Entertainment workers feel strain as government support scarce5 min read

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A view of a KTV in Phnom Penh that was part of a crackdown by authorities in July. Panha Chhorpoan
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The government’s announcement that KTVs and clubs may reopen as restaurants amid the Covid-19 outbreak is not helping employees of the entertainment industry, as a vast majority have remained unemployed since March with no government support, according to a union leader.

The Ministry of Tourism issued a directive in mid-March ordering entertainment venues to close for the foreseeable future to discourage large gatherings of people. Prime Minister Hun Sen then said in a speech on July 3 that KTV and nightclub operators would be allowed to reopen as restaurants to provide jobs for their former employees.

Ou Tepphallin, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF), said that although some KTVs had begun to operate as restaurants, the measure had only benefited a very small number of workers.

“When the government allowed the change from KTVs to restaurants, it seems that the government does not want to be responsible for workers in this sector or they do not want to fit these workers into their plans for Covid-19,” she said.

Meanwhile, police officials have cracked down on nightlife venues that attempted to reopen in July and resulted in hundreds of arrests of workers was warranted, as the establishments were not following Ministry of Health guidelines.

According to local newspapers, Phnom Penh authorities had detained hundreds of employees in July at KTVs and nightclubs that had discreetly re-opened, including popular J KTV, Lush KTV, and Gold Line Clubs. The workers were released after being educated on the Health Ministry’s Covid-19 guidelines.

Tepphallin said the detention of employees at re-opened facilities was only making entertainment workers’ lives more difficult.

“Even though KTVs owners reopened in secret, it was not the decision of workers because they just wanted to have a job and get their salary,” she said.

“Arresting people or cracking down is not a mechanism that will not help the workers make a suitable living,” Tepphallin added, saying that the government should instead focus its energy on responding to demands made previously by KTV employees.

The union had submitted petitions in May and June to the Labor Ministry on behalf of KTV workers asking that they also be given the $40 financial support that the government had provided to garment industry workers who had become unemployed due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

On July 15, the Labor Ministry issued a statement responding to a petition from the union saying that it would not be able to assist nightlife workers because all available resources had been focused on industries that it considers to be suffering the most due to Covid-19, such as the tourism and garment sectors.

Chan Sreyna, a former employee at a KTV in Phnom Penh, said that she has not been able to find a new job since March and cannot support her young daughter.

“I ask that the government provide $40 for employees who worked for entertainment services because now we still cannot find any work,” she said, adding that she hoped the government would allow KTVs to reopen and follow the same health protocols as restaurants.

“When the authorities cracked down on KTVs recently during Covid-19 and detained workers to educate them, it affected our freedom because we just go to work to get money to support ourselves and our family,” Sreyna said.

Tepphallin added that the situation would only become more dire, as very few among the 80,000 unemployed nightlife workers nationwide had been able to find new jobs.

“I request the government to support the women in this sector by urging their employers to take them back to work,” she said. “In case the employer does not accept her back at work, the government should provide support for those left unemployed.”

Sok Vanna, director of the entertainment and sports tourism department at the Ministry of Tourism said some KTVs and clubs had taken the government up on its suggestion to serve simple food and drinks, although he did not have a total figure. 

“There are some businesses that have now changed to restaurants following the government’s recommendation because we want to avoid opening KTVs as the rooms may pose a risk,” he said.

Vanna said that some establishments could not operate as a restaurant because they do not have enough space to follow the Health Ministry’s social distancing guidelines.

“These types of businesses are a risk, according to the concerns raised by the Health Ministry,” he said. “When the room has a closed door such as rooms in KTVs, this becomes risky.”

He added that authorities’ crackdown on karaoke parlors and clubs in July had been warranted, as the business owners knew they were not allowed to open.

“There is no law that allows us to punish them during Covid-19, but when they go against the government’s advice, they are wrong,” Vanna said. “When it comes to workers and employees, we will advise them when we detain them.” 

According to Tourism Ministry data, as of March, Cambodia has 1,293 registered adult entertainment centers nationwide, including 1,084 KTVs, 109 club discos, 16 nightclubs and 84 beer gardens.

Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey, said that it was essential for the health of city residents that KTVs and entertainment venues remain closed.

“The important thing is [they] can not follow the instructions and measures that are required by the Health Ministry to prevent Covid-19,” he said.

National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun called on KTV owners to respect the rules and remain closed.

“Business owners are responsible and if they do not follow [the government]’s advice, do they need to be disciplined, or not?” Kim Khoeun said, adding that he did not remember exactly how many KTVs had been involved in the government’s crackdown last month.

Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the government should respond to the fact that the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent restrictions have pushed tens of thousands of entertainment workers into unemployment overnight. 

“Workers in the entertainment sector have been repeatedly denied government support and out-of-work allowances to assist with financial hardship resulting from lost work during the pandemic that other industries have received,” Sopheap said. “All workers facing financial hardship should receive support and services to combat against them being pushed towards breaking the law to ensure their livelihoods.”

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