A Farewell To Saigon

Even before the pandemic, the authorities disregarded workers’ right to life and dignity.

The Vietnamese Magazine
The Vietnamese Magazine

This article was originally published in Vietnamese in Luat Khoa Magazine on November 4, 2021. The translation is done by Lee Nguyen.


When the factory that she had been working for reopened after a lockdown due to COVID-19, Thanh sent in her resignation letter. She wanted to leave Saigon and return to her hometown in Tra Vinh Province. At the time, several cities had just launched numerous preferential policies to entice workers to return to work.

In early October of 2021, Thanh could have gone home with her husband like tens of thousands of other workers. However, she had to finalize the contract termination procedures with her factory. Otherwise, she would have lost her social insurance and the guaranteed payout that would come with it. In her resignation letter, Thanh gave this as her reason for leaving: "I fear that I will die as an alien in a place that is not my hometown.” The death toll and the photographs of those who had succumbed to COVID-19 in Ho Chi Minh City haunted her.

“I'm scared of starving, too,” she told me. It was another reason why she wanted to leave the city, although she did not mention this in her resignation letter.

Thanh's husband worked as a bricklayer and has been unemployed since June 2021. The Taiwanese shoe factory where she worked also shut down a month after that. Her company supported its employees by giving them just a little bit more than 1 million VND a month, just enough for Thanh to pay the rent. Despite this, the young couple had no savings and only managed to survive the epidemic thanks to donations of bags of rice and bottles of soy sauce from charity groups. They never received any support package from the municipal government.

"I haven't eaten meat in three months," Thanh said over our telephone conversation. During more than 100 days of lockdown, the young couple’s meals only consisted of "white rice with fish sauce or soy sauce,” as she told me.

“Going to my hometown to catch snails and pick vegetables will earn little money, but I will not have to worry about hunger,” she said. “I refuse to stay here any longer."

Like many of her colleagues, Thanh was unwavering in her resignation, even though the company promised to increase wages for anyone who returned to work.

"If the government had assisted me during the surge of the pandemic, I would have reconsidered my decision, but it had not,” said Thanh. : “I waited from July to October and received neither money nor aid."

Currently, the number of infections in the city has been low, but Thanh is still afraid that the numbers may spike again at any time. And if this happens, would anyone lend her a helping hand?

She and her husband are undoubtedly returning to their hometown as soon as her company completes the resignation process; it seems unlikely that they will return to the city in the immediate future.

"Now, I am afraid of Saigon," Thanh said with conviction.


At the end of October 2021, Hoa and her husband completed their centralized quarantine period in their hometown of Soc Trang. They were two among the mass of people who fled Saigon when the city had eased lockdown restrictions.

The Korean stuffed animal company they used to work in has reopened, but Hoa is adamant in her stance, "Even if they give me 10 million VND, I will not return."

There are two reasons why she does not want to go back. “I no longer trust my company and Saigon’s local government,” she said. “My company did not care and did not support its workers during the pandemic, and the city government did not care either. For a while, I was relieved to hear that the government would provide financial aid, but it was nowhere to be found."

Female workers holding their children while waiting to leave the City on a free bus provided by a charity group on October 11, 2021. Photo: Nguoi Sai Gon

After three months of being unemployed, Hoa and her husband only received 1.5 million dong (US$66) in the city's first support package, but this amount was just enough for one month's rent.

However, they were luckier than most people. After working for more than two years, they had managed to save up a small amount of gold, and this amount and a few loans helped them last until the end of September 2021. Despite this, they had exhausted all their savings in October and could no longer afford to stay in Saigon; going back to their hometown was the only way they could survive.

"As soon as we returned to the countryside, we were informed that we would be receiving financial aid from the city for the 4th phase," Hoa said. “If the money had come sooner, we would have stayed in Saigon and waited for the company to re-open.”

The couple is now submitting job applications to work at a factory in Vi Thanh, the capital of Hau Giang Province. Saigon is no longer a part of this small family's plans for the future, even after the pandemic has passed.

"I will not go back to Saigon anymore," Hoa repeatedly stated during her conversation with me.


Hoa and Thanh are two of the workers I talked to in late October 2021. There are many similarities in their situations with the most obvious being the loss of trust in the current government.

After everything they've been through, Saigon is no longer the promised land for them and many other workers, not because there are no opportunities there, but because they don't believe that the city government will help them during times of crisis.

These people may not represent the voices of all workers, but one thing is sure: their fears are well-founded. More than 30 years after the first foreign direct investment (FDI) poured into Vietnam, the interests of the workers - the frontline of Vietnam’s national economy – are still given little consideration in government policies.

When Ho Chi Minh City implemented Directive 16 in July 2021, many factories were closed, and as a result, workers were left unemployed.

Two months earlier, the companies that lacked production orders also laid off thousands of workers. The number of infected individuals and deaths skyrocketed soon, and hunger became an imminent problem.

There are no specific statistics for workers who had to subsist on instant noodles white rice or had no meals for several days. There are also no statistics on the number of sick people who had to stop taking medication because they ran out of money for treatment and COVID-19 testing each time they went to a hospital.

Additionally, there is no data on the number of infants who had to stop drinking milk during this time because their parents had to divert funds to pay rent and avoid eviction. These do not appear in any single report, but you can see cries for help all over social media– in Facebook groups, Zalo Connect, and SOS Map.

The government implemented three welfare packages in Vietnam’s anti-epidemic policies during this challenging time. These welfare packages were described as “slow” and “scattered” in the TV program, Dân hỏi - Thành phố trả lời. [1] The poor implementation of social distancing directives and other factors that prevented people from traveling and working had left many Saigon's residents unable to claim or access financial aid.

