Cleaners' lives turned upside down by COVID-19

When she logged into an internal management app on her smartphone to check out after a four-hour shift, Nguyen Thi Luan was shocked to find her schedule was blank. 

Cleaners' lives turned upside down by COVID-19
A jupviec.vn cleaner disinfects chairs and tables at an office in March. — Photo courtesy of jupviec.vn

Having worked for jupviec.vn, a home-cleaning service start-up based in Hanoi, since day one, for the first time in eight years, she was without work. 

“Everything was normal at the time I started my shift, around 8am. At noon, I could no longer confirm that my job was accomplished (on the app),” said Luan. 

“It felt like a cyber-attack swept through and took it all,” she added. 

It was March 31, the day Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc announced the 14-day social distancing orders across Vietnam, meaning all unnecessary services – including home cleaning – must be suspended. 

The measure was later expanded for a week in Hanoi – the country’s worst-hit city – to contain the pandemic, impacting thousands of workers in the informal economy sector. 

“Desperation was the common feeling among jupviec.vn’s employees during that time. We didn’t know how to earn money to cover our children’s tuition,” said Luan. “What does not kill you makes you stronger, I thought. Picking myself up, I decided to make paté and marinated chicken legs to sell online.” 

The cleaner said her situation was much better than others at jupviec.vn who had left their hometowns for Hanoi in search of a better life for their children as she does not need to pay for accommodation. 

Tran Thi Han, another jupviec.vn worker, took her two children to Hanoi three years ago and lives in the outlying district of Nam Tu Liem. 

“I have been married for a decade,” said Han. “My husband is autistic and too weak to be a breadwinner.” 

“I don’t want to put any pressure on him or consider him as my burden. I accept working harder to support my family in Ha Nam Province, making ends meet and ensuring my children enjoy a good education,” she added. 

When COVID-19 came, her aspirations were smashed to pieces. 

“Waking up, the first thing I thought of was money,” she said, adding that staying under the same roof with two children day after day tired her out. 

Han’s normal day starts by her arriving at a client’s house, checking in via the jupviec.vn app then working for two to three hours. She usually registers two shifts per day, one in the morning, another in the afternoon. 

Before COVID-19, she could earn VND5 million (US$216) per month. 

“During? VND500,000 at best ($21.61),” she said with a weary sigh. 

Cleaners' lives turned upside down by COVID-19
Representatives of jupviec.vn receive cash support from Mastercard and CARE in mid-June. — Photo courtesy of CARE International in Vietnam 

Double burden

Founding jupviec.vn eight years ago to aid female informal workers in Hanoi and HCM City, Phan Hong Minh – the company’s CEO, thought it had been through the turbulence of young business and was ready to enter a more stable stage. 

“Then came COVID-19,” he said.

 

“For the first time since its establishment, jupviec.vn failed to pay workers on time,” said Minh. 

“Overnight, the company’s revenue dropped by 90 per cent, without any warning,” he added. “The managing board members were the first ones to not receive their salary.”

The company’s activities were all frozen in the social distancing period. Without cash, the only thing Minh could do for his cleaners was to list all charity rice programmes around the city. 

“While social distancing was in place, our workers suffered from declining working hours, or even job losses. This led to greater financial pressure for them as they still had to pay living expenses while having less or no income,” Minh said. 

“There has been a significant decline in the number of orders on our platform compared to the same period last year and our working partners have also witnessed a drop in their earnings.

"Only after the social distancing order was lifted in late April did we see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he added. 

In mid-June, more than 800 female house cleaners working at jupviec.vn received cash support with a total value of $70,000 to overcome the consequences emerging from the COVID-19 as part of the aid provided by Mastercard under the coordination of NGO CARE International in Vietnam to support local women. 

Each of them received up to VNĐ3 million ($130) via direct bank transfer, based on their circumstances and financial damage. 

“These women working in the informal sector are among the most vulnerable populations and those most affected by the pandemic. During this time of uncertainties, the economic crisis caused by the outbreak may hit harder than the coronavirus itself, so protecting and supporting people have never been more critical,” said Le Kim Dung, Country Director of CARE International in Vietnam.

Up to 77 per cent of Vietnamese enterprises estimated the effects of the COVID-19 on their business to be either serious or severe, according to an assessment on the pandemic’s impacts over social enterprises released by the Centre for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP) in May. 

Among those, 10 per cent said that they were at risk of bankruptcy and shutdown. 

“The enterprises which are providing jobs to marginalised groups such as people with disabilities and disadvantaged women are trying their best to keep their staff on the payroll,” the report said, stressing these businesses “are struggling under the double burden of maintaining business goals while sustaining social impacts”.

“Their closure would be catastrophic for the employment and income of marginalised groups,” it said. 

Luan and Han have witnessed a significant increase in their bookings since May. 

“I will work harder to make up for the period staying at home and save up for rainy days as well,” said Han. 

For Luan, her experience selling food online during social distancing might be the start of something new. 

“A small business, maybe?” she said.  VNS 

Khoa Thu 

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