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Down and out in Ho Chi Minh City

The global economic crisis bears down on Vietnamese workers.

HO CHI MINH CITY — Two years ago Le Thi Cuc, 35, left her farming village in central Quang Binh Province and came to the big city to take a job at a garment factory. 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, she sewed T-shirts for Western brands like Old Navy and The Gap, taking home about $60 a month.

It wasn’t much, just enough to pay her expenses and send $10 home to her aged parents and five siblings, but it was better than the desperate poverty of Quang Binh, and she had every reason to think things would improve.

Vietnam had just joined the World Trade Organization, the economy had grown 7 percent per year since 2000, foreign investment was pouring in, and everyone was saying that within a decade or two the country might be as rich as Thailand.

Sitting on a reed mat on the floor of the 100-square-foot rented room she shares with four other garment workers, Cuc said whatever optimism she had two years ago was gone. Cuc has been unemployed since December. The garment company she worked for, Collan Inc., has shed 1,000 of the 3,000 workers it had last year. With consumer demand in the U.S., Europe and Japan plummeting since last fall, Vietnam’s exports, the engine of its economy, have fallen off a cliff.

Still, Cuc is hanging on in the city, sending out job applications. So far, she hasn’t had any replies.

“I’m very tired of my fate,” Cuc said.

There are tens of thousands of Cucs in Ho Chi Minh City today. In December the local chapter of the government-run labor union said the city had lost 30,000 jobs in November alone. As for the rest of Vietnam, Nguyen Thi Hai Van, deputy head of the government’s Labor and Employment Agency, estimated in early March that total job losses for the first half of the year could come to 300,000.

Such figures only apply to the minority of Vietnamese jobs in the formal sector — foreign-owned firms, for instance, which must report salaries to tax authorities. In the small, informal family-owned businesses that make up most of Vietnam’s economy, there is no way to tell how many jobs are vanishing.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s population is in the midst of a youth bulge: according to the UNDP, the labor force is growing by one million workers per year. The same UNDP report estimated that in order to find employment for them, and for the 200,000 each year who, like Cuc, leave agriculture to look for industrial work, the economy would have to grow at over 8.5 percent. Instead, growth estimates for this year range from the Asian Development Bank’s 5.5 percent to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 0.3 percent.