Life in limbo for migrant workers

Migrant workers become almost non-citizens once they move from their homeland to live and work elsewhere.

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Due to her family’s financial circumstances, at the age of 15 Ms. Kim Loan left school in her hometown in southern Binh Phuoc province to go to Ho Chi Minh City to find work.

After a few years waiting tables at a restaurant, which was hard work and low paid, she became a street vendor.

Each day she rides dozens of kilometers around the city on her bicycle from dawn to dusk before returning to her small rented room to cook dinner and sleep.

In addition to having a tough job she also has limited access to social benefits and services. She’s been doing it for over ten years, but she earns more in the city than she could ever earn back home. 

Ms. Loan is just one of millions of domestic migrants and informal workers in Vietnam who have moved from their place of birth in search of a better life.

Rural-to-urban labor migration is increasingly common as industrialization and urbanization take hold in the country.

The decline in demand for agricultural workers and increasing employment opportunities and incomes in urban areas and industrial zones, as well as the improvement of road infrastructure, has accelerated migration from rural to urban areas. 

According to the latest data from the General Statistics Office, there are more than 6 million migrant workers in Vietnam.

Most are from poor areas in the central region and the Mekong Delta heading to big cities, followed by those from mountainous areas in the north and the central highlands.

The number is predicted to reach 8 million by 2020, or nearly 10 per cent of the population. 

This level of migration requires changes be made to legal policies concerning migrant workers.

The Social Protection Strategy 2012-2020 identifies migrant workers as one of the most disadvantaged groups in need of social protection and includes provisions for them to benefit from social protection policies.

Yet the majority of migrant workers are still to receive full and fair access to these policies.

Unemployment among migrants is high - almost five-times higher than other workers in the 15-24 age group - according to recent research conducted in Hanoi, Bac Ninh, Ho Chi Minh City, and Dong Nai on migrant workers in informal employment as vendors or in sectors such as garments, electronics, and construction, by Oxfam and the Southern Institute of Social Sciences in cooperation with other non-government organizations. 

Most migrant workers are employed informally in household businesses or are self-employed, meaning few have a labor contract.

A significant proportion (59 per cent) are in unstable, precarious employment. 

The absence of a labor contract and employment in unstable seasonal jobs results in migrant workers receiving no protection in terms of workplace environment and conditions, such as working hours, rest times and breaks, and sick leave.

A group of electronics workers in Dong Nai province said they regularly worked eight hours a day until 5pm, including Sundays, but when there is a lot of work they are forced to work overtime, usually finishing at 8pm, going to bed at 11pm, and then catching a bus at 5.45am the next morning to return to work.  

Because most migrant workers are not registered at a permanent residence they must also pay much more for basic services like health, education, housing, electricity, and water.

They also have regular expenses that many local people don’t have, such as sending money home and travel costs when they return to see their families. 

They therefore take overtime when it’s available to earn more and do their best to comply with regulations at their place of employment in order to minimize financial penalties for infractions.

They don’t receive any subsidies or receive any additional payment beyond their wages. Income from being a street vendor is often insufficient and unstable, making life even more difficult. 

Without a labor contract or only having a short-term contract or working under a verbal agreement, 99 per cent of migrant workers in the informal sector receive no social insurance and so are left exposed from sickness and workplace accidents and have no retirement pension to help them in their old age. 

Many of those in the survey belonged to a group described as multidimensional poor, in that they can’t access basic social services. Some 76.5 per cent of migrant workers in the informal sector do not receive health insurance.

“Health insurance must be purchased for all family members,” a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City said. “A household of four people must pay VND2.4 million ($115) a year. It’s just not possible.” 

Their children also have restricted access to school. Only 7.7 per cent of migrant children attend public daycare centers, just 12 per cent go to public kindergartens, and 21.2 per cent of those aged 6-14 do not go to school at all.

The children of one respondent to the survey, a 16-year-old boy and his 11-year-old sister, stayed in Can Tho with their grand-parents when their parents went to work in Dong Nai.

Both became addicted to games and dropped out of school, then went to live with their parents.

The son now works at a noodle production factory and the daughter stays home, helping with cooking and cleaning.

Migrant workers mostly live in low quality accommodation.

Eighty-five per cent live in rented rooms, 5.3 per cent at their place of work, 9.5 per cent at the home of another person, and only 0.2 per cent own their own home.

Although the average floor area is 6.6 sq m per person, which meets the minimum of 5 sq m under government regulations, 12.3 per cent of housing is comprised of dilapidated houses and temporary shelters.

Nearly 41 per cent use simple latrines and 0.2 per cent don’t have a toilet all, while 37 per cent only have access to well water. More than two-thirds pay nearly three times as much as local people for water and twice as much for electricity.

These workers also have limited knowledge about social policies and simply don’t understand their rights and benefits.

They are also excluded from poverty reduction programs and cannot gain access to loan programs for job generation, since they are not able to meet the requirements on guarantees or the procedures in entitlement assessment, as these require residential status with a permanent registration book.

Oxfam and the research team recommended a number of solutions for improving the Social Protection Strategy. 

Regulations should be reviewed and not tie social protection policies to household residential registration status, which is one of the greatest barriers to social protection access for migrant workers. 

Effective mechanisms are needed to ensure that employers are responsible for co-payments of voluntary social insurance and various policies are needed to ensure better access to social protection for migrant workers.

It is essential to issue detailed regulations and guidance for the effective execution of existing policies, such as regulating the support from employment service centers to employees when they move from one locality to another, preparing additional decrees and circulars guiding the implementation of preferential credit programs to create jobs for migrant workers in their new locale to ensure their employment and stable incomes, and preparing detailed regulations on support for social insurance policies for employees participating in voluntary social insurance schemes.

It is also necessary to promote communication activities, diversifying the forms and channels of communication to increase access among migrant workers to information.

Last but not least, sound initiatives supporting migrant workers should be formalized and replicated, good practices promoted by social and mass organizations in the country, with reference to lessons learned in other countries, and the use of effective technical and financial assistance from international social organizations must be continued.

related news

Hanoi has no state-owned preschools for migrant workers’ children

Vietnamese ‘irregular’ migrant workers at high risk

HCM City to support migrant workers with new policies 

VN Economic Times

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