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Tough times for housekeepers in Hanoi

Tough times for housekeepers in Hanoi

Friday, April 21, 2023, 10:14 GMT+7
Tough times for housekeepers in Hanoi
Domestic workers gather for dinner at a job referral center in Hanoi. Photo: Tam Le / Tuoi Tre

Domestic workers across northern Vietnam are coping with stagnant pay brought about by economic hardship, forcing many to leave the countryside in search of better work and higher salaries in urban areas.

Unfortunately, their hopes of earning enough money to get by have been dashed by a stagnant economy. 

When Vu Thi Thoa, a 51-year-old woman from Thieu Do Ward, Thieu Hoa District, north-central Thanh Hoa Province, first moved to Hanoi, she expected to find sustainable work and high wages that would allow her to support both herself and her family.

Now, after nearly a month since moving to the capital city, Thoa has done little more than spend her days at a job referral center hoping to catch a break and find work as a domestic helper.

In Vietnam, domestic helpers are often referred to as ‘osins’ – a word borrowed from a Japanese drama widely broadcast in 1994 featuring the life of a housekeeper named Oshin.

Over the past several months, osins and former factory workers across the northern part of Vietnam have been made redundant and found themselves with little choice but to head to Hanoi in search of work.

But rather than a steady paycheck, these domestic economic migrants have been met with little more than homeowners who have chosen to either hire relatives from the countryside or on-call domestic housekeepers in order to cut costs.

Waiting in vain

According to Thoa, Hanoi was rumored to offer better working conditions and higher salaries compared to her hometown.

Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

“I’ve been in Hanoi for almost a month. My salary [in my hometown] was rather low, so I thought I would give working in Hanoi a try,” she said.

“[In Hanoi] I worked for two weeks but didn’t get on well with the owner, so I decided to quit. In my hometown, I was earning VND6 million [US$255] a month. Here, I made VND7 million [$298].

“It’s only a small increase, so if things don’t change, I’ll return to my hometown.”

Thoa is not the only osin having trouble finding work in the capital city.

Resting on a mat at a local job referral center, Thoa spoke about another woman she had met who was facing similar troubles.

“Yesterday, I met Yen, a 63-year-old from northern Nam Dinh Province," she recalled.

"She spent a week in Hanoi searching for work but couldn’t find anything, so she got one last meal with her two children who are here in Hanoi at university and then returned to her hometown."

Pay cuts

“The economic recession is having its toll on domestic workers," said Ngo Thi Hue, director of Thanh Tam domestic worker job referral center.

“The salary for osins is falling instead of risinng."

According to Hue, the center does not just match osins with homeowners. Instead, it focuses on making sure each placement is a win-win for both the osin and the homeowner.

While Hue does her best to ensure each of the domestic workers she represents is fairly compensated, doing so has become quite difficult amongst the recent surge in the cost of living.

“Maintaining old salaries is the best we can do. It has become very hard to ask for annual pay raises,” Hue said.

“Right now, domestic workers in Hanoi make VND7 million each month. Last year, they made VND8 million [$340] per month.

“It is really difficult to ask homeowners for pay raises right now because many have had their own incomes reduced.

“Many have even brought in relatives from rural areas to help take care of their home, rather than paying an osin.

“Some homeowners have also switched from 24/7 services to hourly services in order to save money.”

A domestic helper picks children up after school. Photo: Tam Le / Tuoi Tre

A domestic helper picks children up after school in Hanoi. Photo: Tam Le / Tuoi Tre

Many osins in Hanoi work in high-rise apartment blocks, such as those in the Times City residential area. 

Nguyen Thi Nga, 61, is one of many osins working in Times City.

Her mornings are spent dropping children off at school and visiting local markets to buy food.

Every morning, domestic workers like Nga follow the same routines.

In the afternoon, she picks children up from school.

Yet despite 25 years of experience, excellent cooking skills, and a penchant for childcare, her salary sits at just VND6.5 million ($276]) per month.

To make ends meet, she gives up her hour-long daily break to clean other apartments.

“I earn VND50,000 [$2.13] per hour [cleaning apartments]. I used to sell scrap metal too, but I can’t do that anymore because [Times City] has banned it,” Nga said.

Nga added she is thankful that economic hardship has not forced her employer to cut her salary.

Meanwhile, housekeepers who have switched from 24/7 work to hourly on-call work have fared much better, with many working three shifts per day and earning as much as VND15 million ($638) per month.

Replaced by technology

Instead of investing in an osin, many young professionals prefer technology-based alternatives due to their own low salaries.

“A new office worker’s salary can be somewhere between VND7 million and VND8 million per month, which is about the same as a domestic worker,” said Nguyen Hang, a resident of Hanoi’s Nam Tu Liem District.

But money is not the only reason young professionals are looking elsewhere for housekeeping services.

“Daycare services are cheaper and their teachers are trained in childhood education,” said Tran Thi Ngoc, a resident in Ecolife Apartments on To Huu Street.

“Also, it doesn’t feel right to have a stranger in our home all the time.

"It is much more comfortable to find a maid that can come and work hourly.”

Rather than pay someone monthly, Ngoc has invested in a vacuum cleaner, robotic vacuum, an air purifier, a dishwasher, a kettle, and an air fryer.

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Tien Bui - Tam Le / Tuoi Tre News


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