanitation company three years ago. Despite the nagging pain from the amputated limb, he picks up trash at apartment basements from early evening until the wee hours every day. Living 30 kilometres from the city centre, Dang used to commute by bus up until the COVID outbreak that suspended all public transportation. Unable to drive, he had to temporarily relocate to an 8 m2 attic near the workplace, bearing the high rent to keep working.
Few job prospects drive low-skilled workers to take on potentially hazardous jobs like waste handling or scrap recycling. Without an adequate waste management system, Hanoi relies on manual laborers like Dang to take care of its ever-growing garbage. In recent years, Xa Cau village in Ung Hoa district on the outskirt of Hanoi has emerged as an informal plastic recycling hub. Villagers have switched livelihoods after struggling to make ends meet from the traditional craft of making incense. Plastic bottles of all sizes line the main road: they are sorted, cleaned, crushed, then resold to wholesalers.
According to a 2021 study, the informal sector accounts for over 90% of activities in plastic waste recycling in Vietnam. While turning trash into bread and butter might seem profitable, there are many health and environmental costs. Outdated processing technology causes high emissions rates, and despite various efforts to enforce regulations, waste continued to be burnt or directly dumped into water bodies and on bare land. The long-term impacts are yet to be fully studied; in the meantime, Xa Cau locals are suffering from domestic water pollution and respiratory problems.
During the first COVID year, Vietnam was listed among the top-performing economies in a COVID-battered world. Aiding the country on its journey to prosperity are migrant manual workers who make personal sacrifices for demanding jobs: they deliver heaps of goods on the back of their bike, brave long hours outdoors to collect garbage under all weather conditions, join labour-intensive industries that help fuel the economic miracle. Yet it takes a global disruption for their long-standing plights to come to the fore. It is clear that this marginalized population is among the most affected by the pandemic on top of existing challenges. Unless the "new normal" pushes for inclusivity via a legal framework, migrants will continue to stay on the margins, bearing the brunt of deepening urban inequalities.
Binh Dang is a professional photographer based in Hanoi, Vietnam. He works in the fields of documentary, industrial, editorial, commercial photography, and more.
Ha Dao is a writer and producer based in Hanoi, Vietnam. She has extensive experience covering Vietnamese art and culture for international outlets while overseeing various development-related film works in healthcare, technology, infrastructure, and more.
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