"The beach is for tourists" - Vietnamese workers can't enjoy the sun

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‘The beach is for tourists’: Vietnamese workers can’t enjoy the sun

The ‘middle-class’ in developing countries is not secure. Lots of young people have bad work conditions for many years. Didem Tali reports.


Seasonal workers work very hard to stay above the poverty line. (Didem Tali)

Duong is 24-years-old. He has been working as a receptionist at a cheap hotel in a touristy coastal town of Vietnam for four years. He earns enough that people say he is middle class. But his life is not like the middle classes in richer countries. The Vietnamese state recently increased the minimum salary from VND 1.9 million (US$89.3) to VND 2.7 million ($128) per month. With tips, Duong earns more than $2 a day. In developing countries, this means he is above the poverty line. He has an old motorbike, a mobile phone, and he sometimes watches MTV Vietnam.

Duong first came here from his village to work in a local fish factory. But he quickly learned English and got a job in tourism.

His family in the village are farmers. He is the eldest son; his four younger brothers and sisters still live in the village. He sends as much money as he can to his family, and hopes that his brothers and sisters will continue their education and have good lives. He hopes that they will do better than him and he really wants to support them.

A recent study by Boston Consulting Group showed that Vietnam has the fastest growing middle-class population in Southeast Asia; and the middle and upper class in Vietnam will double between 2014 and 2020, from 12 million to 33 million. So Duong and his colleagues are the people the transnational companies love: they are young, they like brands, they have small but regular income and they are influenced by Western media. The transnational companies can reach new markets and earn a lot of money through him.

But people like Duong, who are only at the bottom of the middle class, have to fight all the time to stay there and not fall into poverty.

‘In many developing countries when you just become middle class you have a problem,’ writes Sina Odugbemi (World Bank). He says that these people have to pay for their own basics - education, healthcare, and security. Local governments do not help. If they have a few little problems, they become poor again.

The tourism industry is very up and down. They take on more people when they are busy, and sack them when there’s no work. People like Duong have to work very long hours to keep their jobs and get enough money for when there’s no work. Their families depend on them sending money home all year.

Thanh, a friend of Duong, works as a guide on a tourist boat in the day and as an animator in hotels at night. ‘I didn’t even have one day without working in the last three months or more,’ he says. Thanh has panic and anxiety attacks. He tries to help them with herbal remedies. One day, he felt ‘his heart was going to come out of his mouth’. He went to a doctor, and the doctor told him it was just anxiety. Thanh doesn’t know when he will have another day without working.

He will continue to work as long and as hard as he can, because he knows that when the bad weather comes there won’t be any boat tours and the hotels will not want so many animators.

Duong and Thanh sometimes work 20 hours a day when thousands of people come to the beach town to relax at holiday time. Duong sleeps on a mattress in the reception area most evenings and on special days and holidays. ‘I don’t have a choice,’ he says.

Many reports show that the low middle class of the developing world are now the biggest income group in the world. They drive the world economy. But a recently the Financial Times said that economic problems mean that a billion middle-class people in the developing world are at risk of becoming poor.

It is sad that Duong and Thanh became middle class just before the economic problems started. They will probably have a difficult future with a lot of very hard work.

Duong has work at the hotel for four years. But he has never been to the beach right in front of the hotel to enjoy the tropical weather that thousands of tourists love every year. Not once.

‘But the beach is for tourists,’ he says and smiles. ‘I don’t have time to relax.’

Some names have been changed.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2014/05/13/vietnam-hospitality-workers/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).