In cramped factories, garment workers fear coronavirus7 min read

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Garment workers are ferried from their homes to factories along National Road 3 in Kandal province, just outside Phnom Penh, on Friday. Panha Chhorpoan
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With the cancellation of Khmer New Year due to fears about the spread of coronavirus, Cambodia’s garment workers have been forced back into their factories this week during a time they would typically be in their hometowns celebrating. Yet many workers say not enough precautions are being taken to prevent them being infected at work.

The government last week cancelled the year’s biggest holiday — a break in which most Cambodians typically flock back to their hometowns, often using shared transport, for a week of celebrations — in an attempt to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Fearing many would ignore the order, it then banned any travel across the provinces.

The Labor Ministry also threatened that any workers in the garment industry, which is by far Cambodia’s largest export source, would be reported to the government and forced into an unpaid 14-day quarantine upon their return if they do not work this week.

Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union president Yang Sophorn said that Cambodia’s garment factories were like Petri dishes for infectious diseases, with their cramped and closed-air conditions, as well as workers passing clothes down production lines.

There have officially been 122 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Cambodia so far. But the government has warned of possible community transmission and said there could be an explosion of reported cases in the period following the cancelled Khmer New Year.

Sophorn said that she did not understand how the government could pass directives requiring people to maintain social distancing but then not enforce this in factories. 

“Now people are doing their work at risk and with fear of a Covid-19 outbreak. They had prayed to get a holiday for the Khmer New Year, but now the government has cancelled the Khmer New Year holiday,” Sophorn said. “Factory owners are still not organizing [their work conditions] according to the government’s measures.”

In particular, with 30-50 workers packed in the back of flat-bed trucks each morning and evening — besides time spent in factories — Sophorn said it was difficult to imagine how even a single Covid-19 infection would not quickly snowball across factories.

Seak Hong, a 36-year-old worker at the Horizon Outdoor factory in Kampong Chhnang province, said conditions at her factory had not changed much in response to Covid-19 and questioned why the zeal to combat coronavirus did not apply to workplace safety.

Hong said that workers still travelled together to factories in the back of the notoriously dangerous cramped trucks and that there were no social-distancing measures inside factories. For a week after news of the coronavirus first broke, she said, factory staff had at least taken the temperatures of everyone entering the building on their way into work — but they abandoned the practice after it delayed start times by an hour.

“I wish the factory could find some solutions to allow for the distancing of workers traveling to work and returning, so they do not have to stand right next to each other when they are inside their work station and leaving from the factory,” Hong said.

With about 8,000 workers, the factory owners instead opted to scan temperatures once workers already inside together at work, she said. Inside the factory, though, things were not better, with workers crammed together and lacking basic hygiene products.

“I have talked with and complained to my administrative manager at the factory about the lack of water for workers to wash their hands but the factory did not resolve the problem yet. I always bring my own soap from home and keep it with me, so if the factory does not have soap I still can wash my hands on my own,” Hong said.

“It’s just that many other workers do not do that.”

Still, Hong said that she considered herself one of the luckier workers. 

Many other workers had in fact been forced to take their annual leave from April 12 until 27 by the factory, after being told that due to impacts of the coronavirus crisis on the global economy there was not enough raw materials available to justify their labor.

Even if workers were afraid of coronavirus, she said, it was scarier to think about losing work and not being able to repay high-interest loans to local microfinance institutions.

“If this continues longer than a few months,” Hong said, “I will have a shortage of finances for my family to survive, to cover other expenses and buy food. All of my family depends on my income and I have to pay back about $200 of loans each month.”

Eng Luy, a worker at the Estext factory in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district, said that her factory, too, had not changed much to help prevent coronavirus transmission, even as workers were forced to forego their holidays in the name of health and safety. 

Workers still crammed into flatbed trucks each morning and evening, thumb printed a sign-in sheet upon their arrival and sat about a meter apart at their stations, she said.

“According to these points, our workers stand a very high risk of catching viruses, and, especially at this time, when Covid-19 is spreading,” Luy said, explaining that although alcohol rubs were available for workers on entry and exit from the factory, she and others still feared being infected due to their forced proximity for so much of the day.

“We are very concerned about the Covid-19 virus but we do not have a choice because if we want [to avoid infections] we have to ask them to stop from our work,” she said.

With the government’s enforced 14-day quarantine for workers who do not work during the Khmer New Year period, Luy explained, deciding not to work now would force most garment workers to take a financial hit they would not likely be able to recover from.

She said that the threat of losing employment was at the forefront of her mind, as her factory had already laid off some workers on shorter-term contracts recently. Still she said that while she was happy to still be in work, more precautions were needed.

The government has promised $70 a month to workers if they lose work due to the coronavirus — with $40 from the state and $30 from factories — but this figure pales against the present monthly minimum wage of $190 for garment industry workers.

“I request that the Labor Ministry should do a review and push the factories to use the appropriate material to prevent the Covid-19 disease in factories,” Luy said.

“Right now, we do not think that the factories are safe.”

Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia secretary-general Ken Loo declined to comment. His deputy secretary-general, Kaing Monika, could not be reached.

However, on Monday, Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak issued an open letter to foreign buyers of Cambodian clothes telling them that the government’s ongoing monitoring agreements with the International Labor Organisation should appease any concerns they have about sourcing from Cambodia during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are proud of this initiative and will continue to ensure the labor and social rights or our workers are upheld while we build a sustainable supply chain,” Sorasak wrote.

“I would like to appeal to our partners — garment, footwear and travel goods buyers sourcing from Cambodia — to stay committed to Cambodia and especially our workers. We would like you to abide with your contracts and not to cancel orders that have been placed and goods [that] have already been produced or are currently in production.”

On Facebook, Hun Sen on Tuesday also called for all Cambodians to understand the need to delay the Khmer New Year break in order to better battle coronavirus.

“Hopefully our people and garment workers have a better understanding of the world’s concerns, as well as the concerns of our country, which has suspended the holiday for the coming new year and has banned citizens temporarily from travelling from one province to the others to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 disease,” he wrote.

Additional reporting by Yon Sineat

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