Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Street sellers struggle with unpredictable market closures

Vendors sell food along a street in Phnom Penh after their market closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, July 23, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Vendors sell food along a street in Phnom Penh after their market closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, July 23, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Months after Phnom Penh’s citywide lockdown was lifted, market vendors said they have yet to return to their pre-lockdown income. And as Cambodia begins tightening restrictions once more to keep the new Delta Covid-19 variant in check, some say they fear what will come next.

Sitha, 63, who previously sold fruit outside of Tuol Tompoung, or Russian, market, said she has struggled to repay debts after her income plummeted during Phnom Penh’s last lockdown, which was lifted in May.

“Before the outbreak of Covid-19, I sold fruit and could make around 300,000 to 400,000 riel per day (about $100) so I was able to support my family,” she said. “But right now, I only make an income of 40,000-50,000riel ($12.5).”

State-owned markets were closed in April, and partially reopened in late May. But anytime a Covid-19 case is traced to the market, the whole market is shut for 14 days. Informal street markets, meanwhile, are frequently shut down. The uncertainty around closures and reopenings affected foot traffic and made it difficult to predict the correct amount of food to buy from wholesalers.

Sitha, who is a widow, said that while the market was closed, she relied on her daughter to support her. But her daughter, a factory worker, faced closures herself, making it difficult for anyone in the family to get by.

“I have to take care of my elderly mother and my children, we need to survive, we have to spend every day without income,” she said.

“I borrowed $5000 from the bank, paying a rate of $100 each month. But I am struggling to pay debt because it’s hard to find income in this circumstance,” Sitha added.

She said she has begun selling not just on the street, but door-to-door, going directly to distant customers in order to make any sale.

“We cannot depend on my daughter, so I decided to sell again,” she said. “Yes, I am afraid of Covid-19, but due to having no income and food, and since I am also a widow, how can we stay at home?”

Phnom Penh deputy governor Keut Chhe, said the government is attempting to formalize all vendors because it is more difficult to enforce health guidelines in unregulated spaces. 

“Informal markets are messy. Those who have been selling on the streets without any rules, they are not allowed to sell,” he said.

“The authorities are kind enough not to close their store, but instead urge them to implement measures of the Health Ministry,” he said.

Chhe said that in formal markets, market managers instruct vendors how to set up their space to ensure social distancing but that is impossible in irregular markets.

“All vendors are our citizens but during this pandemic circumstance, we need to think about the priority, and how to prevent infections.”

Vendors sell food along a street in Phnom Penh after their market closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, July 23, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Vendors sell food along a street in Phnom Penh after their market closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, July 23, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

San Chey, executive director at the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability Cambodia (ANSA), said that authorities should give more thought to the impact of closures and focus on how to keep markets safely open.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, vendors who are selling in the markets and street sellers are impacted because of the closing and reopening markets,” he said.

“Authorities… should manage how they are still able to sell under the Health Ministry’s instructions because it has affected their family’s incomes,” Chey said.

Lyna, 30, who sells vegetables at Doeum Kor market, said she lives hand to mouth and so can’t afford to stay off the streets.

“We cannot wait without food, despite the Covid-19 outbreak,” she said. “We’re afraid of the infection but out in our home without enough food, we decided to continue to sell.”

“Currently I only earn 15$ per day, compared to about $50 in the past,” she said.

Hong Vannak, a business researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that there is no easy solution as markets need to be closed during the worst of the outbreak.

“If the Covid-19 is seriously spreading, the authorities should close the markets and to protect people during this worst situation,” he said. “If it spreads to the community that is unmanageable, and insecurity, economic relations, and the state’s spending will be worse,” he said.

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