A middle-aged woman, her face hidden behind a mask and hat, is arranging vegetables on a homemade cart in front of Chhoukva pagoda in Kork Roka commune in Phnom Penh’s Prek Pnov district. Her cart is brimming with cabbage, morning glory, carrots, cucumber and all kinds of fresh produce. Until a month ago, Peanh Setha, 38, had been selling her wares at Factory Market, an unregulated collection of stalls clustered outside one of Phnom Penh’s many factories. But since the municipal government ordered the closure of all markets to slow the spread of COVID-19, she has been pushed from place to place, struggling to sell the food that many need to survive.
“Before the market was closed, there were many customers coming to buy my vegetables,” she said. “But since the market was closed, I could not sell well because sometimes the authorities evicted us from one place to another, so I couldn’t sell my vegetables and lost income.”
She said that her sales had decreased by half since the market was closed as her regular customers, unable to find her, turned to other vendors.
“In the past, I could get between 500,000 riel and 600,000 riel from selling vegetables, but now I only get between 200,000 riel and 300,000 riel,” Setha said. “When we sell here, sometimes we get burned by the sun and sometimes it rains, because it’s not like selling in a market stall.”
Despite that, she said, she still needs to pay a fee to rent the stall she isn’t even allowed to use. Last month, the market’s owner cut the fee by half — though that’s still $35 that she can’t afford to give away.
Setha told CamboJA that if she does not sell, she will not have enough money to cover her day-to-day expenses, and she does not know when the market will be allowed to reopen yet. Until then, she has no other choice than to try and sell what she can.
“If the city hall allows us to reopen soon, I will have more income again when my sales are good,” she said.
On April 23, Phnom Penh’s municipal authority announced that all “state-run and unregulated markets” would be closed for 14 days, as they had been found to be a major source of community transmission. The same statement ordered all market vendors, staff, and security guards who had been working since April 14 to get tested for COVID-19 and to quarantine for 14 days, regardless of where they lived. When the two weeks were up, the closures were extended again.
Those who fail to follow these directives face legal action. Additionally, those who do not comply, “will not be allowed to continue selling or working when the markets are opened again.” And while the municipal authorities just announced last night that state-run markets would be allowed to reopen on May 24, unregulated markets — including Setha’s Factory Market — will remain shut.
Thim Phal, a 43-year-old fish seller previously based at Factory Market, has been selling her wares along the street in front of another villager’s house in Prek Pnov district’s Kork Roka commune since the market was shut down.
“In the past, I could sell more than 20 kilos of fish per day, but now I can only see 10 kilos,” Phal said. “Now, I can only sell enough fish to be able to afford to buy food for the day.”
Scaling a fish, she told CamboJA that she was only able to sell in the morning due to the lack of customers. She doesn’t know when she’ll be able to go back to her market stall — she’s only heard that the market will reopen when the COVID-19 cases go down.
“I’ll be happy if the authorities allow the market to reopen soon,” she said.
Another vendor, 35-year-old Som Phally, who normally sells pork at the public Century Plaza Market along Russian Boulevard in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district, said that the market had been closed for more than a month after some vendors tested positive for COVID-19. After that, she wasn’t able to sell her wares for almost three weeks, including 14 days in quarantine.
Now, carving up a pig’s carcasse on the back of a homemade cart attached to a motorbike, she said that she and her older sister were only selling half as much as before the market’s closure.
“I drove a motorbike to sell on some streets near Century Plaza Market,” she said. “But sometimes the authorities drove us away and forced us to stop selling because they don’t want crowds of people coming to buy.”
It is income that her family cannot afford to lose. Phally and her older sister have been selling pork in Century Plaza Market for around six years. Her family has borrowed more than $20,000 to expand the business — and every month, they must pay back more than $500.
“So if we do not sell [pork], we will not have money to pay the bank,” she said.
Her income has halved since the market closed. Every morning, she rises at 2AM, two hours earlier than when she was based at Century Plaza Market.
Late Thursday evening, the Phnom Penh municipal authority announced that public markets will reopen from May 24 with strict health measures in place. These markets will be allowed to sell food necessary for people’s daily needs, but people will not be allowed to eat at the store.
All vendors, security guards, workers and people entering the markets will have to wear a mask, maintain social distancing and respect the health measures. Those who break these rules will face fines ranging between 200,000 riel [$50] and 1 million riel [$250], the decision said.
Unregulated markets such as temporary markets, factory markets, community markets, markets set up on private plots of land, along the street and surrounding hospitals will not be allowed to reopen.
For many vendors, though, the month-long market closure has already cost them dearly. A 30-year-old vegetable seller who declined to give his name out of safety concerns said that he had been detained and his homemade cart and motorbike seized by police while he had been selling by the roadside. He had previously been based out of Century Plaza Market, but had been forced to quarantine for 14 days after the market’s closure.
“Police officials seized my motorbike in front of the airport and they fined me 200,000 riel,” he said. “They just told me that we are not allowed to sell yet, and to please wait for several days more.” He did not know the legal basis for the confiscation of his motorbike, or his detention.
He maintained that he had taken the risk of selling vegetables despite the spread of COVID-19 because he needed $200 a month to pay back the bank after his mother had borrowed money to build a house.
Phnom Penh deputy governor Keut Chhe said that the authorities could not organize a place for all sellers because in the past, they had been selling in a disorderly fashion.
“We want them to be mobile vendors, we do not want them to be selling permanently [in one place],” said Chhe.
Speaking to CamboJA before Thursday night’s announcement, Yong Kim Eng, president of the non-governmental People’s Centre for Development and Peace, said that if the authorities could, they should arrange a place for vendors of meat, fish and vegetables.
“If we arrange a selling place for them, we have to advise them about wearing masks, about maintaining sanitation and keeping social distancing,” Kim Eng said. “It is necessary for the authorities to arrange a selling place for them because then they can get some income for daily expenses and repay their debts.”
He added that the authorities should not fine people who sell from the backs of motorbikes, stressing that if they had made some mistake, the authorities should just educate and advise them and direct them to a place where they could sell their wares.
For vendors who had been selling out of Phnom Penh’s public markets, the reopening will be welcome news — though officials have warned that containing the spread of COVID-19 remains their main priority.
Deputy governor Chhe said that more and more Phnom Penh citizens were wearing masks and following the government’s health measures, adding that around one million people in the city had already received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Nevertheless, he urged vendors to respect health measures and social distancing once they’re allowed to sell again.
“If they do not respect the instructions of the Health Ministry and Phnom Penh Administration, those markets will face closure again,” he said.