‘Please, we are not animals’: Virus fears weigh on Cambodia’s garment workers

Cambodia’s garment factories remain open despite growing fears among workers about catching the virus.

Cambodian garment worker
The garment industry is Cambodia’s largest formal sector employer. As it goes business-as-usual amid Covid-19, garment workers fear for their lives. Image: World Bank Photo Collection, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Climbing onto a crowded truck each morning, Cambodian seamstress Sim Samphor cannot help but worry about catching the coronavirus that has closed down most of the country in recent weeks.

Schools, restaurants and casinos have been ordered to shut, religious gatherings and sporting fixtures banned, and hotels turned into makeshift hospitals by the government.

Parliament passed a law on Friday to pave the way for a state of emergency, which Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he might have to declare to reinforce the campaign against the virus that has infected 120-odd people in Cambodia.

Yet the garment sector—the economy’s $7 billion backbone that provides about 850,000 jobs—remains open, with workers increasingly fearful for their health on packed factory floors yet unable to quit as the breadwinners for struggling families.

All workers are scared of the coronavirus, but the banks might get them first.

Sar Mora, vice president, Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions

“Please, we are not animals; we are not machines,” Samphor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside her dormitory in a rural industrial zone just east of the capital, Phnom Penh.

“Will anyone take the time to consider our safety?”

While lockdowns in other major exporters from Bangladesh to Vietnam have closed garment factories, a government spokesman said Cambodia’s economy was a factor in keeping the sector open.

The garment sector contributes about 40 per cent of Cambodia’s gross domestic product, and recent World Bank forecasts show growth slumping to 2.3 per cent or worse for 2020—down from the 7 per cent average.

None of Cambodia’s confirmed cases of the virus have come from the garment industry, said spokesman Ek Tha, adding that factories were more hygienic than schools and religious sites. “We need to have fair balances when it comes to the preventive measures,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Travel ban

Fear turned to frustration for many garment workers this week when Hun Sen cancelled the Khmer New Year holiday—due to begin on Monday—and instead announced a week-long travel ban.

Any workers who flouted the order would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine upon their return, the government said.

A mixture of defiant and defeated, some workers were still planning to head home while others decided to stay put after seeing photos of armed police and roadblocks on social media.

“I will force myself to work,” said Ros Chenda, explaining how her two sisters had closed their food stall, leaving her to repay hefty loans taken out to cover family medical bills.

“What else can I do?”

At about $3,800, Cambodia’s average microloan debt per borrower is the highest in the world, and more than double the average annual salary. Unions are urging the government to compel financial institutions to relax loan repayment schedules.

“Debt is the biggest issue facing our members,” said Sar Mora, vice president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions.

“All workers are scared of the coronavirus, but the banks might get them first,” he added.

Strikes and suspensions

Potential strikes have been discussed in recent weeks, and there were partial walk-outs in factories on Thursday after the travel ban was issued, said Khun Tharo, a program coordinator at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, a charity.

“The ongoing social and economic pressure that’s on these women to provide for their families is massive,” he said.

About 100 factories—representing one in six—have suspended work due to shortages of material and orders drying up in recent weeks, affecting more than 60,000 jobs.

Hun Sen this week said suspended garment workers would receive $70 a month—just over a third of the minimum wage and less than the previously promised sum of $114—with the government and employers paying $40 and $30 respectively.

Brands that source from Cambodia—including Adidas, H&M, PUMA and Levi Strauss—should take more responsibility, said Ken Loo, head of the nation’s Garment Manufacturers Association.

“Factories are struggling to stay open because brands are freezing orders and not taking deliveries,” he said.

“I don’t want to comment on how many factories might shut down after the holiday … but it won’t be pretty.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org.

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