Garment factory workers forced to isolate without pay for 14 days due to coronavirus concerns say they fear running out of money for basic daily expenses like food if they do not receive financial assistance from factory owners or the government.
Workers who failed to show up to work during the cancelled Khmer New Year break last week were forced to undertake health checks upon their return to work Monday. Those displaying symptoms of Covid-19 were forced into government-run quarantines while those without symptoms were instead put under 14-day isolation orders at home.
But with no wages paid during that time, the health precautions mean a worsening of an already precarious financial situation for many of the 30,000 workers forced out of work.
Phun Sreyphim, a 21-year-old worker at the US-owned CTW factory in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district, said she was following orders to isolate at home after failing to work the Khmer New Year break but was running out of money for even basics like food.
She said she had friends go out and buy food on her behalf but was depleting her limited savings — and that getting back to work in two weeks could now be difficult.
“I need to spend from 8,000 riel to 10,000 riel [about $2 to $2.50] for my food every day, so I think that I will not have enough money for spending for 14 days, or for more days in the future when I return to work,” Sreyphim said. “I ask the government or the factory to please pay me some money for my food for the 14 days of quarantine measures.”
Another CTW worker, the 36-year-old So Sopheak, said she had permission from the factory to take leave from April 14 to 19 despite the cancellation of the Khmer New Year break. However, when she returned on April 20, administrators told her to get a check up at Chumpouvon High School, where the government has set up a quarantine.
“After the health check, the doctor told me that I can go to quarantine at home for 14 days, not to stay with other people and that I have to wear a mask,” Sopheak said.
She said that she was also having money issues after being forced out of work for so long but that she was realistic about the help she could expect to be provided.
“I do not dare make a request to the government, so I have to struggle by myself.”
Touch Sokny, a 29-year-old worker at the Bowker Garment factory in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district, said she too had taken her formal leave in a period covering the new year — from April 9 to April 17 — but upon her return treated as if she absconded.
“I was forced by the factory to thumb print a letter to stop working because they accused me of not listening to, or respecting, my work conditions and the Ministry of Labor’s advice,” Sokny said. “I agreed because I think that I cannot win against the factory.”
Sokny said that she had returned to her hometown in Kompong Speu province’s Phnom Sruoch district and would be seeking work as a fruit harvester in order to pay her bills, including $100 per month due to a microfinance institution for a motorbike she bought.
“I will find a job as a worker harvesting mangoes and maintaining the mango trees that are owned by Chinese and Vietnamese nationals nearby my village, for which I can receive 25,000 riel a day [about $6.25] to support my family,” she said.
In a statement on Monday, the Ministry of Labor defended the isolation and quarantine orders as necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus inside factories after some factory workers ignored orders not to travel and spend time with family last week.
“The purpose of health checks is to prevent possible coronavirus infections for more than 95 percent of workers who worked during the Khmer New Year, and to monitor the health of the workers who took holidays during the Khmer New Year,” it said.
It added that more than 100 workers were quarantined at Chumpouvon High School.
Ath Thorn, the president of the Cambodian Labor Federation, an independent union, said despite the hardships inflicted, it was difficult for him not to support the underlying strategy of keeping garment workers who may have been travelling out of factories.
“I support the measures of the government to quarantine any workers who visited their hometown during Khmer New Year in order to prevent a Covid-19 disease outbreak,” Thorn said, adding that factories should consider helping the workers with money.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, said that the isolation measures were necessary but that more attention had to be paid to ensuring that workers and their families can still eat before they can return to work.
“Social distancing is very important to prevent the Covid-19 disease, so they have encouraged people to stay at home,” Tola said, before pointing to the US, where he noted that many people were forced to isolate but paid $1,200 to support them.
“Cambodia does not have this mechanism, except for the garment sector, where any workers who were suspended get $40 from the government and $30 from the factory owner,” he said. “Motorbike taxi drivers and karaoke staff do not even receive this.”
The minimum monthly wage in the garment sector for 2020 is presently $190.
Tola added even with the quarantine and isolation measures in place for the factory workers who did not work during the Khmer New Year, conditions inside factories meant the majority of garment workers were still putting themselves at risk of infection.
“If we talk about social distancing, the garment sector does not have it,” he said. “If a worker gets infected with the Covid-19 disease, they will infect many more people.”