Likewise, going outdoors to earn a living could result in a person being immediately fined several million dong on top of being reprimanded and harassed by local authorities. The harshness of these directives negatively impacted the livelihoods of thousands of workers because of their shoddy and hasty implementation.

To put it bluntly, in places where the pandemic started but where there were no charity groups operating, or where access to aid was limited, it is highly possible that more people died of starvation before even succumbing to the virus.

In the end, the people also had to deal with their own lives and survival. In the rain and wind of early October, the massive wave of children, elderly, and pregnant women fleeing Saigon was not the result of a genuine desire to return home but a last-ditch desperate and frantic escape from death. And even then, their efforts to flee were once again hampered by regulations issued by out-of-touch politicians from their cool air-conditioned offices.


Some may refer to the June vaccination of workers as an indication of how government officials in Ho Chi Minh City actually prioritized and recognized the importance of workers. [2] However, this only revealed that the government only measures the worthiness of these workers’ lives based on the money they make for the country.

The value that workers create may be low due to the nature of Vietnam’s labor-intensive economy. However, millions of workers are still an integral factor behind the country’s annual growth figures, with the area’s FDI currently contributing about 20 percent of GDP, according to the Statistical Yearbook of Vietnam 2020.[3]

The government at that time recognized workers as its unique assets. Therefore, protecting them from the virus also means protecting the already devastated economy and preventing foreign investment from leaving Vietnam.

And even though the government may have given workers priority vaccinations, it failed to provide them and their families with the basic necessities needed to survive – a 12-square-meter motel room, rent of 1-1.5 million dong per month; for people with a basic salary of less than 5 million dong per month, with no or minimal accumulated assets – they cannot survive until the situation returns to normalcy.

For more than three decades after Doi Moi, the economic policy reforms that began in 1986, Vietnam has positioned itself as an economy that relies heavily on FDI inflows by using “cheap labor” as an incentive to attract investors.

The trade-off in having such a labor-intensive economy is the hundreds of thousands of people who are forced to toil in factories for little pay and benefits. To add insult to injury, they can barely subsist on their meager salaries unless they work overtime.

A family on their way home, October 7, 2021. Photo: Afamily.vn

According to an Oxfam report in 2019, 69 percent of textile workers surveyed said that they did not have enough money to cover their basic needs; 28 percent of these workers said that their wages were not enough to cover food expenses for their families for an entire month. 50 percent said that they had to borrow money to buy food; 53 percent said they could not afford treatment when they got sick and up to 94 percent dared not take sick leave even when needed. [4]

It is not just the situation of garment workers. To ensure a minimum standard of living for her and her children, Hoa, who glues shoe soles, and Thanh, who sews stuffed animals, had no choice but to “voluntarily” work overtime.

Thanh and Hoa also share this predicament with more than 30 percent of workers in Oxfam's survey: the only savings they could have would come from a lump sum payment they get from social insurance if they lose their jobs.

Hence, generation after generation of workers is forced to find ways for their families to survive despite hardships. They send their children to live with the grandparents in their hometowns where the kids can go study. Their basic wages cannot compensate for rising prices, so they work overtime and save money by living in cramped guest houses. They do not have 30-minute breaks, which is against the labor law. And females have to suffer while they’re forced to continue to work during their menstrual periods.

These accumulated difficulties have pushed workers towards the brink of collapse, where even a minor misfortune may just be enough for everything they have worked and lived for to crumble before their very eyes.

Their burdens are akin to drops of water slowly filling an empty glass. Tiny, sporadic drops are manageable, but the container quickly overflows if the water grows into a trickle. And if the trickle grows into a stream, and if the stream intensifies into a flood, the glass would most definitely break.

Hundreds of thousands of workers alone bear the cost of an economy built on the backs of cheap labor. Their strength and future are sacrificed for the sake of the national economy. Even before the pandemic, workers' rights to life and dignity were always neglected by the government.

When I asked Hoa why she didn't write a complaint about the aid money, she only had this to say: "I have been poor for a very long time. If the state hands out money, I just accept it. If they don't, I will just work to earn my money."

For the past three decades, Vietnamese workers have become accustomed to overcoming society’s maltreatment through determination, grit, and strength of will. As such, their departure from Saigon is nothing new.

As they choose to leave behind their faith and trust in the government in their struggle to live, they carry with them the undying fiery spirit of the workers who came before them – the same spirit that the Vietnamese Communist Party has, ironically, forgotten.


The names of the characters have been changed to protect their privacy.

References

1.  Ngày 27/8 – Dân Hỏi Thành Phố Trả Lời. Trung tâm Báo chí TP. HCM. https://www.facebook.com/trungtambaochi.tphcm/videos/4642604815784631

2.  TP.HCM ưu tiên tiêm vắc xin ngừa COVID-19 cho công nhân. TUOI TRE ONLINE. (2021, June 19). https://tuoitre.vn/tp-hcm-uu-tien-tiem-vac-xin-ngua-covid-19-cho-cong-nhan-20210619000134435.htm

3.  Niên giám thống kê 2020, trang 200. https://www.gso.gov.vn/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Sach-NGTK-2020Ban-quyen.pdf

4.  OXFAM. (2019). Tiền lương không đủ sống và hệ lụy – Nghiên cứu một số doanh nghiệp may xuất khẩu ở Việt Nam. https://cng-cdn.oxfam.org/vietnam.oxfam.org/s3fs-public/file_attachments/Tien%20luong%20khong%20du%20song%20va%20he%20luy%20-%20Nghien%20cuu%20mot%20so%20doanh%20nghiep%20may%20xuat%20khau%20o%20Viet%20Nam%20(screen)_0.pdf

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