Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Phnom Penh City Hall sets sweeping new factory regulations to combat COVID-19 outbreaks among workers

Garment workers eat breakfast separated by plastic partitions at a factory at Kakap II commune Pur Senchey district in Phnom Penh, June 14, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Garment workers eat breakfast separated by plastic partitions at a factory at Kakap II commune Pur Senchey district in Phnom Penh, June 14, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Phnom Penh City Hall on Tuesday released three plans aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19 among factory workers. The trio of ambitious, though non-binding, plans set new regulations and requirements for factories in the coming years, including providing accommodation and transportation for workers — two areas that have contributed to high rates of infections.

Unionists and rights advocates welcomed the regulations, but some said they were skeptical that factories would be willing to invest the necessary resources and urged oversight.

Signed by Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng, the plans issued Tuesday outline measures to be taken immediately, over the course of the next year, and over the course of the next five years.

“The main reason for worker infection is because they came from many factories to live together in rental houses or rental rooms, the joint traveling of workers from different factories, the purchasing of food from unregulated places, and incorrect implementation of the Health Ministry’s instructions, among other factors,” the announcement said.

The first plan, which is to be implemented immediately, reminds factories to respect all Health Ministry measures and to help implement the national vaccination campaign.

The one year measure includes a range of requirements including that factories have emergency exits, install loudspeaker systems to disseminate information about measures necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, prepare an adequate supply of  COVID-19 rapid test, have medical officials on standby, and regulate food and drink sales within and surrounding the factory in order to control crowding.

“Do not allow staff or workers to leave to have food outside the factories,” the regulation notes. “They are allowed to have food in the factories but must follow social distancing of 1.5 meters [between diners] and ban gathering.”

The last measure, which is to be implemented within five years, sets standards for factory infrastructure, requiring worker accommodation, nurseries for their children, parking, gardens, and more.

Factories that do not have enough capacity to prepare those infrastructures “should sign a contract with each homeowner” that sets out living standards, the order said.

Crucially, the announcement also requires that factories “manage a joint transportation in which costs are shared by factories/enterprises and workers or employees or by any agreement to transport workers-employee to the work place safely.”

In spite of frequent, sometimes fatal, accidents, dangerously overcrowded trucks that cost just a few dollars a week to ride remain the primary form of factory worker transportation. Even as officials urged workers to avoid such transportation during the pandemic, many have said they cannot afford to travel to work in a safer manner. Similarly, most workers share cramped rental rooms, making social distancing all but impossible. As a result, in spite of lockdowns and workplace safety requirements, factory workers continue to make up a large proportion of Cambodia’s COVID cases.

Garment workers get their temperature checked as they arrive at their factory in Phnom Penh, June 14, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Garment workers get their temperature checked as they arrive at their factory in Phnom Penh, June 14, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Ken Loo, General Secretary of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), said he couldn’t comment in detail on the announcement as he hadn’t read it in full.

“I don’t know yet about the decision because now we are translating it,” said Loo. But he said that factories respected the Health Ministry’s instructions and had been educating their workers about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when working, traveling, and staying at home.

“We told employers to advise their workers to pay attention to health measures in the factories,” he said.

According to the City Hall announcement, there are currently 746 factories and 4,985 small enterprises employing 476,359 workers.

Song San, 38, who works for Din Han Enterprise Co.,Ltd in Meanchey district said his factory had already banned workers from traveling by truck, and that he couldn’t imagine them being able to implement the other requirements without the costs coming back to workers.

“I think that workers could not live separately from other workers who work for different factories because we do not have enough money,” he said.

San said he was concerned about the rules surrounding food sales, as the food sold outside the factory gates is the only affordable food he can find. “I think that if they do not allow workers to go to buy food or something outside the factories, it will make it difficult for workers who do not have enough money.”

Cambodian Labor Confederation president Ath Thorn said regulations would be necessary to ensure food, housing, and transport remained affordable for workers — even if under factory control.

“Outside [the factory gates] they have a choice with reasonable prices, but indoors not really,” he said. “It’s a negative impact for workers,” he predicted.

“I really support the transportation policy to minimize the number of workers in one bus, but the employer should spend more on that while workers keep the same amount of spending because their salary is not enough to support many things,” he said, adding that he had similar concerns over the new rooming regulations.

“The room renting policy is impossible to adapt unless the government pays them,” he said. “The workers cannot afford to rent rooms alone and some [are living together because they] came from the same village and their parents trust them to take care of each other.”

Yang Sophorn, president of Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union (CATU), echoed those comments saying that unless such policies were subsidized, the costs will come onto workers and will be difficult to implement. She said it would be more sensible to close factories for short periods of time, giving workers paid time off in order to cut the lines of transmission.

“The government should propose for garment workers to have a short break and then figure out who is infected… and clean the infrastructure in the factory, and finally let them back to work normally,” she said.

On Tuesday, the UN Office Of The High Commissioner For Human Rights issued a statement warning of the impact of COVID-19 on the country’s approximately 900,000 garment workers and announcing a risk mitigation campaign for the garment industry.

“Crowded, close contact and confined settings (3C), are high-risk for COVID-19 virus transmission. Garment workers tend to live, work and commute in 3C settings, where social distancing is not possible, placing them at greater risks of exposure to the COVID-19 virus within and beyond their workplace,” said the statement.

Met Measpheakdey, City Hall spokesman could not be reached for comment, while Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng and his deputy governor Nuon Pharath both declined to comment.

Heng Sour, Labor Ministry’s spokesman declined to comment, referring questions to Phnom Penh’s governor.

Khim Sunsoda, district governor of Kambol, which has more than 170 factories and enterprises, said that he would soon hold a meeting with factory owners to discuss how to administer the new policies.

“We will additionally advise them [workers] about this issue through factory administration officials,” Sunsoda said.

“I appeal to all workers and factory administrations to cooperate with our authorities to implement based on the city hall’s decision,” Sunsoda said.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health reported 693 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total count to 40,157 since the pandemic began in early 2020. The large majority of these cases have been recorded since February 20 — when the ongoing community outbreak began. The ministry has also recorded 34,325 recovered cases and 368 deaths from the virus. (Additional reporting by Sam Sopich)